The startup Conflictfood supports farmers in crisis regions sustainably by helping them grow new products and enter international markets — the first step toward an autonomous and secure future.
Not a day goes by in which the media does not report refugee boat rescues in the Mediterranean or streams of refugees on their way to Europe; or they showcase pictures to remind us of ongoing conflicts. Sadly, the reasons for fleeing are all too often the same: war, persecution, poverty. How can we help from here?
The startup Conflictfood is helping by tackling some of the causes of flight at their roots. In 2015, Salem El-Mogaddedi and Gernot Würtenberger travelled to Afghanistan. Their journey began as a volunteer project and ended with several kilograms of saffron in their hand luggage on the way back.
Earning One’s Keep: From Opium to Saffron
Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s opium* and the fields harvested by the Women’s Association in the Herat region of Afghanistan grew opium for many years. Today, bright purple saffron flowers blossom there. In 2008, the Afghan Institute for Rural Development founded the Association for the Cultivation of Saffron, which was completely taken over by men in the beginning. With the help of an NGO and after many discussions with the local council, the women managed to split off and found their own autonomous Women’s Council. The women finally had a chance to communicate autonomously, hold conferences, receive trainings, and sell their saffron harvest independently.
Afghanistan came in last in the World Bank’s ranking on international trade. Conflictfood wants to strengthen the country’s structure from the inside by building up the saffron trade and promoting the Women’s Association.
“After visiting several times during harvest season, we decided to buy the women’s saffron and use the spice to tell a new story about this country that has hardly any media presence,” says El-Mogaddedi. They didn’t know at the time that this idea would result in Conflictfood and that they would travel to other countries with the same goal.
SAP Supports Social Startups
In May 2016, Conflictfood entered the market with its first product, saffron. The spice was sold in handmade boxes including recipes, product information, and a small newspaper with information about Afghanistan from a non-crisis perspective. This form of packaging also showed great appreciation for the Women’s Association’s work. Since then, the team working with Würtenberger and El-Mogaddedi has grown considerably. They now have external employees and volunteers helping with translations, editorial research, social media, and Web design.
However, before entering the market, they had to deal with a few questions: How do you plan a financial budget? What do you have to consider when setting up a sales and trade concept? This is where SAP comes in to support social startups like Conflictfood. Conflictfood won a scholarship from Startery, which includes a nine-month program during which it can use the infrastructure of SAP’s Social Impact Lab in Berlin, workshops, coaching, and mentoring. This is how Würtenberger and El-Mogaddedi met Anja Engelhardt, their SAP mentor.
As part of its social involvement, SAP Corporate Social Responsibility promotes education and entrepreneurship. The Startery program (previously: Social Impact Start) constitutes an integral component of these efforts, together with Social Impact GmbH.
Engelhardt studied business administration with focus on foreign trade and for 18 years has worked at SAP in different roles, including as go-to-market lead for travel and transportation the last few years. She first heard about Conflictfood through an internal distribution list and she knew immediately that if she became an SAP mentor, it would be for this project.
“This project is very close to my heart. I love calling those two, even on my days off and I am always amazed about their success and the positive energy they bring,” she recalls with a smile. As an SAP mentor, Engelhardt’s primary job is to offer the startup her advice, but as she has many years of experience in marketing and sales in new markets, she can also guide them on important impulses. “It is important to receive feedback from a third party who is not constantly involved in this,” El-Mogaddedi confirms.
Crowdfunding for the Miracle Wheat
The next product is already waiting at the starting line: Freekeh, a special type of wheat from Palestine that is harvested young and then roasted.
“Palestine represents the Arab-Israeli conflict, which we want to bring back into the media,” says El-Mogaddedi. The Conflictfood founders met a priest in Berlin who actively promotes peace in Bethlehem and helped them get in touch with a small association of farmers there. Diplomatic representatives and NGOs are also important connections that Conflictfood had to make to learn more about the country’s political situation and find out if they were allowed to do their work freely there.
While the Afghanistan expedition was financed out of their own pockets, the Palestinian product is set to enter the market through crowdfunding. At the same time, the “crowd” also serves as a first source of feedback and provides new ideas. The crowdfunding started at the Stadt Land Food festival in Berlin/Kreuzberg. The festival had an overarching theme of how our identity is influenced by food, which is a topic that hits very close to home for Würtenberger and El-Mogaddedi with their startup. Their message: Our consumption choices are always political choices. Do we accept miserable working conditions for lower prices? Do we care if our products were produced through “land grabbing”?
According to El-Mogaddedi: “We are at a point where it is no longer enough just to complain about how things could be done better in our world. We have to do it ourselves. Conflictfood is our small contribution. Everyone has the power to do something about it in their own measure, out of their own strength.”
*Additional information: Afghanistan is currently the world’s leading opium producer. This has grave consequences for the country itself and neighboring countries that lie on the European trade route. To stop the illegal trade, the opium production and the trade network in all countries involved must be dismantled. The European Commission has set up measures together with the ECO member states to promote stability in these regions and improve security and health conditions for the citizens of Afghanistan and other countries along the trade route (Source: GIZ).