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The Telegraph Magazine

The retail activist behind Afghanistan’s perfume range

When a friend was critically injured serving in Afghanistan, Barbara Stegemann became a ‘retail activist’, working with growers in troubled regions to create a range of floral fragrances.

BY EMMA LOVE | 31 AUGUST 2013

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Barbara Stegemann had never thought about making perfume until her best friend, Trevor Greene, was injured while serving as a captain of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan in 2006. It was a horrifying story: he had taken off his helmet to take part in a shura, or peaceful discussion, about how to bring clean water and health care to a village, when a 16-year-old boy struck him on the back of the head with an axe. The boy went to strike again but was killed by another member of the platoon. Greene was flown to Germany, where he underwent surgery to rebuild his skull, and was later transferred to Vancouver General Hospital.

Stegemann had first met Greene years earlier at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she was studying for her degree in sociology and he was studying journalism. She had gone on to run her own communications company outside Vancouver, but while visiting Greene in hospital in 2008 during his long recovery she was spurred on to self-publish The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen, a motivational book for women, which she had always intended to write. So far she has sold 14,000 copies.

Stegemann promised Greene that while he healed – he remains in a wheelchair, but has married and has a baby son – she would somehow support Afghanistan. ‘I’m not a brave soldier or a world leader, but I set out to empower women to harness the huge buying power they have to address issues of war and poverty,’ she says. It was a chance reading of an online article about Abdullah Arsala, the owner of the Gulestan Essential Oils distillery in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, that made her think that scent might be the answer. Arsala was encouraging local farmers to stop growing lucrative illegal opium poppies in favour of orange blossom and rose. ‘I knew the crops would be perfect for a fragrance,’ Stegemann says. She flew to Ottawa to ask the Canadian International Development Agency to help her find him. They suggested Rory Stewart, the founder of Turquoise Mountain (an NGO that works to rebuild traditional Afghan industries), who knew of Arsala, and within days she had bought $2,000 worth of orange blossom oil on her Visa card (to date she has invested $120,000 in Afghanistan)

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Stegemann, 44, lives in Halifax with her husband, Mike, who owns a Volkswagen dealership, and their two children, Victor, 18, and Ella, 13. But she was able to set up her business without going anywhere near Afghanistan – she has never been. ‘The great thing about this wired world is that there are groups that have trained people on the ground to help businesses buy products without the need to fly out there. I didn’t know then, but Abdullah almost gave up before I found him,’ she continues. ‘Now he has other buyers, too. My goal is to get other businesses to buy from suppliers like him, whether it’s saffron, pomegranates or oils. It’s not charity, it’s responsible business that builds on economic development.’ Having purchased the oil, her next step was to find a perfumer to work with. She contacted Susanne Lang in Toronto, who agreed, and nine months later, in March 2010, the first fragrance, Afghanistan Orange Blossom, was selling online and in two small boutiques in Halifax and Toronto.

With a lot of encouragement from friends, Stegemann appeared on the Canadian version of the television programme Dragons’ Den. ‘I was offering 15 per cent of the business for $75,000 so I could buy more oils. I wanted to be able to make enough perfume to call a department store and take things up a level,’ she says. ‘When the producers did the props checks before the show, they started buying perfumes from me on the spot. It was kind of neat.’ After she revealed that she had been in business for two months and already sold $30,000 worth of perfume, three of the five dragons wanted to invest. She chose the venture capitalist W Brett Wilson, a well-known fundraiser for the Canadian Forces, because he offered mentoring as well as the money. Then she put in a cold call to Hudson’s Bay, a department store chain with 90 branches across Canada, and it became the first major retailer to sell Afghanistan Orange Blossom.

‘THE DRAGONS’ DEN PRODUCERS STARTED BUYING PERFUMES FROM ME BEFORE THE SHOW. IT WAS KIND OF NEAT’

Since then Stegemann has produced three more fragrances using oils from other nations in strife: the spicy Noble Rose of Afghanistan uses almost 200 rose petals hand-picked from Arsala’s crops in each bottle; Vetiver of Haiti, which launched in 2011 and is designed for both men and women, features vetiver oil distilled from plants grown in Haiti; and Middle East Peace, which blends Sweetie grapefruit oil from Israel with lime and basil oil from Iran.

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To date Stegemann has produced 30,000 bottles of perfume at Lang’s factory but has recently set up her own factory run by her son, Victor. She employs nine staff seasonally, when she needs to do a production run, plus a web designer and a logistics manager. She puts all profits back into the business. Possible plans include fragrances using oils from Rwanda or North and South Korea, but for now Stegemann is concentrating on the forthcoming launch at Selfridges of her four fragrances and a travel box set, on the International Day of Peace next month.

‘Alannah Weston, the store’s creative director, was the first person I ever heard using the term retail activist, meaning making products that have to change the world,’ Stegemann says. ‘I have a lot of work to do to prove myself, but I consider myself a retail activist, too. A small business can move at the speed of light. Imagine if you added up 300 of me – then you’d have something really spectacular.’

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