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The Toronto Star

Afghan business makes scents


Do you know the scent of orange blossoms? There’s something intoxicating and exotic in their sweet perfume. It lingers in the air, stays on your mind. Puts you in a different place.

By: Leslie Scrivener Feature Writer, Published on Sun Mar 14 2010

Do you know the scent of orange blossoms? There’s something intoxicating and exotic in their sweet perfume. It lingers in the air, stays on your mind. Puts you in a different place.

Halifax businesswoman Barbara Stegemann hopes her new perfume called The 7 Virtues Afghanistan Orange Blossom will offer Canadian purchasers more than a delicate scent that evokes faraway places.

In a country troubled by war and oppression, she’s discovered a fragrance she hopes will appeal to Canadians, so that Afghan farmers can make a profit in something as ephemeral as orange blossoms. It’s business, says Stegemann, who grew up in a trailer on a dirt road near Antigonish, N.S., and has no fond remembrances of the charity bestowed on her as a child. She sees benefits for everyone.
“The concept is perfume, not poppies,” says Stegemann, who launched the scent this week in Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax.
Afghanistan is the source of 90 per cent of the world’s opium, though last year the UN reported negligible amounts of poppy production in the eastern province of Nangarhar, where she sources her orange blossom oil.

Stegemann, an optimist, believes in small steps. Last year she bought as much Afghan orange blossom oil as she could find – one cup, which cost $2,000.

With that she produced 1,000 bottles of eau de parfum, manufactured by a Toronto perfumer who added layers of freesia and jasmine. Stegemann told her Afghan supplier that this year she’ll buy the entire blossom crop from the bitter orange – the type preferred by Afghans – grown in groves near the city of Jalalabad. Located in a fertile plain, it was once the winter capital for Afghan kings, who planted formal gardens there, a few of which remain.

Orange blossoms are embedded in the culture of the area. Every April there is a Pashtun poetry festival dedicated to the annual flowering, when families commission local musicians to perform ghazals in their gardens.

“If we could do trade and buy the legal crops we could pull a bit of power away from the illegal drug trade which is in our cities and towns,” Stegemann says. “We are all connected. We have to care about literacy and economic empowerment in Afghanistan.”
She speeds on to the next thought.

“That’s what Plato wrote about in The Republic. Making connections. UNESCO says we can’t wait for governments to end war – it’s up to us as citizens to be part of that solution.”

She continues, a full head of steam, tossing inspirational quotes from Marcus Aurelius and Mary Wollstonecraft like so many petals borne on the wind. These are themes she explores in her self-published book, The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen, which is the basis of her talks as a motivational speaker.

“When I talk to chambers of commerce they get excited: `How do we trade with war-torn nations?’ They can, by being part of the buying power.”

The plan appeals to Aziz Amiri, who heads the Canada-Afghanistan Business Council. He says there’s been precious little encouragement from Ottawa in developing business in Afghanistan.

“The puzzle piece missing from bringing peace and prosperity to Afghanistan is business development,” he says. “Her initiative helped at least 40 or 50 families, that’s 350 people … . Imagine if you have a thousand initiatives like Barb’s. This is small-scale entrepreneurship; we haven’t even touched the biggest opportunities that exist.”

Hedvig Alexander used to work in Afghanistan, as managing director of Turquoise Mountain, a non-profit that works to revive the traditions arts, crafts and architecture of Afghanistan. Now living in Toronto, Alexander connected Stegemann with Gulestan, an Afghan company that produces essential oils.

Essential oils, like opium, are high value and easily transported. Over decades of war, Jalalabad’s bitter orange groves were neglected and farmers turned to opium to make a living. Now they are learning that there are lawful opportunities.
Stegemann’s venture is more than symbolic, Alexander says.

“What’s very important is what she’s done with the crop. It hasn’t been wasted as others have done. She’s implemented a project and followed it to the end. It gives the Afghan producer confidence that there really is a market for this and it’s important to take it seriously. Her project, though small, is a catalyst for something bigger. And it is something other than opium.”

The key, she adds, is finding markets. Development agencies often encourage production of local handicrafts, find local people to make them, but fail in the next step of connecting to the buyers.

“Most products stand or fall with an individual. We’ve had this oil in Afghanistan for five years and she’s the first person doing it successfully and she hasn’t even been to the country.”

But still there are problems to overcome. Some orange grove farmers have been reluctant to have their blossoms picked, fearing the trees would not later bear fruit. It takes some 800 kilograms of blossoms to produce 1 kilogram of essential oil.

Yet Stegemann, who sells Afghanistan Orange Blossom fragrance for $70 ( believes there’s a bounty of business opportunity in Afghanistan, including highly prized rose oil essence, saffron and pomegranate extracts. It’s a view shared by Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada, Jawed Ludin.

“We have to be realistic. Security is still a concern. It will take some time before we sort out the problems that we have, but the world can help us in so many creative ways.

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