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Can Canadian perfume help Afghanistan break its poppy habit?

A young girl collects orange blossom flowers, in Nimla Bagh, Afghanistan, on Monday, April 3, 2006.

Veronique de Viguerie/WpN/UPPA/Photoshot

It's an unlikely weapon in the war against the Taliban: wrapped in a powder pink box, flowery, and for sale soon at a high-end beauty shop near you.

7 Virtues is a new perfume created by a Halifax entrepreneur using essential oils from Afghanistan.

While Barbara Stegemann hopes to turn a profit from her $70-a-bottle scent, her perfume represents something far more ambitious - an attempt to take on the powerful Afghan heroin industry that fuels an insurgency half a world away.

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Ms. Stegemann, who has never been to Afghanistan, is part of an emerging group of foreigners seeking to offer Afghan raw-material producers a window into lucrative Western markets.

Their efforts represent a shift away from charity and toward encouraging sustainable business development in the war-torn country.

In the case of Ms. Stegemann's venture, a group of female farmers in Jalalabad were persuaded to abandon poppy fields once used for opium production and grow orange blossoms for fragrance oil instead.

Now perfume has emerged as one of the most promising development experiments in Afghanistan, where women were banned from wearing fragrances under Taliban rule.

"People don't want to just donate money because that hasn't gotten us anywhere. I wanted to offer farmers an alternative," explains Ms. Stegemann, a 41-year-old self-help author and motivational speaker.

Her instincts echo the findings of a 2004 feasibility study by the United Nations Development Program that shows Afghans are well-positioned to tap into an $18.4-billion (U.S.) international flavour and fragrance market.

The study "recommended production of rose essential oil as a good alternative to opium poppy," said Mathieu Beley, who consulted for the report.

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Essential oils were found to be "high in value and low in volume," meaning small quantities were worth a lot of money, mirroring the properties of opium.

The idea of offering trade, rather than a handout, made sense to Ms. Stegemann, who was raised poor, by a single mother, in a trailer in rural Nova Scotia.

"When I am asked how much of my profits I donate to the women of Afghanistan, I say 'Not one cent, but I buy their crops,' " she says.

Her inspiration to create a fragrance came from her best friend, Captain Trevor Greene, the Canadian army captain who survived an axe blow to the head while serving in Afghanistan in 2006.

"He told me he would go back there if he could. So I really struggled with the apathy in the rest of the country in terms of support for Canada's mission there," says Ms. Stegemann, whose friendship with Capt. Greene dates back to their days as philosophy students at King's College.

"I have no idea why we as a society would expect our military and our government to do everything in Afghanistan. I really believe trade and business need to help people find a way out of war," she said.

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Studies on "perfume not poppies" caught Ms. Stegemann's attention. She met with officials from the Canadian International Development Agency, the Afghan embassy in Ottawa and the Afghanistan Canadian business council.

Eventually, she was put in touch with Hedvig Alexander, then managing director of Turquoise Mountain, a Kabul-based non-profit that seeks to revive Afghanistan's traditional crafts.

Ms. Alexander connected Ms. Stegemann with Gulestan ("rose garden" in Farsi), an Afghan company that produces essential oils using a distillery and steam boiler imported from Turkey and Iran.

"I told them I would buy everything they had," Ms. Stegemann recalls.

It wasn't much. However, one cup of oil, at a cost of $2,000, was enough to produce a thousand bottles of perfume.

Ms. Stegemann collaborated with Canadian parfumeur Susanne Lang to design the fragrance, which is already flying off the shelves of luxury retailers such as Noor boutique in Toronto's tony Yorkville neighbourhood and Mills in Halifax.

"We've sold out," says Frederico Campos, owner of Noor.

"Partly, it's because of the story behind it. But the orange-blossom oil is also exceptional. The fragrance actually sells itself," he adds.

Ms. Stegemann acknowledges her initial production run is hardly enough to make a lasting difference.

Afghanistan's essential oils, however, have already stirred wider interest from mainstream skincare companies such as Dr. Hauschka of Germany and L'Oreal, the world's largest cosmetics company.

Parfums Sama, a French company, also uses Afghan essential oils to manufacture beauty products in France such as anti-wrinkle cream.

Ms. Stegemann, meanwhile, has promised to purchase the entire crop from the Jalalabad farmers next year.

"That will be enough to produce eight to twelve thousand bottles, so now we're talking," she says.

Ms. Alexander, who is married to Chris Alexander, former Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan and a federal Conservative candidate in Ajax-Pickering where the couple now lives, said: "Here you have a rare problem. You have the markets, but not enough product. It's the best kind of problem to have in development."

Doing business in Afghanistan has had its challenges: Ms. Stegeman's local bank in Halifax had trouble wiring funds to the Afghan farmers in Jalalabad and when she was arranging to have the oil shipped to Canada, there was no return street address to list, just an unnamed dirt road.

Some farmers were also reluctant to harvest their orange blossoms, fearing the trees would fail to bear fruit.

Still, Ms. Stegemann says the trouble was worth it.

This summer she is getting married, three days after Capt. Greene weds his long-time fiancée, Debbie Lepore.

"Instead of a best man, he is having me be his 'best person,' " she says. "Then he will give me away at my wedding."

The ceremonies will both take place in Nanaimo, B.C. And both brides will smell of Afghan orange blossoms.

"I hope that, ultimately, this perfume will show that even out of pain there can still be beauty."

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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