In our high school world history classes, almost everything we learned about the spice trade was shaped by European colonial powers like the British, the Dutch, and the Portuguese.
But there’s a new face to the game: a queer woman of color who’s intent on decolonizing the practice. Sana Javeri Kadri proudly labels her company — Diaspora Co. — as a “radical, feminist business” focused on equity and quality. In just three years, she went from a “sad, wide eyed & [sic] wildly idealistic 23-year-old” visiting farms in India with more questions than concrete plans to the founder of a thriving Bay Area business whose products have been lauded in gift guides by The New York Times, the Strategist, and The Washington Post.
Now Diaspora Co. is on its way to releasing several new products this year: cumin, coriander, salt, ginger, saffron, and two more kinds of chillies. It’s a plan that would more than double their current stock, which boasts pragati turmeric, baraka green cardamom, and sannam chillies (whole and ground).
Before Diaspora Co., Javeri Kadri wasn’t always exposed to food from a maker’s perspective. While growing up in Mumbai, her mother’s feminism kept Javeri Kadri out of the kitchen.
“I totally think that’s first and second wave feminists who were like, ‘Avoid what once subjugated us,’” Javeri Kadri tells SF Weekly. “It’s in our generation where you can absolutely be a feminist — like the point of it is you can do whatever the hell you want.”
For Javeri Kadri, that ended up being working in agriculture. While attending high school in Italy at the United World Colleges, Javeri Kadri worked on the school farm and spent summers working in agriculture too, a practice she’d also carry on while studying at Pomona College in southern California. Four years ago after graduation, Javeri Kadri moved up to Oakland to follow a girl she liked — and to find a job in the food industry in what seemed like the “mecca” of it all.
The love story didn’t work out, but Javeri Kadri ended up staying in the Bay, where she worked in marketing at Bi-Rite (and eventually fell in love for the second time). Just a year after the move, Javeri Kadri started her first business, and changed her life in the process.
Part of Diaspora Co.’s success, Javeri Kadri says, is timing.
“It was the year of the golden latte,” she says. Turmeric was trending in coffee shops across the nation in 2016, and it seemed like no one could get enough of the pretty, cold weather drink that boasted numerous medicinal properties. It also seemed like no one actually knew where turmeric came from, despite its rampant popularity. (It’s a flowering plant native to India and Southeast Asia, sometimes grown with marigolds, a natural insect repellent.)
Where others saw a trend, Javeri Kadri saw a chance.
“Given that I’m from India, all my roots and network are there,” Javeri Kadri says. “I was probably one of the few people in the world or on the planet in this very unique position to do this work.” Aside from timing, it also helps that Javeri Kadri is an extremely skilled photographer and was already involved in the food industry. She flew to India for a few months, visiting farms and asking questions with a faint idea of a potential business in the back of her mind.
Javeri Kadri wanted to bring quality, tasty spices to the marketplace — finding turmeric powder that was the best version of itself. Years of colonialism, Javeri Kadri says, had focused the spice trade on finding the cheapest possible products rather than taste or aroma. Even after the British left India and Indian traders took over, the same system was left in place, leaving some spices to taste like ghosts of themselves.
“Hundreds of thousands of years of indigenous spice growing knowledge was buried by capitalism,” says Javeri Kadri. “There are actually hundreds of varieties of turmerics, hundreds of varieties of cinnamon. There isn’t just one turmeric or one cinnamon, but that’s what it had been reduced to.”
Spices can function similarly to vegetables, which is something Diaspora Co. is trying to get people to realize. While we might think of spices as something to be bottled and left on a shelf indefinitely, they are susceptible to off seasons and mold. Javeri Kadri tries to find farmers who carry a certain philosophy of caring for the earth and nurturing the soil.
But decolonization for Diaspora Co. goes beyond the product. “Decolonization means redistribution of power,” Javeri Kadri says. “In the old spice trade, power lay in the hands of the trader and nobody else. The customer had no power, because the customer didn’t know what they were getting. The farmer had no power because they were paid so little.”
But Diaspora Co. cuts out the middle men. In doing so, they claim that they pay their farmers two to six times the market price. Javeri Kadri says they also support them by paying advances, assisting in organic certifications, and acting as “their friend, their moneylender, their therapist.”
“A lot of our partner farmers are doing something that’s never been done before,” Javeri Kadri says. That means they might be getting pushback from their whole village and not seeing profit until their second or third year of organic farming. It’s up to Javeri Kadri to assure them that they’re doing “God’s work.”
This relationship is often a two way street. “I also have to share what I’m struggling with,” Javeri Kadri says. Diaspora Co. is a self-described “bootstrapped” operation with five employees (and Javeri Kadri is the only one working full-time). Javeri Kadri is responsible for building a whole supply chain and unique market — one that several copycats are starting to imitate. Sometimes she gets pushback too. “We get comments from grumpy aunties, like ‘Why does it cost as much as it does?’” (Diaspora Co. currently prices their products like this: $12 for a 2.47 ounce jar of turmeric; $8 for a 2.29 ounce jar of whole chillies; $10 for a 2.29 ounce jar of ground chillies; $12 for a 2.29 ounce jar of pepper; $15 for a 1.76 ounce jar of cardamom.)
But there’s a silver lining to all of this. Copycats, at the very least, mean that the market is starting to notice and change. And it looks like Diaspora Co. is more than ready to lead the charge.
Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.