Work and Money
One Woman's Mission to Close the ‘Spice Gap’
Variety is the spice of life. But the history of those spices runs far deeper than what comes out of your grinder. India is the “world's largest producer, consumer and exporter of spices,” according to the country’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry. It’s there you’ll find 75 out of 109 of the most traded spices, including chili, mint, ginger, cumin, and cardamom, and most of them are shipped to the U.S. Only a few spices from North America were truly novel when Europeans began colonizing the eastern coast, Mexico, and Caribbean Islands, including allspice, capsicum peppers, and vanilla.
It’s facts and figures like these that inspired Sana Javeri Kadri — a queer woman of color from the United States with Indian heritage — to raise awareness for the modern spice trade. She seeks to ensure that the racism, colonialism, and economic disparity in the spice trade are brought to the public’s attention and that her work helps shift the narrative.
In 2017, she traveled India researching turmeric, a spice popularized in the U.S. with trendy cafe items like turmeric lattes but had existed in her culture’s cuisine for centuries. Her goal was to figure out a more ethical and sustainable solution to spice distribution in the San Francisco area, where even some of the top chefs source their turmeric from corporate warehouses.
“Hundreds of thousands of years of indigenous spice-growing knowledge was buried by capitalism,” Javeri Kadri told SF Weekly. “There isn’t just one turmeric or one cinnamon, but that’s what it had been reduced to.”
That’s when Diaspora Co. was born. According to her website, Javeri Kadri was shocked that not much of the inequities in the spice trade had changed in over 600 years, when spices were considered a currency, leading to white men conquering indigenous people’s land for wealth.
“The commodity market price for 1 kilogram of turmeric in India is about 35 cents,” she wrote in a blog post describing her process. “Most U.S. spice wholesalers are able to sell their turmeric at about $5 to $8 per kilogram.” Not only are American companies making huge profits from the exploitation of Indian spice farmers, but in her experience, she found that a single barrel of spice could change hands over 10 times, from the time it was farmed to ending up in your spice cabinet.
Javeri Kadri knows spices lose their freshness the longer they sit unused, so she created a simple, sustainable, and equitable model for delivering quality spices: work with farmers in India, package spices with Diaspora Co. staff members, and ship directly to consumers. Through this simplified model, Javeri Kadri can generate higher income for farmers, ensure the product is top quality, and grow her business.
Javeri Kadri’s website is a resource in and of itself. Along with recipes created and sourced by womyn of color, the blog, written by staff members, features interviews with chefs and food experts from around the world, field reports, and narrative posts focusing on topics central to the regional ingredient culinary space. Some topics they’ve recently focused on include how healthcare and food justice are intertwined, updates on spice harvests like turmeric, and the politics of farming cardamom.
Diaspora Co. has grown from selling turmeric to including single-origin spices such as chilies, black pepper, and an heirloom variety of cardamom developed especially for the company. Many of these products are used at restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area, and her direct-to-consumer model has inspired other entrepreneurs to replicate her process and create even more sustainable spice companies.
“Three years ago, a sad, wide-eyed and wildly idealistic 23-year old showed up at the Kasaraneni family farm with very low expectations and a whole lot of questions,” she posted on her Instagram account. “It completely changed the course of her life in the best way possible.”
Today, Javeri Kadri is navigating a world where traveling back and forth between continents is harder than ever, but she’s still grateful for the opportunities she’s had. She will continue to distribute single-origin spices in the most sustainable ways possible, for as long as she can.