Sana Javeri Kadri


Culturallyours Podcast Sana Javeri Kadri Diaspora Co

Sana Javeri Kadri

Show Details

In this episode Karthika chats with Sana Javeri Kadri, the owner of Diaspora – a spice company that is looking to disrupt an outdated commodity spice trading system by partnering directly with the farmers. The original intent of colonial conquest of the Indian subcontinent was a desire for domination of the spice trade. A system where the farmers made no money, spices changed hands upwards of 10 times between farmer and consumer, and the final spice on the shelf was usually an old, dusty, and flavorless shadow of what it once was.

Today Sana is well on her way to do exactly what she set out to do four years ago…decolonize the spice trade in India, partner with and support local farms, encourage fair trade and fair compensation for the Indian farmers, and provide the best quality of spices to her customers.


Show Notes

Karthika chats with Sana Javeri Kadri, the founder of Diaspora Co, spices company that is looking to decolonize the spice trade in India by partner with and support local farms, encourage fair trade and fair compensation for the Indian farmers, and provide the best quality of spices to her customers. Sana shares her research in the old way that spices were traded for hundreds of years, and still are to some extent, and how her vision is to focus more in quality, heirloom varieties and farms that are looking to bring the best of the best directly in the hands of the consumers.


The Transcript

Karthika: Welcome Sana. Thank you so much for joining me on CulturallyOurs. I am really excited to have you on the podcast and I cannot wait to chat with you and get to know you a little better.

Sana: Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here and to chat about all the culture and spice.

Karthika: So before we begin, can you tell us a little bit about who you are, where you’re from, just to help set the stage for this conversation, if you will?

Sana: Yeah, absolutely. So my name is Sana Javeri Kadri. I was born and raised in Mumbai, India. I’m a South Bombay brat. I got a scholarship to go to high school in Italy, to a school that’s dedicated to peace and a sustainable future that led me to then getting a visual art and food studies degree in California. And I now live between Oakland, California, and Mumbai, India running a sustainability and equity focused spice company called Diaspora, which I believe we’re going to talk plenty about.

Karthika: Yes. And you’ve had a very interesting journey so far and you know what? Living between Mumbai and San Francisco is not a bad thing, is it?

Sana: Not a bad deal. I really wish they were closer so that I didn’t have to do that flight so often. Yes, it is a dream. I mean, I was working in a regular job where you only get two weeks of the year off and I very quickly realized that wasn’t going to cut it for me given that my whole family’s in India. I was just like, that’s not going to work. And I wanted to start something too. I wanted to be in India as much as possible while still having my life here. So in that way, best of both worlds.

Karthika: Absolutely. Now, as you were describing yourself, you said you are an entrepreneur, you’re a business woman, and you’ve kind of taken on the task to disrupt and decolonize an outdated commodity spice trading system. I would love to know what that means and what that means to you.

Sana: Well! You know millennials these days, we want to change the world. I think for me once I left India, and I think this happens often, is when I really wanted to study India more deeply and wanted to engage with it critically and understand the history, understand what’s going to fuel our growth and our development as a country. I feel very patriotic towards the future in India and very tied to that. And the more I learned about the spice trade and the history of the spice trade and how tied up it was with colonialism, the more I realized that actually in, you know, the 70 years since colonialism has ended, the spice trade hasn’t changed at all. It looks not different from what it looked like when the British were around, when it was set up to simply profit the British. Nothing has improved about that industry. And the more I learned, the more I felt, you know what, it’s almost 2020, and it’s time somebody changes this. And I’ve always been somebody who was inspired by social entrepreneurship who believes in mission driven businesses. And so I’ve felt that putting our mission out there on the front page of the website would really set the stage for the bar we’re trying to set here.

Karthika: No, that’s fabulous. And I really appreciate your thought into making it vocal. I mean, a lot of times, you know, like any business you see, it is maybe on the third page or the fourth page, somewhere hidden. Sometimes they don’t even have it. So the fact that this is what you firmly believe in from your core and you’ve put it out there for the world to see is, is way commendable. Now you said you’re tackling this problem and this problem is as much about changing mindsets and norms as it is actually changing the industry. So let’s go back to the basics a little bit. How did this whole movement and this desire to change something so ingrained for 70 odd years come to be?

Sana: So I always knew that I would want it to work in the food industry. I’ve known that since I was about 15 years old. I considered becoming a chef. I worked in kitchens. I realized how much I hated it. I considered becoming a farmer. I love that day deeply, but didn’t feel that it was changed at a systemic level. It felt local and not really the work I wanted to do. Although I have so much respect and admiration for sustainable farmers. So I knew that this idea of systemic change was very appealing to me. That how can you literally change course on something and on history. And I had seen and studied in undergraduate studies on the way the chocolate and the coffee industry had changed in the past 10 years. So coffee and chocolate, like spices were commodities sold on the commodity market and really the entry of specialty coffee, which is you know, your blue bottles, your stamp down and your bean to coffee for chocolate who are making artisanal high grade chocolate where you could actually taste the nuance of the beans between different parts of Tanzania, between Indian beans and Tanzanian beans had actually changed the way those commodities were being farmed. So it changed the fact that initially the price book for chocolate was really low coming out of these chocolate producing countries. And the bean to bar chocolate movement has actually raised the national price of chocolate in all the chocolate growing countries tremendously. And I found that really amazing. But there was this certain amount of elitist attitude – nice chocolate for rich people. So on one hand I critical of it, but on the other hand I was seeing that because the bar had been set, pun intended, it was pushing big companies like Nestle, and Cadbury, which is owned by Nestle to also improve their practices.

Sana: So when it comes to food and agriculture and food standards, because the customer can now be so discerning, there is a trickle down effect. I know trickle down does not work with in economics, but I’ve watched it work within the food system. And so when I started thinking about India and what’s happening in terms of agriculture and what India is known for, obviously spices was an obvious answer. But then when I was asking, I was working in a food marketing position here in San Francisco and I started asking chefs and very high people up in the industry where they were getting their spices from and whether the same quality and sort of standards applied to their spices, they would give me these very sheepish responses. You know its made in India so it must be organic and just very halfhearted answers that weren’t giving me what I wanted. And I quickly realized that nobody had any idea.

Sana: Initially it started as a research project as I was a photographer at the time and I was working in marketing. And so I figured maybe I’ll photograph the spice farms across India and it’ll be an interesting piece for some kind of publication. And so I bought this one way ticket back to India. I started contacting farmers, farming cooperatives, and nobody was getting back to me. And I was seeing a lot of secrecy, a huge lack of transparency in the industry. You know, in America if you’re well connected enough, I felt very connected in the food industry. I was able to get an introduction or a meeting with just about anybody in the food industry. My whatsapp read receipts would be read and read and you know no one seemed to want to get back to me. So eventually I started just showing up places and I ended up going to the Indian Institute of Spices Research, which is part of the Indian council of agricultural research. They are an amazing research organization that’s been doing really powerful work for many years now. And I met up with them and they were the ones that really schooled me on the fact that the industry hadn’t changed, and it really needed an update. And they were showing me all these beautiful heirloom varieties of spices and saying that there’s no market for this stuff. Like the market is still based on what the British built. What the ISI was explaining to me is that they took with all our spices and used a very blanket approach to grading them for an industrial system. So if your turmeric was a bright orange it made more money. It didn’t matter if it was fresh or it didn’t matter if it had a higher curcumin content. It didn’t matter what the flavor was. The magic of food is flavor, aroma and kind of oil content cause oil content boost both flavor and aroma. But they did not care about that. They built a system on longevity. So how long it’ll last in a bag. And as a result, really made the spice insustry tasty. And the same applies for the pepper. The same applies for chilies. That poll was created and measured by size. Now what does size have to do with how your pepper taste? Imagine does buying the biggest okara in the market mean it is really good. So I think that really fired me up. And I was thinking, Oh wow, this is like a marketing goldmine. Its like comparing Walmart tomato to an heirloom farmer’s market tomato. Imagine the reaction people will have. So long story short, that is how I got started with very little money in my bank account and a very little idea of what I was doing. I put up a really shitty Squarespace website and bought a very small amount of amount of turmeric from a farmer they connected me with and decided to just do this. And the rest I suppose is history.

Karthika: No, it’s absolutely fascinating hearing you talk about what you discovered and you’re so right that when it’s done a certain way for so long, nobody questions it. Nobody bothers to ask those questions that really get to the crux of the matter and the fact that why is it based just on color? Shouldn’t it be based on taste, how it flavors the food and things like that. Now, of course, you’ve talked about the challenges that you’ve faced and how has it been for you once you sort of started doing this? Has the response been what you expected or far more than what you expected?

Sana: Yes the response has been far more than what I expected. I really thought initially that this was going to be like a cute, smaller thing. At this point we’re probably the number one or number two direct trade spice company out there in the country, which is bizarre to me. But it really tells you how low the bar is and how much room for innovation and disruption there was. Everybody thought Airbnb was a really stupid idea before and now it’s giving hotels run for their money. Similarly, we get emails all the time from people being like, you know, we really care what our olive oil came from. We cared what our produce came from, but we never taught about as spices. And you’ve opened up a whole new world to us as somebody who has loved food since the day I was born. That is so meaningful and so exciting for us. This year itself, we’ve gone from turmeric to having cardamom, pepper and chilies and next year we are adding more spices to the plate. So it is really exciting as a young person who in a lot of ways is at the very beginning of my career, it’s exciting to wake up every day and feel like, yes, my life is hard and it’s very challenging. I get to make up the answers and the questions to the work that I do every single day.

Karthika: That’s definitely thrilling. And I guess that’s why we get into entrepreneurship because we want to do the right things. Yes it is incredibly hard but also so rewarding.

Sana: Yes we get super high highs and super low lows.  yes, you’re right. It’s, it’s incredibly hard. Um, but it’s so rewarding. Even that little kick in the right direction just makes you feel like you can achieve the world.

Karthika:  Now when I looked up diaspora because I really wanted to understand what it meant, the dictionary quotes to as a movement – when a large group of people of similar heritage move around, in a sense it means migration. Is that what you are trying to do with your work? Kind of make spices more mainstream? Not just for the people who use it.

Sana: Yeah. That’s a great way of putting it. I think I have two taglines that I use a lot. One I want to make supply chains sexy again, and I really want to make spices fun again. And I don’t think they’ve ever been very fun and that’s largely because they were a product of colonialism. But my intention is to really help people understand how they can use spices in their day to day life and also to shine a light on the incredible journey that these spices have taken. Its amazing that the origin of turmeric was in India but then it traveled to Thailand, Philippines and the eventually to Venice. There are pasta dishes that have turmeric in them since the 1800s. So there is this amazing diasporic history to these spices. I mean, just the fact that Cardamom went from being an Indian spice to then being taken by the moguls, going to the Moors, then being used in Spain, and then the Scandinavians being obsessed with anything Moorish and Spanish. And so becoming obsessed with cardamom and now cardamom being the biggest spice imported into Scandinavia. Then some growers in Guatemala got cardamom and now Guatemala is actually becoming the second biggest cardamom growing region in the world. I guess I am just drawing a parallel to the fact that everything immigrates, everything moves and actually the thesis, and I am quoting Christine Kingsworth in saying that when food moves around, food gets better. And I think that that’s true.

Karthika: Absolutely. And you know, it goes even beyond colonialism, right? These spices have history thousands of years old. And with every iteration it just gets better than better. And you kind of got to appreciate it even more. Right?

Sana: Ecuador and Nicaragua would be growing wild Indian varieties of dominates.

Karthika: Now this question is a bit more personal, so I hope you don’t mind me asking. I would love to know how starting Diaspora has impacted your life from a cultural standpoint.

Sana: That’s a good question. I think on one hand it’s given me a very intimate look into India and forced me to think about big, deep systemic issues of India and how I’m going to interact with them. On one hand I’m a third generation Mumbaikar. My family has been deeply involved in the development of Mumbai as a city and India as a country. And I come from two generations of architects. But ultimately, I lived a very sheltered Mumbai existence, whereas traveling to small villages by myself and in a rental car all over India in some ways was a reality check. And in other ways it was a gift to connect me back culturally to my home country at a time when I was not feeling very connected. I came out as a queer right before starting Diaspora. It wasn’t a good time in my life and not something that was immediately accepted by my family and community. The business gave me a lens with which to reconnect with home. And a way to connect with home that was important to me. Life I guess is filled with strife, which is what the rest of my personal life felt like at the time. Obviously three years later, I’ve come a long way and my family and community is very onboard and life looks different now, but took three years of hard work and I think in a lot of ways Diaspora really saved me and gave me something to pour my heart and soul into and feel connected to. When you come out in a culture that doesn’t really accept LGBTQ values and existence in the mainstream, it is really easy to feel isolated and very rejected. And I think my work did the opposite for me. And I felt so supported, held and connected

Karthika: That’s a beautiful way of putting it. Thank you. I want to go back to something you said earlier in the interview. You said sometimes being away from all that you know, all that you loved and all that you are kind of used to brings back a feeling of being more in love with that thing. And I completely understand, going back home with a very different lens of trying to see the world, see that part of your life, that part of your world with a different view point brings a lot of nostalgia and preciousness together. And you’ve also kind of gone beyond Mumbai too. You talk about this on your social media as well and you share pictures of being on the farm and interacting with the actual farmers. So I’m curious, how has that been for you coming from a Mumbai city girls sort of a perspective?

Sana: Yeah, good question. I think the families that I work with think that I’m completely mad over the phone. They initially thought maybe I am some dignified old lady asking them about spices or something and perhaps buy a few bags of stuff. And then this young 20 something shows up with her iPhone and have very strange ideas and they kind of just like, what? But for the most that what they don’t realize is that I love farms and I’ve worked on farms for all of my formative years, from 16 to 21 when I was on farms between Italy and the U S and so I feel very connected to these spaces which, which shocks them as well, that I’m comfortable in the dirt, that I understand that the issue is what they’re struggling with. And in many ways I feel envious of their lives. They think I am hot shot city girl who’s gone to America but I actually really love going back to visit them and spending time with them and understanding more about their lives. Its been a really lovely addition to my life that I get to be a bit of a farm girl as well as a city girl through this business. Recently my partner came with me to India for the first time and we visited a new pepper farm together. And it was really beautiful to see her interacting with the farmers we now work with. It almost felt like a family visit.

Karthika: So now four years later, do you feel like you have done what you set out to do and achieved what you wanted in the first place

Sana: My mom said this to me a few years ago in a very bad phase that I was going through, which is really every year. We both love our work. We’re both perfectionists. Um, she was a tough mom. She is a tough mom, but she’s also, you know, my true feminist hero and my idea of success. She said to me that when it does all come together and when you do a achieve success, you look back and think how small I was dreaming, and you realize that it was bigger and better. It can be and it will be bigger and better than you had ever imagined. And I kind of brushed it off as like, mom, you don’t know how ambitious I am. Like I’m not going to be bigger or better than I imagined, but it really has been that I did not imagine what this would become. Doors it has opened up and what is now possible because of what we’ve been through. So yes it’s bigger and better than I imagined and it’s going to keep going.

Karthika: Oh, for sure. And I just want to say moms always know best. Sana you should know by now. I’m a mom, so I can say that. Well thank you so very much for coming on the podcast. It’s been an absolute delight

Sana: Thank you for your time and I wish you all the best.

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