A little less than 5 years ago, when Sana Javeri Kadri began contemplating the spice trade and foraying into a business within that space, her father joked that she would probably get bored and drop out soon. But to be fair to Mr Kadri, the then 23-year-old Sana did leave a trail of half-finished jobs, which by her own admission, she "got bored of and wanted to quit in about six months." Including one as a line cook, which in hindsight, she feels taught her grit and work-ethics. But that's history. Since she founded Diaspora, a single-origin spice company, Sana has found a deep, almost inexplicable devotion towards what the brand stands for. Which to put it simply, is an equitable spice trade. "I started Diaspora as an experiment. I knew that the spice trade was really unjust, and that the spices that were reaching consumers didn't taste good. They were of poor quality and really, I just wanted to see if it was possible to work with farmers to create a better system. It was more of a creative, open-ended project, that then morphed and grew into a business," she shares.
As her idea blossomed into a business, Sana spent her time oscillating between Mumbai and Oakland, visiting farms, interacting with growers and building (without realising, it seems), a large, widespread agricultural community that was going to shake things up in a big way. If we had to put a pin on it, the journey began with an intensive research trip across rural India, that culminated in a whole lot of learning, but also, a lot of unlearning.
A woman with a plan
"I had my own set of preconceived notions and I went there thinking, 'Oh I'm going to make farmers' lives better.' But I realised that their lives are already pretty good. I lost my saviour complex pretty quickly in realising that I have a lot more to gain from them than they have from me," she accepts. Today, Diaspora has about 30 single-origin spices on their shelves, sourced from 150 farms in India and Sri Lanka, and prides itself on providing their farmer-community with leadership, infrastructure and knowledge-sharing, while also compensating them at an average of six times higher than commodity price.
At the outset, it may seem like this is a company that started with a pretty audacious goal; and an idealistic one, no less. Yet, it has managed to grow into a profitable business by simply changing the narrative. But there's more to it. As Roman (the fictional character from popular American Drama, Succession) once said, "It's just business." And businesses need plans. Thankfully for Sana, she had one. "I think the first thing I had identified was that this model had been done before in three industries—coffee, chocolate and olive oil. And I'm talking about the US market. Back then, in India there was no Subko [an Indian specialty coffee brand], but there was Blue Tokai right? So, we took those three industries as our base and tried to talk to consumers who understood those industries. We were marketing to anybody who already bought either high-quality chocolate, coffee or extra-virgin olive oil, and saying, 'Hey, you already know about this. Now, can you apply this to your spices?' And that was very successful," she reveals.
These were the finer entrepreneurial insights and stratagems that helped build Diaspora into a thriving company, alongside of course, educating the customer, which was a whole other ball game. Sana explains that much of 2017, 2018 and 2019 were spent disseminating information around the spice trade, the farms they worked with and acquainting potential buyers with the realities of the supply chain, which is mired with half-baked laws that hardly protect the farmer in India. "Those first three years went in just explaining to people why our products were more expensive," she reflects.
A social calling
What worked in their favour here, was (and no prizes for guessing) social media. Highlighting how it played a pivotal role in building the brand and informing their customer base, she says, "We are primarily an Instagram business, right? We were born and raised on the Internet and what was exciting is that it made it possible to engage customers on a nuanced and educational level. We did not want to be redacted," she says. In other words, what Diaspora did here, is that it opened up a dialogue with its followers/customers, instead of sermonising them. "We didn't want to say, 'This is bad; this is good.' Instead, we said, 'Here, taste this. It is more delicious. This is who grew it and this is where it comes from. This is what it is intercropped with. And you know when you are buying a spice off the shelf of a grocery store, you only have the little jar to tell you the story which is not telling you much of a story."
And while all of that sounds like a lot of work, what it boils down to is: who is this for? It ranges from a 21-year-old, fresh-out-of-college graduate setting up a new home in the US and choosing to buy three really, good spice versus 50 off-the-rack to a septuagenarian still struggling with the perils of online ordering, but hankering for pure haldi, because of its medicinal properties, she informs us. "I have been surprised by how wide our customer base is. People think that it is mostly Indians and Americans, but that's not it. It is primarily home cooks, who are very excited about cooking; the same people who care about good olive oil. The New York Times cooking subscriber is my ideal customer, because you know, they know exactly what they are looking for. So, there is a lot of overlap like that and it's not just snobby, elite customers," she adds.
Be that as it may, what is it that sets Diaspora apart? Is it their success in managing to change the narrative around Indian spices from something that has been enmeshed in a long history of exploitation and colonisation to something that is 'cool?' Their approach towards farmer-manufacturer relationship, which has unpacked it of its transactional nature, by breathing two-way accountability, engagement and commitment, through things like yearly visits, knowledge-sharing and creating systems around sourcing that are hinged on values and do not alienate the farmer? Or is it the story-boarding—positioning the brand through a social narrative, collaborating with other brands, funky illustrators, and through art and conversation? It could be one or all of these reasons. But if you ask me, it is simple: they stand out for giving credit, where credit is due.
Suman Quazi is a Writer, Host and the Food Editor with India Food Network and Start2Bake. She believes that while food is cultural, societal and intellectual, it is also deeply personal and is keen in contributing towards a dialogue around food in India that's meaningful. Her work has appeared in leading Indian publications like Midday, Living Foodz, Zee Zest, Deccan Chronicle, 101India and DailyO.