Farm-to-phone spices serve up quality

Twenty-six-year-old Sana Javeri Kadri is reinventing the spice industry with a farm-to-phone approach.

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The spices in your pantry were likely already five years old the day you bought them. And the farmer who grew them may have earned just 2% of the final profit.

It’s personal for 26-year-old Mumbai-born entrepreneur Sana Javeri Kadri, who in a few short years has taken the spice world by storm with Diaspora Co. Her mobile-first direct-to-consumer spice company has all the swagger of Sana herself.

Sana Javeri Kadri, founder of Diaspora Co., started her company by sourcing single-origin turmeric from her home country of India. Photo credit: Gentl & Hyers

Across the world, chefs and foodies clamor for her small-batch turmeric, cardamom and chilies so strikingly pungent that one whiff makes the eyes water. Sana aims to pay farmers fairly for—arguably—the first time in the history of spices, and she’s doing it by cutting out the middlemen and using her phone to get straight to the source: small, sustainable farms in India.

As the world hunkers down during the pandemic, Sana’s direct-to-consumer (DTC) model bypasses in-person grocery stores by allowing customers to buy spices online. She’s tapping into a worldwide consumer demand for products from brands that focus on fair sourcing, as well as from businesses owned and operated by traditionally marginalized groups.

Sana’s work to globalize—and bring equity to—the spice cabinet is part of what she calls a new wave of DTC spice companies disrupting the industry for the greater good.

Farm to phone

Typically, spices trade hands upward of 10 times before they reach their final destination. From farmer to auction house, multiple traders, exporter, importer, spice company, distribution center, grocery store and finally to you.

Traditional commodity model

Diaspora Co. bypasses the middlemen, providing fresher ingredients and equitable pay for farmers. Graphic by Diaspora Co. designer Aleesha Nandhra

Diaspora Co. model

In Diaspora Co.’s case, they are the only middleman. You’ll pay a little more for your spices online, but the farmer typically makes up to 10 times more.

Welcome to the Diaspora: “I run this business from my phone.”

“I was searching for a higher-quality turmeric that was sustainably sourced,” says Sana. Based in Northern California, Sana found Prabhu Kasaraneni across the world in Andhra Pradesh, a state in southeastern India. Prabhu is a fellow millennial and fourth-generation farmer who taught himself organic farming from YouTube videos and WhatsApp groups.

“Prabhu was searching for validation that growing pesticide-free could be profitable and that heirloom turmeric varieties had money in them,” says Sana. “We’re both young people who have found this very symbiotic relationship. We used the internet to find each other and our communities.”

Diaspora Co. was built—and continues to be run—on apps like WhatsApp. “All my purchasing, negotiating—everything happens on this one app, because most of my foreign partners don’t have computers. And data in India is very cheap. So I run this business from my phone.”

Farmer Prabhu Kasaraneni holds a fresh harvest of raw turmeric. Photo credit: Gentl & Hyers

A personal connection leads to innovation

A year into Sana’s partnership with Prabhu, she was seeing tremendous delays. “I sent him this very emotional voice message, ‘If this continues, I don't think we can work together because I don’t have trust right now. You keep flouting these deadlines.’ He called immediately. He told me he was taking all the turmeric to the mill—which is an hour away—in small installments, in his personal car. If he drove a big truck, he would get stopped at every checkpoint. The government collectors and roadside cops would ask him for bribes, ‘Okay, 2%, hand it over.’ But when he was just in a car, that didn’t happen.

“That was such a big hurdle for me to cross. I had to empathize and find a way to fix this. The solution was giving him a loan to build a mill in his own village. Keeping that communication channel super open and super personal has been really powerful. It’s more than just a business relationship. There’s a problem and then through the voice message, the solution appears.

Famers harvest turmeric in Andhra Pradesh in Southeast India. Photo credit: Gentl & Hyers

People first: Healthcare for farmworkers

Ninety percent of the laborers on Sana’s partner farms are women, many of whom have never been to a doctor. While Diaspora Co. enables Prabhu to pay a higher daily wage than other nearby farms, the women are still vulnerable. “Often the sole earners in the family,” says Sana, “these women have stories of lost children, malnutrition and easily treatable illnesses that cause long stretches of missed work. It made us want to give them and their families more options.”

So, after many phone calls with the workers, Sana established a healthcare pilot project on Prabhu’s farm. “For a nominal sum,” she says, “25 women get year-round healthcare that would cost more than our annual revenue if we were to get it done here in the United States.” This people-first, product-second mentality has been central for Sana all along.

Growing up on the ’Gram

As a social media native, Sana has built a dynamic network of conscientious customers, chefs and fellow food businesses led by people of color. “I was raised on Instagram,” she says. “I’ve been on it since I was 17 years old. My friendships were made, my understanding of critical theory, my awakening as an adult all happened on the app.”

When Sana started Diaspora Co., she wanted to create a community first and a product later, she says. “I realized that so many food businesses weren’t tapping into a powerful customer base: customers that want to be ambassadors for your brand.”

The Diaspora Co. Instagram has over 50k followers, most of whom are actively engaged in the conversations Sana is starting online. Photo credit: Diaspora Co.

A quick scroll through Diaspora Co.’s Instagram, and you’ll find summer reading lists curated by Sana to encourage deeper dives into issues like equity, race, power and entrepreneurism. You’ll see live cooking demonstrations by celebrity chefs of color who demonstrate how to use Diaspora Co. spices in compelling ways. You’ll see photos of their farmer partners with raw ingredients amid the lush Indian landscape, captured by Sana on her many trips to the farms.

“I check in with myself regularly about what our page is doing for people,” says Sana. “Are we just using Instagram to sell products, or are we truly using it to make connections and share resources?”

This organic approach to social media has paid off, fostering a highly engaged following of customers who snatch up each year’s harvest of spices online—including cardamom, coriander, chilies, black pepper and now cocoa—often months before they’re ready to be shipped. “Our customers are home cooks who are realizing that if you want to cook out of a global pantry, you have to put a little bit of thought into how you source,” she says.

Each year, demand has tripled or quadrupled. But in 2020—amid the shop-from-home pandemic and a heightened awareness of racial and cultural equity—Diaspora Co. has seen a tenfold increase in sales of their spices online, 80% of which are made from a mobile device.

Direct to consumer brands are bringing equity to the supply chain. Photo credit: Product images provided by brands

The movement to diversify your spice cabinet

Diaspora Co. is just one company in a new wave of fresh, young, DTC food businesses working to deliver top-of-the-line products with a more responsible model.

“The question we get asked the most is, ‘Who are other people doing the work that you’re doing?’ That’s so powerful that people are coming to us for that. It allows us to say, ‘Yeah. There’s Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen in the UK that’s doing amazing Nigerian and West African spices. There’s Daphnis and Chloe in Greece doing beautiful Greek spices. Yolélé is such an exciting company doing West African fonio. Fly by Jing has their Sichuan spices from China. And they’re all coming from the same thought process that we are. You should stock your pantry with all of us.’ There’s power in that.”

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“These entrepreneurs are bringing on ingredients from their cultures in thoughtful, exciting, accessible ways. And that’s what I’m most excited for, that our pantries are about to get so much more diverse and delicious.”

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