Sana Javeri Kadri was getting impatient.
Prabhu Kumar Kasaraneni, the Andhra farmer who supplies the organic turmeric to her spice company, Diaspora Co., was behind on the shipment of his new harvest. Between the time he’d need to transport the turmeric to Diaspora’s export office in Mumbai, and the long ocean journey the spice would then need to take to the U.S., Diaspora wouldn’t have new turmeric for months. Wholesale customers needed to restock their supply. Online shoppers faced backorders. After a flurry of glowing press from the New York Times, Bon Appetit, and more than a dozen other high profile outlets, Javeri Kadri began to worry about keeping up with demand.
“I was getting so frustrated here in the U.S., and he wasn’t able to give me an answer about why the delivery was delayed,” she says. After an extended back and forth over WhatsApp, Kasaraneni finally admitted the truth. The road between his small farm and the mill where he ground his turmeric was boobytrapped with bureaucrats in search of bribes, and he refused to pay up.
This is common practice, Javeri Kadri explained. Some representatives of Indian agricultural and trade ministries are empowered to stop freight trucks on the road and check their paperwork, to make sure the cargo is legitimate. Spot checks can lead to impromptu interrogations about where the shipment is headed, and in turn not-so-subtle requests for a cut of the sale price of the goods. Growing turmeric isn’t exactly big business; for a smallholder farmer like Kasaraneni, a five percent cut wasn’t acceptable. To sneak under the bribery radar, Kasaraneni started transporting his turmeric to and from the mill in his tiny car, which took eight times as many trips in a truck. Delays piled up, but Kasaraneni was so embarrassed by the whole situation that he felt he couldn’t tell Javeri Kadri why he was falling behind schedule. Once he explained the problem, he and Javeri Kadri worked out a solution, and the spice flowed soon after.
Now that it’s all in the past, Javeri Kadri can laugh about it, but the anecdote is one of many that she shares with customers to illustrate just how broken the global spice industry can be—and how Diaspora is one of a small cadre of spice companies circumventing century-old trade routes to build a new one focused on justice and equity.
Many of the world’s favorite spices don’t come from massive plantations. Most, in fact, are grown on small, independently owned farms that sell fresh or dried spices to a chain of middlemen who aggregate, sort, package, and export product to giant importers like McCormick. The result of this funnel—from millions of farmers to hundreds of paper-pushers to just a handful of wholesalers and retailers—is an industry that cares more about yield and consistency than good taste or responsible growing practices. With so many palms to grease along the way, the original producers wind up seeing a tiny fraction of the final spice’s sale price. “The farmer has no power,” Javeri Kadri said. “Whatever the day's prices are, you have to sell at what's offered.”
Javeri Kadri founded Diaspora with a focus on turmeric to try to correct this imbalance. As she told Vice in one of the first spotlights on her company, “If white women are going to consume turmeric, how do I make sure brown farmers make as much money off of it as possible?” Diaspora’s turmeric supply comes from a single farmer in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, and since she’s buying direct from the source, Javeri Kadri is able to pay Kasaraneni over three times the market rate of turmeric in the region.
The higher rate is a reflection not just of her company’s ethos, but the turmeric itself, an heirloom variety that’s organic in all but name; Kasaraneni is currently in the organic certification process, which takes years. His turmeric contains an unusually high amount of curcumin, a compound renowned for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which Javeri Kadri is quick to point out has been a fixture in traditional Indian medicine for centuries before turmeric became the darling of the Western wellness industry.
Since launching in 2017, Diaspora has kept close to its turmeric roots, educating consumers on the spice’s myriad culinary and medicinal benefits while using it as a microcosm of the problems in the global spice industry at large. But starting in August, the company will add another Indian staple to its catalogue: cardamom. On the heels of a wildly successful Kickstarter, Diaspora has raised the funds to buy out the 400-pound spring harvest from a cardamom farmer in Kerala that shares Javeri Kadri’s values. She’s also laying the groundwork to import Gujarati sea salt, Karnatakan chiles, and Rajasthani cumin. “Doing our own export means we can work with anybody,” she said, “not just rich landowners and upper caste people with significant privilege.”
For Javeri Kadri, this slow growth is a feature of running her own business, not a bug; building relationships with innovative small farmers takes time. Farmers in poor rural regions working in the confines of a massive commodity market have few incentives to grow lower-yield, better-tasting crops without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Direct trade companies like Diaspora aren’t just bringing better spices to the West; they’re building better futures for growers at the source.
Get ready for yellow fingers
Need some help learning how to cook with turmeric? Shop for Diaspora's heirloom turmeric here and follow these golden recipes to get started.
Recipe: Tah Chin (Persian Shepherd's Pie)
Recipe: African Chickpea Soup
Recipe: Curried Coconut Lentils
Recipe: Instant Pot Butter Chicken
Lead image by Sana Javeri Kadri. Portrait by Aubrie Pick.