It’s 2023. Do You Know Where Your Spices Come From?

By focusing on farmers, queer-owned, BIPOC-led Diaspora Co. is changing the spice industry for the better.

Six turmeric harvesters in colorful saris standing in field

Heirloom Pragati turmeric harvesters in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, India. Grown by the Kasaraneni family on a third-generation farm, the turmeric is the first spice Diaspora Co. ever sold.

Photo by Gentl & Hyers

The use of turmeric dates back 4,000 years, older than the Great Wall of China. The Compendium of Suśruta, one of the key texts of Ayurveda, Indian traditional medicine, recommends it to help relieve the effects of poisonous food. Its English word, turmeric, is derived from the Latin terra merita (meritorious earth); its Spanish word, curcuma, can be traced back to the Arabic word kurkum, which does not mean turmeric but saffron, which turmeric is sometimes said to resemble.

In India, which produces nearly 80 percent of the world’s turmeric—as well as consumes 80 percent of it—turmeric is “haldi” in Hindi and “manjal” in Tamil. Sanskrit, the root of many Indian languages, has more than 50 names for it, including hridayavilasini (gives delight to heart, charming), varavarnini (which gives fair complexion), tamasini (beautiful as night), patwaluka (perfumed powder), laxmi (prosperity), and shobhna (brilliant color). Turmeric has incredible range, nuance, and variety; India alone has more than 30 different types. Known for its warming, earthy flavor, turmeric—which ranges in color from sunburst yellow to Kraft mac and cheese orange—is used for cooking and in beauty rituals and is considered auspicious in Hindu culture.

Sana Javeri Kadri outdoors among orange flowers

Sana Javeri Kadri is Diaspora Co.’s CEO. She founded the company when she was 23.

Courtesy of Diaspora Co.

Yet when Sana Javeri Kadri encountered turmeric in California, where she’d moved for college in 2012 from her native Mumbai, turmeric was flat, dusty, and chalky, a far cry from this Indian saffron. In 2016, the turmeric latte craze swept the nation (so gold it was “a drink for Midas”). Javeri Kadri, who had studied visual arts and food studies, had by then just graduated and was working as a marketing assistant at Bi-Rite market in San Francisco. She started asking around: Where is all this turmeric coming from? Better yet: Where in India is it coming from?

Javeri Kadri, who is also a photographer, flew back to Mumbai in 2016 on a one-way ticket, intent on reporting a story about turmeric and spice sourcing across India. She visited 19 farms around the country and reached out to the Indian Institute of Spices Research in Kozhikode, Kerala, where Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in 1498. There, she discovered bright, aromatic varieties of turmeric high in curcumen—the ingredient that lends the spice its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. But these varieties weren’t being sold publicly. Instead, the intricacies of turmeric had been smoothed over, and it was mainly being mass produced in India, sold to wholesalers and corporations, with little benefit to farmers. Surely there is a better way to do things, she thought. So she decided to do something about it. With $3,000, Javeri Kadri started working directly with Indian farmers, eliminating the middle man, sourcing ethically farmed turmeric, founding a company she would come to call Diaspora Co. in 2017. She was 23.

Pepper berries being dried

After being picked by hand, pepper berries are sorted and dried in the sun.

Courtesy of Diaspora Co.

Today, the Mumbai– and Oakland–based Diaspora Co. sells 35 single spices—including cardamom, cinnamon, cacao, fenugreek, saffron, and four types of chiles—and six blends. It has been lauded by everyone from Eater to Vogue, which proclaimed “Diaspora Co.’s Fair-Trade Spices Will Enlighten More Than Your Cooking.” T Magazine’s Thessaly La Force wrote that Diaspora’s “turmeric was better than any I have ever tasted.” The Diaspora Cookbook, which will spotlight recipes from 25 family farms across India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, is forthcoming in fall 2025.

Diaspora Co.’s strength is in its foundation. Spices are sourced from roughly 200 farm partners and more than 1,500 farmworkers across 10 states in India and Sri Lanka. Diaspora Co. pays them an average of four times the commodity price and over three times the Fairtrade price, which itself is 15 times higher than the average commodity price. (The average monthly income for Indian farmers is 10,218 rupees, or US$123, per India’s Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare.) The company also provides advances on harvests so farmers are able to pay for operations without loans—crucial in a country where more than 50 percent of agricultural producers are in debt. In 2019, Diaspora Co. generated $69,000 in revenue for its farm suppliers. By 2021 that number was more than $1 million.

On Diaspora Co.’s website, each spice is listed with details about its flavor profiles, origin, harvesting process, uses, and farmers’ stories; there are also audio clips to help educate Diaspora Co.’s audience on intended pronunciations. Nun-duh-nee koh-ree-ander. Candy-n-cloves.

“It took moving to America and learning about the spice trade from this Western point of view [to shake things up],” Javeri Kadri says of the brand’s emphasis on origin, on story. “I saw that there was a bit of an Indiana Jones element happening, where the perception is that companies go to faraway places to hunt for spices. It’s a pretty outdated and harmful idea. It’s constantly otherizing where these spices come from.”

Telling our farmers’ stories, sharing their recipes, and making sure that we can sell as much of their spices as possible—that’s the work.
Sana Javeri Kadri

Javeri Kadri, who is queer, is also a rare success story in a world where LGBTQ-owned small businesses represent less than 1 percent of the total. This identity is important not just to her but also, by extension, to the business and what it fully means for the business to be queer. In 2021, the team—half of whom are based in India, and the other half in the United States—wrote a nine-point queer manifesto, a set of guiding principles they agree to adhere to and work on. (Point one: “As we’ve learned from our Black trans and queer elders, queerness is rooted in liberation, while business is capitalism itself. We operate within, and are acutely aware of the tension that arises from pairing these two words together.”)

By all accounts, then, things are good. But things still do need to change, says Javeri Kadri when we speak in February. For starters, over the course of this next year, there will be different ways of telling the story. There will be even less emphasis on consumers and why they should buy a spice. There will be deeper and deeper thought about what it means to be a queer-led business, an equitable business, an even more sustainable business. Perhaps more importantly, there will be less of her.

“Starting out, I wanted to tell stories about queer brown immigrants in the food system. I wanted as much space as possible,” she says. “Six years later I have a lot of power—I have claimed a lot of space within this industry, within our corner of the internet. I think with that has come an understanding of how I actually don’t need to take up as much space, because that’s not the work. Telling our farmers’ stories, sharing their recipes, and making sure that we can sell as much of their spices as possible—that’s the work.”

In that end, then, it is confession time: This is not a profile of Sana Javeri Kadri. Because Diaspora Co. is so much more than her, despite the fact that the two have become so linked, so intertwined, in large part because of breathless features about her skincare (her cleansers, her serums, her sunscreens), her colorful two-bedroom Oakland home (the stuff of inspired design posts), her weekend ritual (making a giant batch of broth for soondubu jjigae every Sunday). This is not one of those stories.

Spice harvester holding green leafy plant

Diaspora Co. started with 1 spice. Today, it sells 35 single spices and 6 blends.

Courtesy of Diaspora Co.

In June of 2021, Berkeley MBA student Pooja Bag took an internship with Diaspora Co., a brand she’d first seen on Instagram and admired. Initially, it was for the spices themselves. “It sounds over the top, but truly, my first experience with opening the jar of turmeric, I was just like, oh shit,” she says. “This is what it’s supposed to smell like.” Bag was also intrigued by Diaspora Co.’s transparency around its supply chain, which she felt was visible in other food arenas—chocolate, coffee—but less so in spice.

In her yearlong internship, Bag focused mostly on streamlining the brand’s internal structures and systems. She was heartened to find that what she saw on the outside was what was inside: a group of people working together toward a common good with empathy and inclusion.

Part of her responsibility was also building the company’s pitch deck, essential as Diaspora Co. was seeking capital. In contrast to previous companies where she’d worked, Bag says, was the attitude toward taking on new investors. “Before, it was, if there’s money on the table, let’s take it, let’s run with it. But here was a company saying, look: Money comes with strings, and you have to be eyes wide open about what those strings are going to make you do.”

In June 2022, Bag joined Diaspora Co. full time, and in July that same year, the brand closed a financing round of $2.1 million. Today, Bag is the company’s director of sales, tasked with juggling and maintaining the tension between brand identity and profit, between slowing down and moving forward.

Over the coming months, Bag says, priorities include solidifying production in India, redoing packaging to be able to sell at a price point that makes sense for grocery stores, and thinking about international expansion. Her other goals are twofold: On the farmer’s side, she wants to build earned generational wealth and compensate people for their work, their knowledge, and land stewardship in a way that much of the spice trade hasn’t. On the consumer side, she wants to change the way people consider spices. “I don’t want people to think, ‘This is a sprinkle of dust I put onto something,’ but rather, ‘This is a product that’s come from something living, and there’s real thought, care, and value around it,’” she says.

Wynne McAuley, Diaspora Co.’s director of operations since January 2021, agrees. “It’s exciting that we’re taking something that people think of as the thing on a shelf that lasts forever and educating them that it’s the result of a harvest, that it comes from a plant, and that it’s cyclical,” she says.

A large part of McAuley’s job is dealing with the very seasonality of it all—the freshness, the optimal timing of shipments. It’s asking questions: Could we have saved money in new specific ways? Could it have gone faster, could have been more efficient? Could we have planned for it better? Could we forecast better? Could we not sell out?

It’s not about just being consistent for the consumer and having products in stock, McAuley tells me—it actually all comes back to the farmers and being careful and consistent about what Diaspora Co. is asking for each year. Part of its core mission to be a dependable partner to their farmers.

As the company grows and garners more attention, McAuley says they themselves are also thinking critically about their carbon footprint. What does it mean that the company ships items in jars? What about the cardboard boxes?

“I think we’re all asking ourselves these questions and trying to figure out how to make this company better for the world in that way, too,” she says.

And yes, both McAuley and Bag say, growth will continue. Change is inevitable. But one thing that is never up for discussion is paying farmers less because of price pressure or investor pressure. That is a line in the sand.

Sourcing manager Kumud Dadlani (left) in a field with red flowers

Sourcing manager Kumud Dadlani (left) out in the field. In addition to its spices, Diaspora Co. sells sun-dried rose petals from Tamil Nadu and hibiscus from the state of Manipur.

Photo by Hashim Badani

Seven thousand, five hundred, and eighty-two miles from the Bay Area in Tons Valley, Uttarakhand, high in the Indian Himalayas, Kumud Dadlani is deep in her role as Diaspora Co.’s sourcing manager, which, to hear her tell it, sounds like 12 jobs in one. She works closely with the company’s farm partners to solve agricultural issues. She ensures U.S. and India food safety protocols are met. She develops new Diaspora Co. partnerships and spices. “The idea is always for me to be a bridge between communities,” she says.

Born in Taiwan, Dadlani lived with her family in Malaysia and Hong Kong before spending most of her childhood in Mumbai. Still, moving around so much showed her something—how big a role food played, culturally, socially, economically.

After receiving her master’s in food studies from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, Dadlani returned to India to work: as a facilitator for Slow Food, the international nonprofit; as a provenance manager for an Indian hospitality company; as a new product development specialist for Goa Brewing Company. Throughout, she has worked as a freelance writer and volunteer farmer, contributing what she can (and how she can) to better India’s food systems. In January 2022, she began working at Diaspora Co.

At the end of the day, it needs to make sense for the farmer, because they are the main actor in this entire process.
Kumud Dadlani

Diaspora Co.’s spices are all harvested organically, but Dadlani is quick to remind me that sustainability looks different to one person than another. The biggest part of her job, she says, might not look on paper like much at all, but it is key to Diaspora Co.’s success—listening, visiting, learning. “Not everybody’s history, context, and background is the same,” Dadlani says. “So taking the time either from the farmer’s side or Diaspora Co.’s side to understand what can be done for that area feels like sustainable farming. But at the end of the day, it needs to make sense for the farmer, because they are the main actor in this entire process.”

Still, buying from farmers, on its own, she tells me, is “only half the job.” In early 2022, Dadlani hired a social impact consultant to interview 80 of Diaspora Co.’s farmers to get a better sense of their needs. “We’ve all seen a company come in and say, We think we should do this, this, this,” Dadlani says. “I really wanted to get a sense of what we could do better. Where we could assist.”

Overwhelmingly, Dadlani found that farmers were interested in learning more about medical care, finances, and education. In November 2022, Diaspora launched its Farm Worker Fund, which finances social impact initiatives across partner farms. When we spoke in May, Dadlani had just finished a medical clinic focused on women’s health, with 50 women participating in sessions on everything from iron deficiency to the importance of routine pap smears. Her next camp, she tells me, will be around financial literacy, with meetings on interest rates, loans, savings, and growing money. “Really making sure farmers are financially independent—this is important,” she says.

Akash Parameswaran, a farmer of black pepper, outdoors

Parameswaran has been naturally farming black pepper for more than 35 years; his son, Akash, joined him in the business nearly a decade ago.

Courtesy of Diaspora Co.

The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is the largest forest reserve in India, spanning three states (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala) and encompassing more than 2,100 square miles in the southern horn of the country. It is home to more than 370 species of birds and 100 species of mammals, including India’s largest population of elephants, which number around 5,000. Amid all of these influences, large and small, man-made and otherwise, the Parameswaran family farm has existed in a valley called Thirunelly, tucked between the mountains of the Western Ghats, for 40 years.

For nine of those past years, Akash Parameswaran has been running the farm with his father, Parameswaran. Although Akash is now 31, for nearly the past decade, he has started his day the same way he did as a child: with a walk with his parents around the family farm, usually around 7 a.m. to check the status of the plants and discuss the day ahead.

The Parameswarans have been working with Diaspora Co. since 2019, after the company tasted nine different peppers from across the country and found that the Parameswarans’ won, hands down, no questions asked. Today, the company sells its white and Aranya black pepper. Crushed and showered onto steak or starring in cacio e pepe, the pepper packs a warming heat: “With notes of red wine and nutmeg, this black pepper is an epiphany,” wrote restaurant critic Bill Addison of the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a small but true joy to change my relationship with a common spice I’d so taken for granted.”

Getting just one jar of peppercorns is labor intensive. The berries are taken off the plant—and then the bunch—by hand, dried in the sun for about seven days, then tossed in a sieve to remove any lingering husks of the berries. At present, the Parameswarans produce the only single-estate, vine-ripened, hand-harvested pepper in the country. It is largely thanks to the Diaspora Co. support, Akash tells me, that they’re able to turn out such high quality and to treat spices as they actually are: as a specialty item and not just a commodity.

“We don’t need to depend on the high-yield varieties that others depend on to make the farm viable,” Akash says. “[Our] traditional varieties yield much less and are inconsistent, but the quality of the peppercorns is higher by a great margin.”

From supporting the farm with a storage facility and paying more for higher costs for labor, Akash says, Diaspora Co. has been not just fair but also transparent. With revenue from the partnership, for the past five years, the Parameswarans have been artificially irrigating their pepper plants to combat rising temperatures due to climate change.

“It would absolutely not be possible to run the farm the way we want it if not for Diaspora,” he says, noting that the encouragement he gets from the brand is also incredibly important—he saves every positive review the pepper gets as a screenshot on his phone. Then, he gets back to work.

In 1978, the writer and activist Audre Lorde published In the Erotic as Power, a collection of essays centered on the analysis of female power. It was an important text, not least because it countered the idea that to be strong, women need to suppress their consciousness, consideration, feelings. Instead, Lorde posited, it was only by tapping into these very resources that women could build relationships of true value. “The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need—the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment,” Lorde wrote.

This idea—of radical empathy, of radical honesty, of being unafraid to make mistakes and to be vulnerable—is one that that the Diaspora Co. team has centered in its mission; so much so that they used Lorde’s words when building their queer manifesto. They are words Javeri Kadri returns to often, and that, she tells me, are a lodestar for the months ahead as she considers what it means to truly build an equitable business at every turn, and what queer feminine leadership looks like. What accountability looks like—to farmers, to employees, to investors, to herself.

“When I started the company, one of the first things my dad said to me was, You left your first job ever within nine months. You’re going to get bored of this in five minutes. You need to learn how to commit to something,” she says. “And I think what I fired back at him was, I just don’t want to be bored. As long as I wake up every day with big questions to answer and it feels hard, I’ll stick with it. And that’s been true.”

Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at Afar focused on features and essays.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR