I thought Natco were like all the other Indian brands selling lentils and chick peas to my mum and aunties. Then I heard about an initiative called “Curry for Change” designed to raise money for Find Your Feet, a charity working in India. You put on a supper club and ask for contributions from your guests and whatever you send in is matched, pound for pound by Natco, to help a number of charitable causes they support. This creates a direct and positive impact at a grassroots level to improving people’s lives and futures.
But Natco has not just been supporting the Curry for Change initiative. Since 2012, they have been donating all their profits to a charity called the Human Capability Foundation.
I met with Luke and Natasha, the brother and sister team who inherited Natco from their grandfather and asked them about how they came to be two of the most inspiring businesspeople I’ve met.
L: Our grandfather started with a market stall in Sierra Leone selling cold drinks, Guinness and wine with funny names like ‘007’. He then developed a retail business in West Africa in the ‘40s and ‘50s. He came to the UK in ‘61 and started Natco in East London to bring the foods and spices familiar to the growing South Asian population there. We were one of the first to enter this market.
Our grandfather had started a lot of charitable activities during his lifetime - with hospitals and schools in Madhya Pradesh, as well as a hospital in Sierra Leone. Later, on becoming ill with lung cancer, he created a charitable trust to provide ongoing support to the charities he’d set up.
Natasha and I created the Human Capability Foundation (HCF) in 2011, in order to go beyond the usual philanthropy by helping people create genuine and long-lasting change, rather than short-term solutions.
When I became MD of Natco in 2012, we started donating all our profits to the Foundation.
N: We decided to focus on India because we’re familiar with it, having gone there since we were children. But also because there is a huge population and we can therefore make a big impact on a global scale. Our primary focus is on women's empowerment (especially for those facing further discrimination based on their socioeconomic class, caste, occupation, or religion), gender equality, and LGBT rights. We want to enable long-lasting structural changes which shift power structures to create a more equal and just society. With LGBT rights there’s a way to challenge the patriarchy, the source of so much suffering for men and women. We educated ourselves on where we could help most.
Natasha has an MA in South Asian Studies from SOAS, School of Oriental and African Studies, and Luke did a Masters in Development Studies at Oxford in order to think about alternatives to the standard models of aid.
L: We made a trip for 3 or 4 weeks and met with organisations in Mumbai, Calcutta and Delhi. We met with feminist organisations that have been around since the ‘80s forming the women’s movement in India and spearheading so many causes.
What are some of the organisations you support?
N: We don't try to just support causes which can generate Instagram-friendly photos. The HCF works with NGOs in India who support and are often run by marginalised people in their fight to demand their rights from the state and from society as a whole.
We fund about 30 different organisations. For example, Kislay, a Delhi-based NGO, mobilises women living in slums across Delhi to become leaders and spokespeople for their communities.
The NGO seeks to empower the women through education and awareness generation programs to build community mobilisation. They lobby their local government on issues such as access to water, sanitation, bathrooms, electricity, primary healthcare facilities and equal wages for women. We fund Sappho for Equality, an LBT rights organisation. It was constructed upon a support group for LBT people which was formed in the 1990s. This was at a time in India when they had little or no contact with each other, and many people had no idea whether there were others like them who did not fit into heteronormative society. They are pretty ground-breaking.
Another project we support is Parcham, a women’s football collective in Maharashtra. They came together to train disadvantaged girls to play football. They’ve found that the girls' confidence and sense of self has increased immensely and that sport has an extremely empowering potential for girls who are continuously told by society to be quiet and docile.
N: We started with LGBT and feminist organisations and we widen our scope each year, always with a gender angle. For example, mental health where women have been abandoned at mental health hospitals for years. The intersections where women are marginalised are where we tend to focus. Also disability and sexuality. The idea that disabled people may have sexual desires is often overlooked, or that they may be LGBT+.
L: We noticed that over the last 25 years, most LGBT funding has come from international organisations to prevent the spread of HIV. So most funding went to men’s and trans groups. The funding wasn’t going to women’s charities. We’ve tried to focus on the gaps where funding isn’t reaching people, especially women and specifically lesbian women.
We visited a slum in Delhi and met people that have left rural areas and have come from desperate situations in their village, they are living in fear. The way they control the fear is to control young women, which is why parents can be so controlling of their daughters. It’s stricter than when they were in the village.
N: Sometimes there are no women anywhere on the streets – a complete lack of visibility. So Parcham, the football project, was a huge deal because it reclaimed public space for women and girls.
N: Our latest strand is labour rights. There’s a huge amount of internal migration in India, where people leave rural areas and live in city slums in order to find work. They often lose entitlements to basic rations they were entitled to in the state they lived in once they’ve moved. If they can’t read or write, they can’t understand their employment contracts. There’s a lot of wage theft, especially for women that end up providing a lot of unpaid labour.
We work with charities that help them with contracts and getting records down and educating them on labour laws and their rights.
L: India has a lot of fairly progressive laws that have really weak implementation. There are opportunities for rights-based NGOs to hold the Government to account, to help people get the legal rights they’re entitled to.
Do you know other companies that operate like you?
N: None that give such a large a proportion of the profits of their businesses. We sometimes find they give as much as 10%.
L: But we give 100% of profits.
N: We want our consumers to learn about the positive work we do, because we want them to feel involved and to know that they’re contributing to it. We believe that people are motivated to make purchasing decisions based on a company's ethical footprint.
There is no question that with the HCF, Natco have created an organisation that creates a vast and positive impact to the daily lives of those that need it most in India. Luke and Natasha are doing the work. All we have to do is pick up a Natco product over another brand, knowing that a tiny change in our buying habits is changing people’s lives in a way beyond our imaginations.
Check out HCF at https://www.humancapabilityfoundation.com/ to see the initiatives they support.