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Why People Are Boycotting One of the UK's Biggest Caribbean Food Brands

Over the past two years, videos and blog posts have surfaced online that call on Britain's Caribbean community to avoid buying Tropical Sun products.

by Lucy Arup; illustrated by Marta Parszeniew
01 July 2019, 11:00am

A man walks the aisles of a food distribution warehouse in Croydon, south London. He calls out the names of the products he sees stacked on the shelves: ackee, callaloo, Jamaican jerk seasoning. The packaging bears the recognisable yellow and green logo of Tropical Sun, the world food brand that specialises in Caribbean dried goods.

The man becomes agitated. “They are trying to take over everything,” he says. “I want to show you guys something real quick. Look at this.” He stands in front of a shelf stacked with cans of Tropical Sun chicken luncheon meat. “Guys, what we need to do is boycott this brand, OK? Because they are squeezing out our famous brands. Tropical Sun, which has nothing to do with us, is taking over.”

This scene is from a video uploaded to YouTube in 2017, titled “Boycott tropical sun.” It’s far from the only online plea for Britain’s Caribbean community to avoid Tropical Sun products. Another YouTube video, uploaded at around the same time, shows a man picking up a tin of Tropical Sun processed cheese. “People, please don’t support this brand,” he says. “Don’t support it because it’s not from the community at all.” Also in 2017, Lee Jasper, former advisor to Ken Livingstone, tweeted that the company had been “ripping off black communities for years” and sparked a thread of questions on the number of black people it employs in senior positions. Tropical Sun replied to Jasper’s tweet saying, “Our team spans numerous countries and is made up of people from many diverse backgrounds inc those with African and Caribbean heritage.”

But distrust of Tropical Sun doesn’t seem to have dimmed. A comment on a recent post from Tropical Sun’s official Instagram account reads: “Boycott Tropical Sun, non-Caribbean taking Caribbean people for [a] joke!!!”

For the people behind these online videos and posts, Tropical Sun holds an unfair monopoly over the UK’s Caribbean food market, leaving consumers with limited choice. But perhaps worse than that, the company is not black-owned. Ingredients that are so tightly linked to Caribbean identity – curry goat seasoning, hot pepper sauce, bun and cheese – and whose very packaging bears the same colours as the Jamaican flag, are being sold by someone from outside the community.

“I understand Tropical Sun is owned by an Asian family,” a staff member at a London Caribbean restaurant, who did not wish to be named, tells me. “Why would we want to support them when we have our own products? They are jumping on our bandwagon and making money out of us.”

The Tropical Sun story begins in the 1950s, when Tulsidas Wadhwani migrated to the UK from India. In 1964, he founded a food import business that catered to the city’s growing Caribbean community. Operating from a small shop in north London, Wanis Cash and Carry sold ackee, fufu flour and other goods that at the time were not stocked by regular grocers.

The business evolved into Wanis International Foods, a world food distributor that today operates from a large site in east London. In 1996, the company launched Tropical Sun, its own a range of Caribbean products to be sold alongside the goods it imported. Speaking to Grocery Trader in 2006, Wanis International Foods managing director Sanjay Wadhwani said that the range was “designed to deliver ingredients that can be used in a wide range of exotic dishes, not just Afro-Caribbean.” However he also described Wanis International Foods as the “largest Afro-Caribbean supplier in the UK,” with turnover expected to exceed £30 million that year.

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Inside the Wanis International Foods warehouse in east London. Photo courtesy Wanis International Foods.

Despite the link between Wanis International Foods and Tropical Sun – and Intellectual Property Office information that lists the food distributor as the owner of the brand – when I speak to Tropical Sun brand manager Sinan Jefferies, he tells me that Wanis does not own Tropical Sun. “Wanis is the distributor for Tropical Sun products in the UK and the two have stakeholders in common,” he says. “The most accurate description of the relationship I can give is that Wanis is Tropical Sun’s forebearer. Without Wanis and its extensive relationships with the UK’s independent shopkeepers, there would have been no Tropical Sun. That much is certain.”

The connection – or lack thereof – between Wanis International Foods and Tropical Sun is important. Almost all of the online videos and posts calling for a boycott of Tropical Sun products mention Wanis International Foods, which is still owned and operated by the Wadhwani family, as the company behind the brand. Some of the Caribbean food vendors I spoke to also told me that staff at the Wanis warehouse push sales of Tropical Sun products over others.

Warren Richards, who owns a Caribbean cafe in east London, became aware of the Tropical Sun boycott from messages that circulated on WhatsApp. He says that he visited the Wanis warehouse to buy chicken stock, and was encouraged by staff to purchase a Tropical Sun product over other brands. “Now I realise why,” he says.

Anthony Ried, who owns nearby Caribbean takeaway Belly’s Taste of Jamaica, also had trouble buying non-Tropical Sun products from Wanis. Ried says that he used to order Bigga Fruit Punch, a soft drink manufactured in Jamaica, from Wanis. Then one day, the soft drink became unavailable.

“When I tried to get the Biggas from them [Wanis], they said they don’t do them anymore and they can’t explain to you why. Other Caribbean shops complain about the same thing,” Ried tells me. “They stop selling you the product, they put their own label on it. They give you no explanation, so basically, you have to believe what you hear.” Ried says he now orders Bigga Fruit Punch from another distributor.

When I ask Jefferies about Tropical Sun products being promoted at the expense of others at the Wanis warehouse, he says that the brand “probably is pushed a little harder.”

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Photo via Facebook/Tropical Sun.

“We have an added incentive to push Tropical Sun over other products because there is a greater margin in it,” he explains. “Yes, if Wanis sells a Tropical Sun product, Tropical Sun is making money and Wanis is making money, because they have a shared heritage that’s preferable to just one or just the other.”

Another accusation directed at Tropical Sun by online commentators, and many of the Caribbean food business owners I spoke to, is that the company projects an image that is not an accurate reflection of its workforce. Its website and social media accounts almost exclusively feature images of black people, many of whom wear Tropical Sun aprons, despite the company still being run by the South Asian Wadhwani family.

“You see pictures of black people. You’ve got the people who are working it but you haven’t got the people who earn the money from it,” says Richards. “It’s not so much the product, but it’s the principle of it, for me. I wouldn’t use their product as such or have it on show.”

Tropical Sun is an equal opportunity employer, and Jefferies tells me that both its marketing manager and community director, as well as a number of sales and accounts team members, are of Caribbean and African heritage. “As a world foods brand with a Caribbean and African leaning, we certainly benefit from employing staff from those backgrounds,” he adds. While he is aware of concerns such as those raised by Richards, he does not see them as reflective of Tropical Sun’s large customer base.

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A Tropical Sun promotional image. Photo via Tropical Sun/Facebook.

“The central characteristic of what’s been popping up online reflects a fairly small portion of the Jamaican community based in the UK, who seem to feel that Tropical Sun should not be in the Jamaican foods business by virtue of having British Indian owners,” Jefferies says. “That’s seemingly what it boils down to.”

Tropical Sun may see the calls for a boycott as coming from an isolated group, but last year, this distrust proved so persistent that the brand organised an event for black community leaders at the Afro-Caribbean Millennium Centre in Birmingham. Senior Tropical Sun board members gave talks aimed at debunking the online rumours and fostering better relations with the Caribbean community. The brand also used the event to showcase the Jamaican factory where Tropical Sun produces its ackee and callaloo.

Jefferies says that the event was “really in response to this backlash,” referring to the online posts and videos. “One of the reasons this happened is that we weren’t properly communicating with our customers,” he continues. “This was a way of reaching out to the community and gathering feedback and giving our brand history to community leaders so that they can better understand where we were coming from.”

One of the organisations present, the United Midlands Black Organisation, sent chairman Glenford Gordon to visit the Central Village factory and see the operation for himself. Despite initial skepticism, Gordon tells me that he found that the Tropical Sun factory to be well run and providing jobs for local people. “There are over 100 people who work at this factory and they are all Jamaicans, all black, and the majority, they say, live within walking distance of the factory,” he says. “I saw this with my own eyes.”

"It’s not surprising that there are issues. Money is always a big part of it.” Dr Kehinde Andrews

The distrust of companies that are not black-owned but profit from a majority-black customer base is not limited to food. Black hair shops operated by South Asian businessmen face similar criticism, forming a microcosm of broader historical tensions between black and South Asian communities in the UK. Dr Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, thinks that this tension may stem from an economic disparity between the two groups.

“Resources in inner-city areas are scarce and they tend to be dominated by black and Asian people,” he tells me. “So, you tend to find that there’s competition because they are living with less resources, close together – it’s not surprising that there are issues. Money is always a big part of it.”

Jefferies, however, is keen to note the unity between black and South Asian communities that has been promoted by Tropical Sun, not just in its hiring policies, but through a shared history of post-War migration to Britain.

“It was very much demand-driven and that’s demand specifically from the African and Caribbean communities,” he says. “None of this was a problem for the best part of 19 to 20 years.” Indeed the advent of social media and online discussion boards have allowed concerns about Tropical Sun to grow from whispers to an unignorable force. Videos and posts criticising the brand – as well as negative press, such as the false one-star food hygiene rating that hit the company last year – can spread in moments.

Criticism of Tropical Sun may have gained strength online in recent years, but it’s having real world impact. Every Caribbean food shop owner or staff member I spoke to was aware of the distrust of Tropical Sun, and had something to say about the brand.

Whatever your opinion, in today’s increasingly polarised political climate, food should be the one area where we can all find unity. “We need to come together,” says Andrews. “Pool our resources, build alternatives and build more support.”