“We believe it’s time to prove, once and for all, that Ganja must never be used to drive us apart. But instead, to bring us together.” – Balram Vaswani, CEO Kaya Group
When you think of Jamaica, what comes to mind? Visions of vibrant music on sandy beaches? Beautifully colored cocktails and smiling faces… but besides the robust aroma of jerk spices filling the air, we can’t picture Jamaica without ‘Ganja.’ Although nearly synonymous in our minds, it would surprise some to know that cannabis has only been legal in Jamaica since 2015.
Enter Balram (Bali) Vaswani; a man with a vision, to not only open the first legal and medicinal dispensary in the Caribbean but to lift the stigma of what a cannabis consumption lounge could be; and in 2018 Kaya Herb House was born.
Bali had the revolutionary idea to not only introduce legal consumption to Jamaica but to bring with it a social environment where artists, locals, and tourists alike could come together to share music, food, and culture.
Fast-forwarding to 2021, Kaya has now expanded to three robust locations: Drax Hall, Falmouth, and Kingston. Each location, individual in its own right, features Jamaica’s world-renowned cuisine, thin-crust pizza, and juices at Kaya Cafe, on-premise dispensary, consumption lounges, Dab Bar, and live music. All of Kaya’s locations offer locally grown herbs and straight-from-the-farm extracts. Patients can bring their own medical licenses from their home country, or visit a doctor on the premises. Awarded 16 times for their plethora of strains and extracts, Kaya’s Flagship store offers tours of Kaya Farm which has a variety of over 75 different genetics being cultivated and processed.
Their holistic wellness-focused ecosystem was created to allow visitors to learn about the history of Ganja, see how it’s grown, and enjoy it in a social setting.
Kaya spreads knowledge and love for this ancient herb while bringing people together – the way Ganja is supposed to be enjoyed.
An interview with Bali Vaswani…
Jessica: Can you share with our community a little about yourself and your role in Kaya?
Bali: After graduating from Miami, I worked with UBS Paine Webber and Morgan Stanley, and then moved to Hong Kong for my role with AMG Asia and IconmediaLab. After moving back to Jamaica and working with the Marley family on Marley Coffee, I was asked to move to Colorado where I witnessed cannabis laws change from medical to recreational, and decided to make my first legal investment into 4 licenses in 2013. I took the time to lobby in Jamaica, and Kaya was awarded one of two licenses to begin cultivation in 2015 with the University of Technology. We were the first company to be given R&D, Cultivation, Processing, and Retail Herbhouse licenses in 2017, with the first legal sale on March 10, 2018, in the Caribbean. Since then I have led Kaya to maintain its leadership position as the #1 Cannabis Company in Jamaica.
Jessica: What is Kaya as a brand and as a business?
Bali: In terms of our brand, Kaya is an authentic lifestyle marijuana brand. Our aim was to make Jamaica the flagship of the global health and wellness tourism industry and become the new symbol of the island’s roots and lifestyle. By owning a Jamaican brand, not only do we represent something meaningful, but we are able to spread our seeds through gastronomy, music, tourism, culture, and anything else original from Jamaica. As a business, Kaya is more than just a cannabis brand. It has a role in Jamaican and cannabis history. Here, we’ll see the values and duties of a brand that aspires to be synonymous with a little piece of Jamaica in everything we do or create.
Jessica: How did Kaya begin?
Bali: Though conceptualized in 2015, in 2018 Kaya became the first medical cannabis brand from the Caribbean to open a retail medical marijuana dispensary/herb house for the selling and consumption of legal cannabis on-premise.
Jessica: What can you tell us about the Kaya Farm and the genetics that are cultivated and processed there?
Bali: Ideally situated in St. Ann, Jamaica and within walking distance from our flagship retail location, is Kaya Farms. The team at Kaya Farms has worked to develop its genetic pool with 70 stable genetics, composed of THC, and high CBD with less than 1% THC.
Jessica: How would you describe the culture of Kaya?
Bali: The culture of Kaya is one of relaxation and inclusivity, that is welcoming to our locals and international guests, and by the warm Jamaican engagement of our staff, as they service your medicinal needs. Everything about our brand is a reflection of our culture down to the Jamaican wood and done with the best possible quality.
Jessica: Let’s talk about the Kaya Herb House with Dab Bar & Consumption Lounge. What is a first-hand experience like?
Bali: A first-hand experience at Kaya is nothing short of euphoric! We have the largest selection of cannabis strains on the island of Jamaica. The variety is mirrored at our Dab Bar in the form of medicinal concentrates, which can be found at any of our locations and consumed on the premises, or taken to enjoy at home. Our consumption lounges are more than just a designated area for cannabis use; with music and great service, we created a comfortable and homey social environment.
Jessica: Let’s talk about the Kaya Pizza & Cafe. How is this unique in Jamaica, and what is your favorite dish?
Bali: In Jamaica thin crust pizza is not readily available, so we decided to master it with a social environment and the ability to make it in just 90 seconds at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, which is very convenient when you have the munchies. In Jamaica, there is a saying: ‘soon come’, which generally means a longer wait time. We focused on speed and customer service so that our patrons could move from one place to another, seamlessly, to enjoy the Kaya experience.
For me, I love a good Margarita Pizza with Arugula.
Jessica: Can you tell us how music plays a role in Kaya’s brand and culture?
Bali: When you picture the musical culture of Jamaica, it becomes apparent just how long and hard the Rasta greats like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jacob Miller, the late recent passing of Lee Scratch Perry have fought for cannabis, and just how much they have achieved.
Marijuana is built into the music, and the music is built into the culture of our daily lives in Jamaica, so it’s only appropriate that music is a prominent part of each of our stores.
Each of Kaya’s locations can accommodate up to a thousand people.
From the time we opened our flagship location in Kingston on March 10, 2018, we had Ky-mani Marley, Toots and the Maytals, Keznambi, and Jah9. In Falmouth, we had Beenie Man, and only two weeks before the pandemic began, we had Popcaan doing a Vintage show featuring the likes of Jesse Royal and Chronixx; some of the biggest names in Jamaica.
Jessica: How did Covid affect Kaya and its patrons?
Bali: Just like any other business, we had to completely adapt. We live in a society where tourism is the main driver of the business where you’re having a drop-off of 90% of tourism on the island. We had to learn to adapt to everything; wearing masks, new protocols, increased sanitization, even downsizing to 10 people then back up to 50 people, and back down to 10 people again. The change was everywhere, and we never knew what the next day would bring. We began to stay open from Monday – Sunday during the Pandemic just to make up the mandatory lockdowns. It was hard, but we did what had to be done to keep the spirits of our customers high. We wanted to remain a place people knew they could go, even if just for a few minutes where it felt like everything was going to be okay. We worked to provide positive feelings and energy so they could come for take-out pizza or a pre-roll and feel a bit of normalcy. It was important for us to provide a home-away-from-home, because we know during this pandemic, being locked up in solitude in an apartment is a very serious thing.
Jessica: Square Grouper Bar has hosted some pretty amazing musical guests. Can you share some of those experiences, and who really sticks out in your mind?
Bali: For me, I think one that puts the most pressure but has been dear to my heart, somebody that when living in London and you hear Reggae music every Sunday and you listen to David Rodigan as a kid growing up and you’re still doing it ‘till today. We hosted ‘DubWise’ and we did 3 events across Jamaica by doing two shows of Rodigan from London in Ochi (Ocho Rios) and Kingston and it was just the experience of having approximately 1800 people in the in and outside our location and the energy that was just a full 10 for me.
Jessica: What kind of effect do you think Kaya had on the culture of cannabis in Jamaica?
Bali: As much as the word ‘Kaya’ can be found in many different languages, our vision was and still is to explore the multiple connections, chance or otherwise, between cultures. Therefore, I believe that Kaya has had a very positive impact on the culture of cannabis perception and its use both here and especially regionally, and has contributed in part to attract new groups of people to our island’s shores.
Jessica: How would you describe the culture of Jamaica to those in the U.S. who have never been?
Bali: Jamaica is quite simply a very cool place. We have the beach and sand, waterfalls all over the island, and the Blue Mountains that go up four and a half thousand feet where you’ll find colder weather. You can slip across to the Black Sands or cruise on a diesel scooter into Negril for a hippier vibe where you won’t find so much as a red light or stop sign.
And although the pandemic has been hard, it’s nice to know we still have these amazing natural resources to enjoy. Jamaica has a little bit of everything for everyone, and within 3 hours you can change your entire experience.
Rooted in 3 Core Values…
WISDOM: It is our duty to spread knowledge about ganja. Every herb has a story and only by sharing these stories are we able to create meaningful experiences.
PRIDE: As proud Jamaicans, we empower local communities and always make an effort to only use Jamaican raw materials, workforce, and any kind of technology.
RESPECT: Respect drives every decision we make – from our relationships with our employees to how we treat our community, our herbs, our brand, our products, and Nature.
What’s not to love? Take me to Jamaica!