Boheco Is Changing The Narrative On Cannabis
At their office in the city’s labyrinthine Sun Mill compound, seven strapping young men, clad in classy hemp shirts, are readying themselves for our shoot. Just a few days earlier, I had chatted with them about their ingenious company, Bombay Hemp Company Pvt. Ltd., or Boheco, that is changing the notion about cannabis. Purposefully distancing itself from the plant’s most obvious usages, the company focuses instead on cannabis’ myriad industrial uses by harnessing the plant’s potential to transform the country’s agricultural sector.
At the outset, it is important to understand that hemp — a variant of the cannabis plant that comes power-packed with an array of industrial uses — is altogether different from narcotic cannabis. Although there are two strains of the cannabis plant, cannabis sativa and cannabis indica, Avnish Pandya, one of the seven co-founders, who looks after Boheco’s phytopharmaceuticals business clarifies, “Most regulatory frameworks, globally, define hemp as varieties of cannabis that contain less than 0.3 per cent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the component that gives the crop its narcotic properties. It can be any cannabis plant in the world, but if the THC is less than 0.3 per cent, it is considered hemp.”
Back To The Start
Having met at HR College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai, the seven founders — Jahan Pestonjamas, Yash Kotak, Chirag Tekchandaney, Delzaad Deolaliwala, Sumit Shah, Sanvar Oberoi and Pandya, all 27, except for Shah, who is 26 — built up a rapport over their college years and finally succumbed to their entrepreneurial calling towards the tail end of 2012 to set up Boheco. But why hemp, you ask? Because, as an infographic on their office wall points out, hemp isn’t the alternative — it’s the solution. Ask them how they came to that conclusion, Pestonjamas, the co-founder in charge of the nanomaterials business, points to one Australian town that sustains its economy almost entirely on hemp.
“During a family vacation to Australia in 2010, we travelled to a town called Margaret River, which, unlike other rural Australian towns, was economically prosperous. Out of curiosity, I approached the locals, who told me that they primarily focused on two areas — one, they grew grapes for wine to usher in revenue and two, they grew hemp for all other purposes. And by all, they meant everything from their salads and surfboards to their building materials! When contextualising it for India, what piqued our curiosity was the fact that 65 per cent of our country had cannabis growing naturally, which in turn meant that 70 to 80 per cent of people in agriculture were already exposed to this crop. It was simply a matter of how it could be harnessed and what model could be built around it,” states Pestonjamas.
Kotak, who looks after the company’s food business, deconstructs their mission statement, which spells out ‘Educate. Cultivate. Elevate.’. “Since this was an entirely new industry we were foraying into, we had to ask ourselves what the biggest challenges were. ‘Educate’ is the first and most important aspect, and was needed across the board — from educating government organisations and industry partners to farmers, bureaucrats and the consumer. Because cannabis has a kind of stigma attached to it, we had to get people to unlearn and relearn. Then came ‘cultivate’ — we wanted to cultivate industrial hemp on a commercial scale and ensure that enough farmers could benefit from it. And lastly came ‘elevate’ — elevate the standards of living of not just the farmers but also the consumer,” he details.
Since hemp is a no-wastage crop, with over 25,000 proven uses, Boheco sees it as the answer to all the basic needs of mankind, that is roti, kapda and makaan. Highlighting its versatility, Kotak explains, “You can use every single part of the crop. First, there’s the fibre. There are two kinds — the bast or outer fibre, which is the skin of the plant, and the hurd or inner fibre, which is the stem/stick. The outer fibre is used for textile purposes while the inner fibre is used to make a kind of building material called ‘hempcrete’. Then, the bud or flower is harnessed for medicinal purposes. And from the hemp seeds come the food products.”
While the ‘one crop for all’ pitch sounds great in theory, it’s tricky business trying to analyse each part of the plant in-depth to maximise value. Recognising this, the Boheco boys have cleverly divided their business into four distinct categories, which are textiles, food, phytopharmaceuticals and nanomaterials. Of these, textiles is their most lucrative property and nanomaterials, the most nascent.
Titled B Label & B Label Handlooms, Boheco’s hemp-based fashion line comprises everything from crisp 100 per cent hemp shirts and hemp-blend flowy dresses to structured stoles. What makes hemp impressive as a textile is that it has eight times more tensile strength than cotton, consumes 400 times less water and grows faster. However, the biggest distinction lies in its antimicrobial properties — it is hypoallergenic, and so bacteria are repelled by the fabric. Also, the fabric is porous, allowing the skin to breathe, and is 98 per cent UV-resistant, six per cent more than cotton.
Today, Boheco has 150 rural women artisans in Uttarakhand working to further their textiles operations — this is a remarkable jump from the 25 they started out with. Ensuring an equitable distribution of resources to both male and female wage earners, the boys established a system of work, with clear roles for both sexes. “To empower the farmers, we involve the men in the collection of hemp fibres from the wild while the women artisans weave them. Eventually, we started handing over the wages to the women because we realised that they were better with money,” states Tekchandaney, who handles the company’s textiles business.
What’s more, Boheco has partnered with the National Institute of Design’s (NID) Innovation Centre for Natural Fibres (ICNF) to research the use of hemp and other natural fibres for textiles purposes. Shah, who is in charge of Boheco’s operations and supply chain management, says, “We have both academia and industry participants; Boheco is one of the latter. We believe that the interaction between academia and industry will prove more fruitful because while academia does a lot of research, it doesn’t involve itself in practical application.”
Food For Thought
Currently, hemp isn’t recognised as a food source in India because of the challenges that come with the crop, the primary one involving the THC levels — because should the THC climb over 0.3 per cent, the plant takes on narcotic overtones. “The objective we’re trying to achieve with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is to educate the public about hemp and help it gain visibility and recognition as a food source. The public assumes that because it’s the cannabis plant, they will get high if they consume it. But one must understand that hemp seeds do not have any intoxicating elements; it’s only the bud and flower that do,” states Kotak.
Because cannabis grows in the wild, it is hard to obtain uniform outputs from the plant, which is why seed standardisation is particularly important. This process tackles the root of the problem, which lies in the seeds that are planted. “Standardising seeds means making them optimum for cultivation so that they give the desired outputs. For this, we grow hemp plants with low THC levels,” expands Deolaliwala, Boheco’s not-for-profit division head.
Last year, Boheco founded the Athulya Krishi Foundation to promote R&D in seed breeding and processing as well as to better the cause of farmers. Going into specifics, Oberoi, who handles the company’s finance and digital technology functions, expounds, “When we set up Boheco, we wanted to be an organisation that participated in social activity. We realised that we needed to build a seed bank and thought it would make more sense if we got a not-for-profit organisation to engage in such a specialised activity, which is why we set up the foundation. Training and teaching the farmers, building farmer cooperative groups and having their interests at heart are among the foundation’s core values.”
To tout hemp as a strong solution to certain ailments, last year, Boheco tied up with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to co-organise The India Cannabis Analysis, Research and Education (ICARE) Summit for a study pertaining to the medicinal uses of cannabis. Earlier this year, in a revolutionary move, the government issued the first-ever licence to grow and study the medicinal properties of cannabis to CSIR, who have decided to collaborate with Boheco for the same.
Detailing the particulars of this partnership, Pandya elaborates, “CSIR is the government’s technical arm. We realised that if we had to take up a sensitive topic, the biggest win would be to have the government saying the same things we are. Initially, we were always getting a lot of queries on medicinal cannabis from people suffering from varied ailments. Back then, we told them we weren’t in that space. A senior scientist from CSIR then established a programme together with us to initiate a policy discussion on what medical cannabis is, how a regulator looks at it and who the important ecosystem players will be.” To bolster their cause, both CSIR and Boheco have begun the process of cultivating standardised cannabis that is rich in cannabidiol (CBD) — the non-psychoactive medicinal component in the plant that will be researched for its neurological and palliative effects.
Thanks to their tireless efforts and exhaustive body of work, today, Boheco’s got eminent personalities such as Tathagata Satpathy carrying forward their message to their circles of influence, with Satpathy even wearing one of their hemp shirts on the floor of the Lok Sabha. For all their achievements and triumphs in the industry, Boheco has been awarded the INK, Ashoka and Rajeev Circle fellowships, in addition to being felicitated at Silicon Valley’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit in June 2016.
Probed as to why the Boheco model has succeeded in India, Pestonjamas explains, “Our focus has always been on science and research — the backbones of our business. This has created an atmosphere of trust between us and different stakeholders, where they understand that we are willing to spend two years to do something right rather than do it fast. Also, unlike in the US and Canada, where the ecosystem around hemp is shaped by a purely capitalistic approach, we in India are trying to use hemp as a tool to improve the lives of those on the bottom and bottom-middle rungs of the pyramid. This blend of social enterprise with capitalism is the catalytic form of capitalism, which catalyses people at the bottom of the pyramid to rise to the top.”
Kotak, however, can’t stress enough on the role that education has played. This gains particular relevance when Tekchandaney recounts a story of an elderly Gujarati lady who, after being given a seven-minute brief by him on the benefits of hemp seeds, turned around and said, ‘Par hemp toh non-veg hai, na?’ (But hemp is non-veg, isn’t it?). “So, all the while I was telling her about hemp, she thought I was talking about ham, the meat! That day, I realised that we have to understand the sensibilities of the Indian people. We are trying to make them slowly make it a part of their lifestyles by first integrating it into their clothes, then putting it in their food and then placing it on their skin,” narrates Tekchandaney.
Pandya sums up, “I think the biggest thing that has assisted us in our success has being saying it as it is. None of the facts that come out of Boheco are either manipulated or holding back one side of the truth. We have always taken a very academic approach, which means we have talked about both the pros and cons.”
In a span of just four years, Boheco has succeeded in reviving the conversation on this once-reviled plant that was typecast for over half a century for its narcotic properties. Not only are the founders attempting to completely change the narrative on cannabis but are also giving the sustainable movement in the country a thrust.
That said, the boys still have many miles to go before they sleep, and we’d be foolish to think otherwise. As they head off for a meeting soon after the shoot, I know exactly what they’ll be deliberating. “Next year, we wish to work with textiles on a larger scale by bringing the raw material to the bigger mills in India. Simultaneously, we will be working towards accelerating the development of our seeds. And, we’re hoping to launch Boheco Life, our edible hemp food line, soon too,” Shah signs off.
Blast From The Past
Historically, the benefits of cannabis have hardly been lost on civilisation. Just ask Pestonjamas, and he’ll give you an exhaustive spiel on how “the oldest mentioned references of hemp go back to the Ajanta and Ellora caves, where the inner walls of the Ellora caves were lined with hemp fibres and lime, or chuna”. He proceeds, “In Punjab, villagers would press the seed of the hemp plant to obtain the oil, which would be used to cure women’s stretch marks post pregnancy. In Uttarakhand, they would weave jackets, shawls and sweaters using hemp fibre, and use the seeds to make chutneys. This gave us a huge advantage over other parts of the world, where hemp is a newly-introduced crop in the ecosystem.”
Unfortunately, in the early ’60s, when the international convention on controlled substances was first signed in the early days of the US’ global war on drugs — there was a lot of political pressure (through threat of embargoes and sanctions) on India to put in place its own policies on governing the use of narcotic and psychotropic plants, which ultimately led to the birth of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS) in 1985. Says Pestonjamas, “Indians have always had a positive predisposition towards this plant, but after the passing of this act, under which hemp was unofficially clubbed into the large bracket of narcotic extracts, the attitude took a negative turn.”
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