High on hemp: A start-up hopes Indian farmers will get hooked on to this plant

Did you know that the panels of one of the earliest cars manufactured by Henry Ford was made from the hemp plant? And that this plant was a major source of the paper and parchment process, over 2,000 years ago? That's much before the Chinese created what we now know as standard paper making.

Though industrial hemp (cannabis sativa) is discounted because it is often confused with its more notorious cousin, the marijuana (cannabis indica) plant (they are both variants of the plant cannabis), it has numerous uses in industries such as food, manufacturing and apparel that make it an extremely valuable and versatile plant. That's why the folks at the Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO) thought it would be the ideal plant to help them bring about an Indian agricultural revolution.

Started by seven first-generation entrepreneurs, BOHECO hopes to use industrial hemp as a means to cultivate and create innovative products, financially empower local farmers and radically change agriculture in India.

The idea was born out of a discussion the group, made up of Avnish Pandya (23), Sumit Shah (22), Sanvar Oberoi (23), Jahan Peston Jamas (24), Yash Kotak (23), Delzaad Deolaliwala (23) and Chirag Tekchandaney (23), had during their days at HR College, Mumbai.

While talking about the need for innovative solutions to address the problems that plague the Indian agricultural sector Jamas, an Australian national, brought up the Australian hemp ecosystem after his encounters with local hemp fields and stores. He thought with the multiple uses it has, the plant would shake up the Indian agricultural sector.

According to the National Fibre Policy 2011 draft report, the textile ministry of India has valued the hemp textile industry at Rs 24 crore, said Kotak, BOHECO's chief marketing officer.

"We realised that in a service- and technology-driven new age in India, the fundamental backbone of country - agriculture - was being neglected by the urban youth," Kotak said. Add to that the fact that agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 60 percent of India's population, and contributed just under 14 percent in 2012-13, it quickly became apparent to the group that agricultural reform, innovation and value building is what India needs to sustain its growth.

But an almost absent hemp industry and the lack of legal framework meant BOHECO had to start from the scratch. In an attempt to develop expertise, skills and awareness about hemp, the company created 'The BOHECO Model'.

The business model focuses on connecting lab, farm, machine and market, with the aim of creating a network that benefits farmers and industry. The team works with various public and private organisations, from research institutes and government bodies to farmers and NGOs.

"Our aim is to fulfill the need for, and facilitate a unified, organised effort to create an ecosystem for various stakeholders to collaborate, deliberate, co-create and develop," Kotak explained.

After getting the necessary approvals from various state and central authorities and putting in their own money, the group went about looking for grants and research-based funds to aid in the innovation and industrial application of natural fibres.

BOHECO decided to focus on three life essentials: food, in the form of hemp seeds, oil and proteins; clothing and shelter, with the company's bio-crete building material. "Our food products are currently undergoing testing with the FDA and FSSAI and the building materials are being tested by several civil engineering universities in India before they can be sold," Kotak said. Commercial sales of fabrics have been taking place over the past year and large-scale orders will be accepted within the next 4-6 months.

While BOHECO says it is working with central and state authorities to facilitate commercial cultivation of hemp, not everyone is as gung-ho about the idea. Mark Kahn, founding partner of Omnivore Partners, a venture fund focused on early stage agriculture and food technology companies, expressed doubts over the legality of product. "I wouldn't plant anything until the law is changed," he said, adding that it is risky to do business in a grey legal zone in India.

Though industrial hemp substantially differs from marijuana in physical and psychotropic properties, there has been no legal distinction, in India, between the two.Typically, hemp contains zero to 0.3 percent THC (tetrahydrocannabinol - an intoxicating substance), while marijuana, grown for recreational use, can contain THC anywhere from 5 percent to over 20 percent.

Under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act of India, 'cannabis' has been defined synonymously with 'hemp' and both terms are used as examples of 'narcotic drugs.' The Act also prohibits the cultivation of the cannabis plant unless certain conditions .

Rohit Sharma, executive director, Indian Industrial Hemp Association, cautioned that companies dealing with hemp should take it slow since, in his opinion, it would take at least three years for the sector to see any solid developments. Another thing to keep in mind, he said, is marketing. "I think marketing is key to sustain agri-businesses," he said. "You have to figure out how to convince farmers to change to hemp and guarantee support."

His thoughts were echoed by Kahn who said that though there is unlimited growth potential in the agri-business segment, it is contingent on several factors like building a network of farmers and offering a complete suite of services that will "show the farmer that you'll be there for them."

While India might frown on industrial hemp, other countries have woken up to the potential of the plant, allowing controlled cultivation. Nations like Australia, Canada, Germany and several Eastern European countries are providers of hemp variants, including fibres that find their way in the clothes and accessories of high fashion houses like Calvin Klein and Versace.

In India, however, promoting hemp production remains an uphill struggle. In any case, BOHECO isn't restricting itself to just hemp. The company has also worked to promote and work with other indigenous natural fibres like kenaf and Himalayan Nettle. The company routinely holds talks at various fashion and educational institutes about the indigenous natural fibres which exist in India.

"May be agriculture isn't one of the 'sexiest', top-of-your-mind industries to enter or the easiest one," Kotak said, "but the higher the magnitude of problems existing in an industry, a unit or even a country, the greater the scope for improvement and innovation."

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.

Updated Date: Apr 18, 2014 10:15:56 IST