Bombay Hemp Company: using industrial hemp for food, clothing and shelter

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Sanwar Oberoi and five of his friends from the same batch from the commerce stream of HR College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai always talked about Indian agriculture, and the possibilities it held. They wanted to do something in the field, but were not sure what.  Serendipitously, one of Sanwar’s friends came across hemp (cannabis) in Australia, an Aunt of his, who was suffering from stage three cancer was using hemp oil to alleviate her pain. There has been quite a few research studies that have been investigating how the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in hemp, that may not cure cancer but can help in alleviating the suffering of cancer.

Exploring hemp’s potential:

Sanvar and his friends investigated hemp more and found that there were mainly  two types. One was cannabis sativa (contains little or none of the psychotropic THC)  and the other was cannabis indica (used as a recreational drug). Industrial hemp, is a specific strain of  cannabis sativa, and is generally considered a super crop because of the variety of its uses. It is legally grown in many countries globally and is helps cater to a multi billion dollar industry. Industrial hemp is used in making everything from jeans, paper, fuel, detergent, renewing soil and food. Countries like China, Canada and the US have drafted policies to grow the industry.

They searched online to check whether it was grown in India and how much land was under cultivation. But they couldn’t find a lot of information. The question that came their minds was why wasn’t anybody doing this. In 1985, the Indian Government passed  the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act and the Prevention of Illicit Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, this included the ban on cannabis. The ban, unfortunately deemed anything that had THC in it, as cannabis. Therefore growing industrial hemp was also banned. Farmers in a few states grew it, but it was mostly, under the hood.

Unfortunately Sanvar and his college mates were not in a position to fight the government and change the policy. While their curiosity had been piqued, their knowledge on industrial hemp was still limited, in short, there was a lot of homework to be done before they could seriously consider doing something in the area. So they went about getting regular jobs after graduation, but used the weekends to understand more about industrial hemp. “We would go and meet farmers around Delhi and Maharashtra and discussed the feasibility of changing the law. We also did a lot of research going back to 1854, regarding the cotton industry in Ahmedabad, the jute industry in West Bengal and hemp in north india,” remarks Sanvar. After close to a year of research they had enough information to realize that getting into hemp would be a viable business.

Birth of BOHECO:

Slowly Sanvar and his friends began to quit their jobs around November 2012 and launched The Bombay Hemp Company or Boheco as its known.

“Young professionals need to look agriculture as a career, unfortunately, we don’t have a culture of agriculture companies, because of this modern practices are not employed and different avenues not looked at.  Agriculture needs to reform like IT services,” says Sanvar.

BOHECO is a social enterprise that has three main aspects: research, influencing policy and commercializing hemp. Through research they are trying to understand what uses hemp can be put to, and since globally hemp can be used in an estimated 25,000 ways, they may not have issues finding new uses. They have already started communicating with the government to develop a new policy that takes into account the industrial uses of hemp and how that can benefit farmers and the economy alike.

On the commercial side they are working with farmers (mainly in North India) to help them understand the different uses for hemp and work with them on procuring raw materials.

Food, clothing and shelter:

BOHECO, through its innovation labs is finding ways to convert the hemp into items of food , clothing  and shelter.

Hempcrete, is a bio-composite that is made of the inner woody core of the hemp plant and mixed with a lime-based binder is being considered for low-cost affordable government housing.

The food part consisting of oil, seeds and proteins are still undergoing testing. While they are already getting calls from cancer patients, it will take a year for it to commercially produced. BOHECO sells raw fibre, yarn, finished fabric and also different blends of hemp.

“Growing hemp can get you Rs 9 lakh return on an acre. The good thing is that it can grow anywhere, even in the saline belt. In 2013, we started talking with the Government and told them they are sitting on gold. We are hopeful that India national hemp policy will be out soon,” adds Sanvar.

BOHECO, is striving to be a socially conscious company, and to that end want the farmers to equally benefit from their efforts. Unlike the sugar industry, where farmers just supply the raw material and do not see profits from production, Sanvar and his team are very clear that they want the farmers to own the processing units, while they provide them technical advice.

“ This year once the Government gives the green signal, we will go all out,” remarks Sanvar.

Learn more about BOHECO here.

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Nelson Vinod Moses

Nelson Vinod Moses

Journalist with a keen interest in all things social entrepreneurship.