WorthWhile

Picture this: you’ve recently graduated from college, you’re working your first job, and you’re saving up for the future. So far, I’m sure this is a relatable story for a lot of us. But here’s where Chirag Tekchandaney’s story starts to change course. After getting an admit for an MBA, he declined, and then decided to put in every bit of himself to build a sustainable venture.

It took savings and a passion for reimagining Indian agriculture sustainably through hemp when 7 folks together founded Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO). 

The word hemp is usually not associated with protein, a supercrop, medicine, or yarn, is it? Well, that’s where BOHECO comes in – to take the nine-thousand-year-old plant and use it to power everything from roti to kapda to makaan in a sustainable manner that benefits the entire value chain. 

Worthwhile chats with Chirag Tekchandaney, Co-founder and Director, Marketing & Human Resources at BOHECO to uncover the challenges of running a sustainable organization with the support of the Indian government in the 21st century. 

Edited excerpts:

Hemp is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet and in India, it can be harvested upto 2 times a year. And the best part of it is that across the north of India, it grows by the side of the road with very little effort and little water. The reason why we chose the cannabis plant to drive this sustainable revolution is because there are 4 parts of the plant that can be utilised  – the seed, the stalk, the flower, and even the outer fibre of the plant. It was a no brainer for us – here’s a crop that grows 12 feet tall in 90 – 120 days and is one of the strongest fibres known to mankind.

From 2013 to 2016, we worked with our government and partners to standardise the crop to reliably extract value from harvesting it. Although for the purpose of research, now, we have hemp growing through a structured process on government land across 3 states.

It started off in the summer of 2010, three of us were on a 13-hour flight back from New Jersey and thinking about our future. Back in 2010 with the boom in e-commerce and an aspiration of having something of our own, we were scouting for the right idea. With this thought in our minds, inspiration struck when my co-founder, Jahan Peston Jamas, was visiting family in Australia and was inspired by a thriving town called Margaret River. He saw fields and fields of a certain crop and was curious to know more, which is when he was introduced to the wonders of hemp. Hemp was ubiquitous to the lives of the people in the town – they used it in their food, for medicine, used the yarn for clothes, and the stalk for construction material.

This was his ‘Aha!’ moment and when he brought this idea to us, we spent a lot of time researching it. We were just about to graduate and we knew that this would require capital so we all took up placements from college in different industries and went on to build a base for the future. About a year and a half later, we knew that it was time and if anyone could bring this to scale in India, it had to be some of us.

In 2013, there was no ecosystem for the cultivation of hemp in India. We were willing to do everything to understand and study the law, policy, and regulatory landscape around the use of this plant. The first thing we ever sold as BOHECO was a coarse, hand-made hemp fabric through a nodal agency in Uttarakhand. But we knew that we wanted to form a link between the crop from these hills to urban market usage. 

From ground up, we laid down the foundations for the industry in India. There were plenty of preconceived notions around the plant and we were wary of the challenges that lay ahead. We didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot. With all the necessary approvals and support from the government, we began our expedition with BOHECO.

Our mission is to educate, cultivate, and elevate – to really explain the value chain to our consumers. Our first foray was into hemp textiles and from there we’ve expanded into BOHECO Life which helps us grow our offerings in the health, wellness, and nutrition space. Slowly this has become our main offering, especially with the global interest in CBD products and hemp-based nutrition. We’re now essentially building a hemp-based lifestyle through the direct-to-consumer route. 

Hemp being a vegan offering, it’s used by a lot of people especially for hemp seeds and hemp protein powder to enhance their nutrition since hemp seeds contain Omega 3, 6, and 9 in the required ratio. We also recently launched an immunity booster capsule, something that got a lot of traction during the lockdown with more people taking stock of their immunity levels. One of our star products is an arthritis pain management CBD oil that’s doing remarkably well, along with our hemp seed oil. We’ve got a phenomenal repeat purchase rate and we’re grateful for that but we’ve got big plans to make our products reach more people through tie-ups, smart marketing, and SEO. 

Something we’ve aimed to do right from the start is to build an ecosystem that survives even without the company. There are two sets of people that we’ve been very closely working with – the farmers and the artisans. When we started the company, we knew this had to be a social-business model; it had to have a positive impact economically, ecologically, and to society as a whole. In the initial phase of setting up the processes, we empowered a few women artisans to ensure that we don’t simply take the fibre and fly it across the country to be processed mechanically. So we built a set up in the hills where we provided employment opportunities for artisans creating scarves, stoles, bags, laptop sleeves all while making a fair wage. This has now grown to 120 to 140 artisans that we empower through this project.

We’ve started a not-for-profit subsidiary of Bombay Hemp Company called Athulya Krishi Foundation (AKF) in 2016 that’s our farmer engagement portal that focuses on promoting the interests of our farm partners. The idea is to formally register all our partners with AKF so that they are officially part of our supply chain. 

That’s the only plan. Currently, we are one of the most affordable sustainable clothing options in the country. We’re not making the kind of margins typically expected in retail but it ties back to our mission to  ‘educate, cultivate, elevate’. If we take something to the market that’s not affordable, it makes no sense. We look at the lifecycle value of a consumer, not just individual product margins. 

For us to be able to scale sustainability, we need to focus on the cultivation aspect. A great example here is how things have shifted in China. Initially, 80% of the natural fibre came from cotton and only 20% from other alternative sources like hemp. Now, more and more farmers are moving towards growing hemp. So much so that China supplies 75% of the world’s hemp fibre. The idea is to scale it up similarly, the day India can grow hemp at the same scale as we grow cotton, we’ll be finding hemp fabrics at affordable prices at every local market. 

When we began our journey, we were the only players in the space. Now, there are 30-40 other companies of varying scales that are working with hemp.

And what’s been really rewarding for us in this journey of scaling sustainability is that we’ve had some part to play in their journey too – whether it’s as a supplier or just someone that you can call when you’re thinking of setting up an enterprise in sustainable agriculture. 

One moment that really stands out is receiving the backing of Mr. Ratan Tata as an investor and an advisor in 2016. Just the sort of credibility that comes with a person of such repute being attached to your company name is immeasurable.

And we’ve taken that faith and tried to scale up our offerings exponentially. The moonshot here is that we are able to significantly grow the impact of agriculture on our GDP and build a model that can be replicated in other parts of the world. 

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