Posed against the strong backdrop of sustainability, alternate fabrics, consumer awareness and conscious fashion, Hemp has been a buzzword in the Indian fashion industry of late, but very few efforts have been made to make this resource a mainstream business avenue. Hemp is the lesser known version of the controversial marijuana, or ganja and has been looked at as a means of intoxication, which further explains why the industry hasn’t gained much traction in the country. Yet, one start-up has been creating ripples in this arena since its inception in 2013, as they decided to talk about the industrial use of hemp backed by efficient research rather than the commonly talked about drug busts and abuse that surround cannabis.
BOHECO, the clever name derived from shortening Bombay Hemp Company, is the brainchild of seven like-minded, highly resourceful individuals and graduates of Mumbai’s H R College of Commerce and Economics – Avnish Pandya; Chirag Tekchandaney; Delzaad Deolaliwala; Jahan Peston Jamas; Sanvar Oberoi; Sumit Shah and Yash P. Kotak, who are aggressively working towards removing the stigma that surrounds cannabis with a strong foundation of legal, scientific and administrative support.
Their two-way game plan to make hemp a revolutionary commercial opportunity includes rigorous R&D to make hemp cultivation in India a major possibility when it comes to agriculture, while creating a demand amongst the consumers for hemp products, right from apparel and fabrics to nutritional, pharmaceutical and homeware industries. In a candid conversation with four of the Co-founders of BOHECO, Apparel Online India unravels the company’s commendable efforts to expand the identity of cannabis from an illegal means of intoxication to a cultivable fibre plant that can provide groundbreaking products from each of its part, and how they have been catalytic in the hemp revolution of India.
Science and Commerce vs. Stigma
India has a plethora of wild and feral cannabis growth, but none of them are standardised, which is where BOHECO started its ideation from. The company compared India with countries that have always cultivated cannabis, like Canada, European countries like France and Italy, with China as one of the largest grower of Cannabis and one of the largest producer of the hemp fabric on a commercial scale.
Sumit Shah, Co-founder and Director of Operations & Supply Chain of BOHECO, talks about their aspirations from hemp as a cultivable fibre in India, “India has a lot of cannabis growing in multiple states, but none of them are standardised cannabis, nobody can make any viable products from it and the Government doesn’t have standardised rules and regulations around it. We therefore focused our research and work on a perspective where we have multiple products coming from the same plant, as hemp’s outer fibre is used for textiles and paper, the leaves’ part is used for medicine and the seed can be useful for food. From the farmer’s perspective, it is great, because the utility is not just limited to one part of the plant, it is for the whole plant. That’s what got us thinking along these lines and we started discussions with various State Governments.”
The first three years of the business was more about understanding what hemp can do; if cultivating hemp in India was a viable choice then what the world is doing with hemp; As Sumit further adds, “We met farmers & hemp businesses in China, we understood what Europeans are doing, how they are processing it and we understood that if it has to happen in India, it has to happen on a big scale, and we need certain proprietary technology which will enable the current industry to pick it up and absorb it into their normal functioning along with a little awareness about the product because India isn’t aware about it right now.”
Equipped with strong R&D to back the legalisation of cannabis is how the company has made major strides within a short period of time. Today it is working on two major projects with top institutions in India. The first one, with Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, aims at achieving hemp seeds that fall under the acceptable category as per the Government norms, that is, having a narcotic content (THC level) less than 0.3 per cent. It involves primarily the breeding and selection process, as they have collected different seeds from national and international sources, and once the project takes off, about 1,000 acres of land will immediately start the cultivation processes. The second project aims at the cottonisation of hemp, as being a large fibre plant, hemp’s spinning becomes a challenge. Cottonisation of hemp means breaking the long fibres into shorter ones and blending with other yarns such as cotton, tencel, etc., to make its spinning easier, and together with IIT Delhi’s research centre and the support of Ministry of Textiles, the project has reached commercial prototyping stage. They will be taking it to the market in the next three months.
On the administrative front, BOHECO first started conversation with the Maharashtra Government, moving onto Uttarakhand, a state that actually had a policy in 2005 that talked about hemp standardisation but it was never acted upon due to the lack of private player participation. Hemp has temperature regulating properties, antimicrobial properties and better absorption apart from being one of the strongest natural fibres, which makes it easier for these Governments to keep an open mind towards the idea of hemp cultivation.
BOHECO’s progress is emblematic of the work that it is doing with plantations in three states, Uttarakhand, UP, and J&K. Delzaad Deolaliwala, Co-Founder and Director of Accounting & Legal Affairs briefs further upon this, “J&K is focused on medicines that can be supportive for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and other cancer therapies, along with neurological disorders and drug-resistant epilepsy. Our partner institutes for this include the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (New Delhi) and the Tata Memorial Centre (Mumbai). In UP and Uttarakhand, we have started our pilot projects that include small-scale cultivation of hemp to showcase the Government the viable seeds, geographic prerequisites surrounding the process along with the return to farmers. We are targeting northern states such as UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, etc., for an opportunity for commercial fibre cultivation. The Government has been absolutely progressive towards it, they are also willing to change the definition of cannabis in India.”While paying due attention to this research, BOHECO created an efficient network of partners internationally to source yarn and fabric in order to make the consumers as aware as the producers of hemp. Sumit avers, “While the projects and the conversation with Governments are taking place, we felt that we should at least start the market for hemp products. This is where our two commercial businesses came into being – B Label, our fashion apparel and accessories portal, along with Hemp Fabric Lab – which primarily markets the fabric to the designers and other businesses.”
Creating the demand
B Label started as a way to support women artisans in Uttarakhand who made hemp, by selling their clothes to designers and labels. But when the BOHECO team decided to increase their margins and start by a simple white shirt made out of hemp, the response was a game-changer. “The shirt became a rage in just our own circles,” shares Chirag Tekchandaney, Co-Founder and Director of Marketing & Human Resources, adding, “We got pre-orders of about 400 shirts and that is where we realised the vitality of the margin, and we started the ideation of B Label, and it became a separate vertical in 2016. We started designing collections, we have seen a turnaround of 12,000-16,000 garments so far and we have gathered a unique customer base of 6,000 people who are devoted to the accessories and apparel vertical.”
With a design language that is minimal and clean, B Label caters to the people who yearn for a more conscious and sustainable lifestyle. Its visibility increased through several pop-ups and exhibitions, and it retails via 16 stores, curated stores and boutiques throughout India. It has also tied up with certain brands and labels overseas which are taking the B Label merchandise in their stores. Adding value to its assortment that includes apparel and accessories for womenswear, menswear is the newly launched living section that includes table mats, cushion covers, laptop sleeves, etc.
“We want to standardise the cultivation of industrial hemp in India with strong research and Governmental support.” SUMIT SHAH Co-Founder and Director of Operations & Supply Chain, BOHECO
Through a great network of sustainable vendors, the label offers a variety of innovative surface techniques as well, the most interesting of them being the soot print, which is actually done by converting carbon waste, or soot, into prints. Making each part of hemp productive is BOHECO’s agenda, and B Label is up to mark for that, as Chirag further shares, “The biggest value offering is that we use our own hemp material ink; it is basically hemp waste that combines in a particular form and mixes in ink and makes sure that the surface of the fabric is repellent to water, stain, odour and we are getting major corporate calls for laptop sleeves suing the same.”
A wholesome hemp chain
As BOHECO’s Apparel & Accessories segment started getting traction, a lot of requests started pouring in for hemp in fabric form as well. Empathising with such demands, Sanvar Oberoi, Co-Founder and Director of Finance & Digital Technology, gave his own take on the matter. To put it in his own words, “When B Label started off, the first white shirt that we made was a challenge because a very few vendors in the market gave such small quantities of hemp because there are many to service large orders but no one pays attention to the smaller demands. When the quantum of queries increased, we thought we will make it more of a standardised vertical rather than a reactive business. This is when Hemp Fabric Lab came about.”
Hemp Fabric Lab’s USP is the fact that they service everyone who requires hemp fabric, regardless of the amount of fabric required. Average value transaction for the vertical is about Rs. 40,000-45,000 from their website, so there are people who buy in lakhs and there are people who buy in a few thousands, but the ease of purchasing fabric is really what sets them apart. Even if the customer is just exploring the uses, touch and feel of hemp with just one garment, Hemp Fabric Lab has made it easy. The vertical is not only popular in India, but has also garnered several international orders. Sanvar further states, “Indian market had a tremendous gap for players like us, but to our surprise even internationally, in countries such as Australia, the demand is almost at par with the Indian market. Australian consumer base is becoming sustainably conscious and they like us for the fact that we are end to end, thus by utilising B Label’s capability of garmenting, we are able to take up private label garmenting orders as well. Earlier it was just fabric, but now we are combining our strengths to expand our horizons for international orders in particular. B Label’s team supports Hemp Fabric Lab in a big way, right from translating the trends to making the garments.”
Another vertical of BOHECO includes BOHECO Life, which has a range of products for health and human consumption. Its most popular products are hemp seeds, that are rich in omega and very proteinous as well, along with the hemp seed oil, which is both applicational and edible. It also provides purely plant based protein powder and in the coming future, BOHECO Life is planning to use these products as ingredients to make other products, to create a wide spectrum of products. They are only making seed-based products right now, and will move on to leaf-based soon in the future.
India is ready for its hemp revolution
The work BOHECO has done in just a span of six years has been catalytic in shaping mindsets of stakeholders of the supply chain, right from agricultural bodies and Governmental institutions to consumers and medically challenged as well. As Delzaad chimes in, “Whatever we are doing, we are making with Indian raw material because we want to tell the Government that this is beneficial for the farmers, for the industry and then you can start developing forward. Today we have a lots of customs and duties we pay for hemp, but making it in India will give us a monopoly over the trade, with better price points. We are trying to create our expertise in the area so that we can channelise our efforts in starting it and then everyone in India can partner with us to attain the same benefits. The R&D is still in progress but we are concentrating more on the plant so that we can get the seeds ready and processes standardised.”
“We want to utilise all parts of the hemp plant, right from seeds for nutrition to hemp waste for ink supplement.” CHIRAG TEKCHANDANEY Co-Founder and Director of Marketing & Human Resources, BOHECO
Sumit concludes, “We are working with Governments to ensure large-scale cultivation and working with other industries to ensure large-scale production. For consumers to get adapted to a product, they have to be aware of it. We want to tell them that cannabis is not just something we can get high on, it’s clothes, it’s medicines, it’s food. Their mindsets will change once they touch, feel and use the products. We believe in partnership-based model, and we work with people who are best in their industry.”