A trip to the quaint town of Margaret River in Australia in 2011 piqued the curiosity of Jahan Peston Jamas when he saw happy faces all around him. He distinctly recalls how the prosperousness exuded from every nook and corner in this little town.

“It was particularly differentiated from the rest. I was curious to understand the catalyst. So it turned out that one was grapes and the other was Hemp seed which was used for oil, medicinal purposes and a variety of other uses. I thought if they are doing this despite it not being native to their land, then why can’t India,” adds twenty something Peston Jamas, Co-founder and Director of Strategy and Collaborations at Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO), a first mover in the industrial hemp and medicinal cannabis’ space in India.

What followed was seven batch mates, all passouts from Mumbai’s HR College of Commerce and Economics, quitting their corporate jobs and setting up Boheco in 2013, which took upon itself the task of revolutionising the mindset on Hemp in the country.

More than just recreational

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound in Cannabis known to cause a high, is actually much lesser in industrial hemp as opposed to the one for recreational use. The THC content in industrial hemp – regulated by international law – states 0.3% by dry weight or less. For medical cannabis, the percentages may hover over 3% and can be upto 10-15% of THC. For recreational purposes, the percentages are usually above 10%.

Cannabis is subdivided into two main sub-species: Indica and Sativa. The indica variant is known to have higher quantum of THC while sativa comprises more of CBD or cannabidiol which comprises medicinal properties. Sativa has a very low THC which makes it redundant for any recreational use.

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However, the common perception of Cannabis is primarily associated with narcotic properties. The lack of awareness is hardly surprising considering how India is yet to come on par with global Hemp markets such as Israel, Netherlands or China – both from a knowledge and mindset perspective.

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Early days

The seven co-founders are involved in key aspects such as research and development, legal affairs, finance, marketing, business development, supply chain and digital technology to streamline all the core processes between themselves. Even prior to this, while in college, they had leanings towards social and cultural initiatives such as solar electrification projects which gave them a deeper insight into the life of rural India. “We observed that everything changes after every 100 kms in India except for one aspect- the Cannabis plant. All states were either growing it or had some history attached with it. In the rural communities, 80-90% of it was being used for industrial or medicinal use,” says Peston Jamas, the nostalgia palpable in his narrative.

The Australia visit sealed these findings further. And the journey began, slowly albeit steadily. It took two years to get a law in place that would allow cultivation. Uttarakhand, incidentally, has become the first state in the country to allow commercial cultivation of Hemp crop. Last year, the state government had sanctioned license to the Indian Industrial Hemp Association (IIHA) to grow the fibre on 1000 hectares. Boheco’s initiatives had, however, continued simultaneously with development boards in Uttarakhand to support other Hemp based fibre industries before regulatory clearances could come through from a policy standpoint.

Uttarakhand highlighted interesting facets when it came to the use of Hemp seeds. For instance, in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, they mix chutney made of hemp seeds as a part of daily meals as it is rich in taste and helps to keep warm in the weather. The Hemp fibre is also used to make rope to tie the cattle.

Besides Uttarakhand, the company also has presence in Jammu and Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh. Though they did not face major hurdles from a policy standpoint, they did encounter them from a mindset perspective in a market that is still to mature as far as awareness on Hemp is concerned. Peston Jamas fondly recalls how during the early days of engaging with customers at organic markets and trade shows, they chanced upon an elderly customer who mistook ‘Hemp seed’ for ‘Ham’ and decided not to purchase any products as she believed it was non-vegetarian.

“Of course, there were the usual naysayers too who said ‘log kya kahenge’ [what will people say] backed up with statements that hinted on inability to give approvals due to it being cannabis. Fortunately, we chose to take that advice with a pinch of salt, and subsequently focus on aligning the brand narrative and commercial appeal of Hemp to cater to the sentiments of the larger market as well as the agrarian community.,” he says candidly.

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As per statistics, the global industrial hemp market size (for seed and fibre based products) was estimated at $4.2 bn in 2017, expanding at a CAGR of 14.0% over the forecast period. It is estimated to scale up to $ 10.6-11.2 bn by 2025. India’s contribution to the global Hemp market currently stands at a dismal 0.001%. So what really can be done to up the ante for India in this domain?

Peston Jamas says that initiating several steps will be essential if India wants to establish a more formidable position in the global market for industrial hemp and medicinal cannabis in the near future. Development of standardized versions of low THC hemp (cannabis seed) which can eventually be passed on to farmers for commercial cultivation, upgradation of existing processing infrastructure and ecosystems, creation of a comprehensive value chain for medicinal cannabis and streamlining of research, cultivation, processing policies of state governments are some aspects that he suggests to make this vision a reality.

Gaining momentum

Boheco slowly started making inroads in a space that had not been spoken about as openly before in the Indian context. And the results have been heartening for them and the industry as a whole. “Prior to 2013, Hemp (Cannabis) was rarely mentioned or raised as an interesting opportunity for new industrial and medicinal development horizons, primarily due to the pre-conceived stigma surrounding the recreational use of Cannabis combined with the fear of industrial and medicinal cannabis being misused and re-directed to the illicit Cannabis market,” says Peston Jamas reflectively. But things started changing.

In January 2015, the company bagged the Ashoka fellowship for being change makers in the industry. What has also helped is the fact that industrial use of Hemp is increasingly becoming mainstream. For example, some of the world’s largest automobile companies – Mercedes, BMW etc – have been mandated by the EU to utilize energy crops such as Hemp as composite material for the paneling of their automobiles.

Founders

(In pic: The founders of BOHECO)

Such examples further solidified Boheco’s belief that they were on a path that could transform India’s economy by leaps and bounds. At an event jointly organised by Boheco and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)’s Jammu wing, Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (IIIM) in November last year, Dr Jitendra Singh, Minister of State for PM’s office had highlighted that the increasing incidences of non-communicable diseases in India had made ground breaking research on drugs originating from plants and herbs imperative. “There is a very thin line between use, misuse and abuse of a substance, and it is our responsibility to draw that line,” the minister had stated.

Affirming Singh’s viewpoint, Ram Vishwakarma, Director, CSIR – IIIM Jammu says that regulatory issues concerning medicines based on cannabis are still not available yet in India and efforts are on to make that achievable. “We are working with Boheco to get regulatory approval. They have created a lot of awareness in the country among the key stakeholders which can help to make the much needed shift happen,” he adds.

A lot of collaborations have been undertaken by the ambitious startup to move forward in this domain. For instance, it entered into a formal partnership with CSIR-National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI) to create low and high THC varieties of industrial and medicinal grade cannabis towards developing sustainable standard genetics for Hemp’s large scale industry adoption across India. It also has an ongoing collaboration with CSIR-IIIM around the breeding of high THC, CBD varieties and to characterise indigenous landraces for cannabinoid content and chemical profiles to create a value chain for cultivation, harvesting, extraction and formulation of Cannabis flowering tops for Cannabis based medicines.

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Future path

The future is set for the company which is focused around establishing a growth and scale-centric approach towards industrial hemp based products and raw material as well as cannabis-based medicines. The next few years will see the company involved in consolidating its market position in several domains such as hemp textiles, foods, cosmetics, ayurvedic hemp products and hemp-based nano materials.

The company is also putting substantive efforts in establishing a value chain for the development of Cannabis-based medicine in India. The startup, which has seen a healthy increase in revenues for the past three years, where revenues have grown 3x year-on-year, is currently generating revenues in the range of Rs 1- 3 crore per annum. Future revenues are expected to continue on the robust path and scale further up in the next 24 – 36 months.

“We as a company see an evolution of India’s healthcare system particularly of medical drugs that are sourced from plant-based materials. We envision a time when India’s government is progressive enough to create guidelines for development of phyto-pharmaceuticals focused around critical illnesses and indication areas such as cancer, epilepsy, sickle cell anemia and other neuro-degenerative diseases,” he highlights.





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