“Seven years ago, if one spoke to you about hemp or cannabis clothing, the first thing that would come to someone’s mind was the Bob Marley T-shirt,” says cofounder Chirag Tekchandaney, in a meeting with FactorDaily at the Boheco office in Lower Parel, Mumbai.
A five-minute walk through heat islands of Parel, generated by monster air-conditioners running at full blast, have my clothes sticking to me — just the kind of day to appreciate the virtues of hemp-based clothing.
“It’s 98% UV resistant, it’s also a fabric that breathes — so it’s known as a summer fabric. It’s hypoallergenic and eight times stronger than cotton,” Tekchandaney says. It requires one-fourth of the water cotton needs in a crop cycle and while hemp can be grown twice a year, typically cotton takes up to eight months between sowing and harvest making it an annual crop.
“It’s 98% UV resistant, it’s also a fabric that breathes — it so it’s known as a summer fabric. It’s hypoallergenic and eight times stronger than cotton” — Chirag Tekchandaney, cofounder, Boheco
Founded by seven college students from H R College, Mumbai in 2013, the hemp-focused Boheco sees itself as a social organisation with a mission to “educate, cultivate and elevate” the Indian market on the virtues of hemp. It’s also registered as a private limited company — Bombay Hemp Company Pvt Ltd, which is where the Boheco name comes from.
“These are our success markers. We’re of the firm belief that in order to drive mass scale and make that kind of change, you require a lot of economic thrust. That’s why we’re consciously a private limited company but a social organisation at heart,” Tekchandaney says.
The startup is about to launch an estore in a fortnight, Tekchandaney and Yash P Kotak, the company’s other co-founder, tell me.
Hemp vs Weed
Boheco is considered a first-mover in this space, and is trying to pull the hemp economy out of a vicious cycle. The problem stems from the legal issues with the plant, which grows in the wild in the Himalayas, the birthplace of cannabis, but is illegal to grow as a crop.
If you were to go and take hemp seeds that grow randomly in north India, and go plant them, the government can take action against you, warns Kotak. “There are two problems. One — it is not standardised. The other is that it has high levels of THC, which is the narcotic element, that gets one high. So these are two main problems because of which farmers cannot start cultivating on a mass scale. Standardisation doesn’t happen, industry won’t adopt it, and if the THC is high, government will not allow,” he says.
“There are two problems. One — it is not standardised. The other is that it has high levels of THC, which is the narcotic element, that gets one high” — Yash P Kotak, cofounder, Boheco
“While there is policy that allows for cultivation to take place in this country, within the NDPS Act, and in certain government orders, there have been clear mentions that for fibre and seed purposes, hemp can be grown. But there is no seed, that is non-narcotic to grow in this country,” says Tekchandaney laying out the challenge for Indian hemp companies.
What Boheco is trying to do is make this vicious circle into a virtuous circle, Kotak says, by building an ecosystem of hemp in this country, by working with scientists, farmers, policymakers, industry partners, and the end consumer.
Towards that end, the company has tied hands with cooperatives the state of Uttarakhand, who are now being made to learn how to weave hemp yarn and make end products out of it.
“Most of our partnerships are like the public-private partnership model, where we work only with the government. We work on their land, we work with their resources,” says Tekchandaney. Boheco employs about 100 women artisans, for whom hemp is a core product area.
“The model supports both genders — the men of the families there in the cooperatives are responsible for collecting the hemp fibre that grows in the wild, whereas the women are the ones who process it into really good looking end products,” Kotak says. The value addition part of the work is in the processing and the women become the chief wage earners. This is the virtuous part of the circle he talked about earlier.
China, the hemp champ
“Hemp is a very underground material. Even in China’s main market, hemp is not available easily,” says Tushar Goyal, founder of Sushumna Clothing, a Goa-based brand focused on sustainable clothing. It is much more expensive than cotton since it is not produced in India and there are shipping charges and customs duty to be paid. “That makes hemp 50% more expensive than its cost in China,” says Goyal, who has diversified his fashion range to include bamboo-based fabric sourced from Tirupur, which he says is three times cheaper and softer even if less durable.
“China has done it right — it monopolises the hemp market as far as fibre is concerned. They hold about six hundred patents around the hemp ecosystem” — Tekchandaney
Elston Menezes, founder of B E Hemp India, a Bangalore-based hemp product company says that for the most part, he imports hemp materials from outside the country. “We don’t have machines for these products. Better quality products come from outside India. While China makes fine fabric, Nepal is more specialised on the handmade hemp fabrics,” he says. B.E Hemp sells fashion accessories, bags and pouches, body care products and notebooks on its online store. While most of the material for his catalog is imported, the fibre for the notebooks are sourced from Uttarakhand, he says.
While the US is probably considered as a front runner in recreational and medical applications of hemp, industrial hemp is still illegal in the US. China is currently the world leader in hemp textiles.
“China has done it right — it monopolises the hemp market as far as fibre is concerned. They hold about six hundred patents around the hemp ecosystem,” says Tekchandaney. Boheco has filed for patents as well but they are still being examined, the founders say.
Creating hemp yarn at an industrial scale in India using indigenous fibre is on the Boheco’s roadmap. “We’re working with indigenous fibre, to offer it to institutes who can make fine grade yarn to start with and be just as competitive as China is at this moment. Because India is a spinning hub,” says Tekchandaney, adding that they presently make about five to seven different handloom fabrics in India. “We also make fabric from some of the yarn that we source from overseas, that has got its own Indian touch. So it would be a 1:2 ratio of India/overseas.”
“Roti, kapda, makaan, all out of one crop — that’s the best proposition that we can take to India for hemp,” says Tekchandaney of the virtues of the crop. Hemp has over 25,000 proven uses, from tree-free paper, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, plastic, hemp seed oil, fuel, and more, he says. While hemp-based home construction is quite prevalent in the US not too many people are aware of hemp’s nutritive properties.
Hemp has over 25,000 proven uses, from tree-free paper, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, plastic, hemp seed oil, fuel, and more… To focus on food and the health and nutritional aspects, the company manages a brand called Boheco Life
To focus on food and the health and nutritional aspects, the company manages a brand called Boheco Life. “Hemp is definitely considered as a complete superfood. Compared to flax or your chia seeds, typically give you a high amount of Omega-3, 6 and 9. Whereas hemp also is power-packed with a fine balance of protein. It is completely soluble by the human body. It’s like flax on steroids,” Tekchandaney says.
Awareness of hemp has improved vastly in India, says Menezes. “When we started about five years ago, we started educating people in Bangalore through social media about hemp. Since last year, we’ve noticed that the question of what is hemp has decreased a lot,” he says. “It’s more about how is it processed now. The awareness is there, people know what hemp is.”
Boheco’s founders claim to have India’s largest seed bank, with 150 varieties of seeds under research, sourced from all parts of the country. The company says it is spending considerable resources on research in material science, and value-added applications from the plant. However, it plans to stay clear of any products that can lead to misconceptions and stigma.
“We are seven co-founders who are just about in their twenties. We do not want this to be a story that is taboo in a few years. It shouldn’t be that it takes another 30 years for another set of guys to look at this from an industry point of view,” says Tekchandaney. B.E Hemp’s Menezes agrees that Boheco has carved out a first-mover position in the space.
Boheco’s founders claim to have India’s largest seed bank, with 150 varieties of seeds under research. The company is spending considerable resources on research in material science, and value-added applications from the plant
Boheco was bootstrapped for the first four years, funded by investments made by the seven co-founders. They secured angel funding in early 2016 but declined to name their investors. The team is 17-strong now and has served over 5,000 customers, including fashion designers and cannabis museums.
“We’re also trying to build some kind of a knowledge bank, so that we have a flourishing number of hemp companies that will thrive in this country,” says Kotak. “It’s not about competition but cooperation. The collective voice will reach the government.”
Tekchandaney says that Boheco’s cultivation query form on its website has been filled up by people across India, which could work out to around 25,000 acres of land committed to hemp cultivation. “The focus right now is to get that right seed variety, that is standardized, low in THC, and best in its yield,” he says.
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Lead visual: Angela Anthony Pereira Inside images: Boheco Updated at 10:55 AM to edit Chirag's quote for grammar. Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.