It's not uncommon for college students to discover cannabis on a foreign trip, but it's not everyday that the encounter forms the roots of a startup which goes on to attract attention from the likes of Ratan Tata and top fashion designers.
In 2010, Jahan Peston Jamas, a student from University of Mumbai's HR College, was on a field trip to Australia when he chanced upon the practice of growing hemp, a variety of the cannabis plant.
The fibre extracted from the stem of the plant can be used to make rope, textiles and biodegradable plastics. Oil, milk, medicines and flour are made using the seed or the flower of the crop.
Jamas and six of his classmates had earlier participated in a project to provide electricity to Indian villages. On hearing about his experience in Australia, the students instantly saw a role for hemp in facilitating sustainable rural development in India.
After graduating, they all took up day jobs. On the side, however, they looked into ways of unlocking hemp's economic potential. And in 2013, they set up the Bombay Hemp Company, or BOHECO.
The group quickly realised that they were not just building a new business, but a whole new industry altogether - at least in India.
They also understood that a delicate approach was needed because of the taboo attached to cannabis given its psychotropic abilities, not to mention that India is no closer to legalising the drug for medicinal or recreational use.
“We were wary of an activist kind of approach to obtain industrial rights from the government, lest it be met with rejection and negative promotion," says Yash Kotak, Director at Boheco.
The going was tough - and slow. The first order of business was to earn the right to grow cannabis for industrial extraction. The Uttarakhand government's decision to allow farmers to grow hemp helped matters, but then came the next hurdle.
“There was no standard seed available in the market for us,” says Kotak. “Cannabis had always been grown in the wild and there was no proper farming done anywhere in the country. It was never deemed a fruitful practice, always frowned upon as a problem in society, never as a solution.”
Boheco then reached out to the scientific community. This led to a collaboration with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) - the country's top research and development body - to develop farm-ready seeds.
According to Boheco, it currently fuses hemp’s potential with agriculture, technology and medicine. Avnish Pandya, Director of Research, says sky is the limit with regard to hemp's potential. But with no proper cultivation culture, Boheco is currently limited to producing hemp for industrial uses. They are also researching the medical uses of cannabis, which has the potential to treat breast cancer and epilepsy.
The company has set up facilities at different places in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, where it has tied up with several NGOs to employ local weavers. In Jammu, partner laboratories look into the medical uses.
As things stand, Boheco earns from its own line of garments under the brand name B-label apart from selling hemp fabric to textile mills and fashion designers.
"Research is still ongoing (with CSIR) and we are currently resorting to collecting naturally available plants,” says Jahan Peston Jamas, co-founder and director of strategy & collaborations.
His co-founder Pandya says the market, thus far, has been very receptive of the hemp. "We have made a few associations with textile brands such as Arvind Mills and Supertex Industries, who buy our fabric. Also, our garments are on sale at [Mumbai's] Kala Ghoda Festival while [fashion designer] Anita Dongre's stores purchased fabric from us to make their own garments . Young designers have been hugely receptive of hemp fabrics."
Investors have finally taken notice too. After more than three years of bootstrapping, Boheco last month raised close to Rs 6.5 crore in a seed round from investors including Tata Sons chairman emeritus Ratan Tata and Google India managing director Rajan Anandan.
The firm currently has 15 employees including the seven friends who started it, having stuck together for five years and counting. The founders have lent their individual expertise to take charge of various departments.
Jahan Peston Jamas is director of strategy & collaborations while Avnish Pandya is director of research & development. Chirag Tekchandaney spearheads marketing and human resources. Yash P Kotak is in charge of business development and media, Sumit Shah handles operations and supply chain while Delzaad Deolaliwala serves as Boheco's director of accounting and legal affairs .
Sanvar Oberoi, co-founder and director of finance, says Boheco may seek additional funding at the end of this year or in 2019.
“The company is currently focused on keeping up with the planned direction with the availed funds," he said.
Boheco recently started selling online an eventually plans to create the best quality hemp for industrial use. Facility expansion for research and weaving operations are also on the cards.
Food is next on the agenda, with Boheco currently awaiting clearance from the country's food regulator to begin operations.
“The seeds are rich in protein and fatty acids. The potential just needs to be understood and the stigma needs to go,” says Delzaad Deolaliwala, director of legal affairs.