The rise and rise of the Indian hemp industry
One question commonly posed to entrepreneurs selling hemp-based products is: Will this get me high? The query could be for any product—hemp oil, seed, powder, even a T-shirt made of hemp. The answer invariably is no, which may come as a bit of a disappointment to some. But the question is an indication of the confusion that still surrounds hemp, a plant that is currently fuelling startups and e-commerce in India at an unprecedented rate is booming, with a new crop of entrepreneurs ready to battle the odds and bet big on the versatile plant by creating innovative products that fit right into the wellness zeitgeist
“At least once a week, someone will ask, ‘Will I get high with this?’ Even with paper, soap, with whatever we make. Is ‘soap’ a code word for something? they ask,” says Elston Menezes, one of the founders of Bengaluru-based B.E Hemp, which sells hemp-based products such as soaps, food, stationery and accessories. “I then send them a picture of the soap.”
Yash P. Kotak, one of the six (initially seven) founders of Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO), which sells nutrition and personal care products, and its director of business development and media, has had a similar experience. “If I wear this shirt, will I get high, that’s their question. It’s a great ice-breaker though—no cotton shirt company will get asked that question.”
When we first started,” says Rohit Shah, co-founder of Hemp Horizons (their products go under the brand name Health Horizons), “we got calls from people who would place an order. Then they would ask, ‘Can I put it in a vape and smoke it? Send in discreet packaging.’ But the audience has evolved from that stigma. Today we see (people of) ages from 25-60 placing orders on our website.”
Hemp products were one of the few categories that benefited during the pandemic. Entrepreneurs say the lockdown gave consumers the space to focus on health. They looked for better experiences with food, nutrition, alternative curative methods and therapeutic products that would help with anxiety and pain relief. They sought more sustainable brands, shifting to vegetarianism and veganism. Once e-sellers overcame issues with supplies and deliveries in the early days, business started picking up.
Both hemp and marijuana come from the Cannabis sativa family of plants. Both have tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC, the psychoactive component which provides the sense of euphoria or intoxication) and CBD (cannabidiol) with many other compounds. CBD is an oil extracted from the leaves, stem and flowers that acts as a painkiller, muscle relaxant and mood enhancer. Regulated industrial hemp plants in India contain primarily CBD and its extracts usually contain less than 0.3% THC, which does not give you a “high”. Supply is controlled by the government, with only a handful of companies having an Ayush licence to manufacture hemp that’s supplied to retailers.
Founded in 2017 as a contract manufacturer that supplies to wholesalers and other edible hemp brands, Hemp Horizons has gone from processing 500kg to 4,000kg (of edibles) in 12-18 months. It recently raised ₹2 crore in seed funding from Mumbai Angels Network and AngelList. Medicinal startup HempStreet got $1 million (around ₹7.4 crore) in pre-series A funding in February 2020 led by Pharmacon Holdings, a US-based pharma-tech company, and Romain Barberis, a private investor in cannabis in the US and Canada.
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