Shalini Bhattacharya was crippled by chronic backpain in 2017 when she was working in Spain. Round after round of MRIs and different painkiller regimens failed to bring her any sort of long-term relief, and she found herself forced to slow down.
A problem-solver, Shalini researched various alternative pain management therapies, and that’s when she stumbled upon CBD (cannabidiol) — a compound found in the cannabis plant — and life, as they say, changed for better.
CBD is the better-behaved cousin of THC, the psychoactive compound found in marijuana responsible for the ‘high.’ Used in as many as 191 formulations in Ayurveda, the Vedic-age herb is known to cure a variety of ailments such as pain, muscle spasms, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
Recently, CBD has been showing up in cancer treatments to alleviate nausea and pain associated with chemotherapy and radiation, as well as provide relief in people with advanced arthritis and chronic pain
After finding a natural, harmless way to manage her pain, Shalini began reading up about other uses of the plant. She realised that she had seen it grow freely in the Himalayas, and also found that the locals use it widely as part of their daily meals, and to make chutneys and pickles.
Having grown up in a home nestled in nature and a childhood that was spent trying to spot elusive wildlife, Shalini, and her sister Jayanti Bhattacharya, decided to entrench themselves in the world and the wonders of hemp — a superhero plant if there ever was one.
The duo set up India Hemp & Co in 2019 to bring hemp products from the foothills of the Himalayas to the rest of the country. With a laser-sharp focus on sustainability right from sourcing to packaging, the startup sells four simple, clean products — hemp hearts, protein powder, seed trail mix, and hemp oil — on its website.
It also retails on six online stores and 14 physical stores, including Organic World and Go Native. In fact, it is in active discussions with Big Basket to stock its products on the platform.
“(The world we come from is one) where we don't just coexist peacefully, but respect that we are intrinsically connected to the natural ecosystem. Now is our time to redesign our relationship with nature and our own lifestyles to be able to live more sustainably with the limited resources the planet has. Our role as a business is to help inspire those changes,” Shalini tells YourStory.
The startup also sells to several cafes, restaurants, and independent food brands that are experimenting with healthier food menus and products.
After completing her Masters in Advertising and Marketing from the University of Leeds, Jayanti started working with Ogilvy and Mather, and then went on to work with and run several food and beverage-related businesses based out of Bengaluru.
Shalini, on the other hand, started her career as an operational consultant at KPMG and moved to Barcelona, Spain, to pursue an MBA.
For both of them, sustainable micronutrition was a logical step given their love for nature and its bounties.
“We’re working towards building a more sustainable future where all food and drink is sustainable. We’re driving that change by using hemp as our vehicle,” Jayanti says.
Hemp is among a handful of plants on earth that benefits both its consumers and the ecosystem around it. Classified as a ‘superfood,’ hemp helps protect the heart, brain, and skin.
Its carbon-negative nature absorbs more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it takes to grow - one tonne of hemp absorbs over 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The crop also requires nearly 40 percent less water to grow than cotton, and, unlike cotton, all parts of the plant are usable. Its nutrient-dense seeds can be consumed directly or made into oil, and the plant fibre can be used to make paper, cloth, animal food, bedding, and more.
In 2019, using personal wealth and raising funds from family members, the sisters started the venture. It is now exploring opportunities with potential investors. Finding the right investor fit, Jayanti says, is important for the startup.
Why India Hemp & Co works
Quality products and taking a customer-centric approach are one of the many things that have immensely helped India Hemp & Co, especially to build trust with ‘hemp-sceptic’ buyers. Through continuous research and community education on the benefits of hemp, the startup has been able to cater to users’ needs.
To those looking for sustainable lifestyle brands, India Hemp & Co is a spot of sunlight in a plastic-filled darkness. Everything from the food-grade tin it uses, to the craft paper that covers the canister is reusable and plastic-free.
The startup has received a lot of acclaim for its visual-storytelling and information dissemination on its Instagram handle, which has quickly become a repository of must-know facts and uses of hemp.
“We use science and research to build a case for hemp; thankfully, that’s readily available. It’s a continuous conversation we’re having with our community. We’re constantly adapting our communication to the pulse of the community, and we use visual-storytelling and science-backed research to address questions,” Shalini quips.
At present, it is researching and studying other hemp products that can benefit Indian and international markets. CBD-related products are on the co-founders’ radars, but since the market is still embryonic in India, regulatory processes are ill-defined and cumbersome to navigate.
The startup rakes in most of its revenue through online sales. Its biggest markets include Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, and Pune. It also services several lower-tier cities and is looking to expand to international markets.
Building a ‘hempire’ in the time of COVID-19
The startup’s sales and operations took a bit of beating during the nationwide lockdown at the end of March. A lot of the events the startup was part of were cancelled, and its entire supply chain was disrupted briefly.
But that didn’t perturb Shalini and Jayanti.
“We took it (the lockdown) as an opportunity to build a stronger connection. We’ve had some very interesting discussions with nutritionists, environmentalists, industry experts, and realised that we are the generation that needs to take responsibility for the world we live in today, our home. It has helped solidify our purpose and why we started India Hemp & Co,” Jayanti says.
It is presently looking to hire and even collaborate with people who lost their jobs during the lockdown.
Next for India Hemp & Co
The global hemp market was worth $4.71 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 15.8 percent till 2027.
Having grown 2.5x in the lockdown (April-June) quarter, and seeing increased B2B demand, India Hemp & Co is in a prime position to capture some of that market share, especially in India, where it is among a handful of first movers in the hemp space.
Its main competitors include other protein powder brands like Whey protein, My protein and other superfood seed brands.
The startup said it also sees increased demand coming from the change in perception about weight loss, where the conversation is shifting more towards sustainable health management by way of micro-nutrient rich foods, as well as clean eating.
Edited by Suman Singh
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