Young people from India are connecting rural farmers to global markets to achieve the SDGs
Radhika Shah and Eloise Duvillier
When a group of classmates from Bombay went on a trip through India, they did not expect to encounter such anguish, distress of rural farmers due to lack of economic opportunities. In spite of this, they sensed that this farmer community could thrive if empowered and as a result fueled these college friends’ from HR College Mumbai motivation to find a way to change the economic incentives for these farmers while advancing sustainable development as a way to drastically improve their livelihoods and help tackle climate change. The group started exploring crops such as hemp, Himalayan nettle, bamboo, and other traditionally undervalued crops that are indigenous to the region and highly abundant in the Himalayan foothills as a way to level the playing field for rural Indian farmers.
A few years later, Bombay Hemp Company or BOHECO as it is known, was born.
BOHECO is a social enterprise that focuses on research, policy, and commercialization of underutilized yet high-value crops that can provide the opportunity to make farming a profitable venture again. BOHECO has been building supportive ecosystems that make these high-value crops, some which are going extinct because of commercial agriculture, a staple of the Indian agricultural sector with a focus on farmer empowerment and sustainable farming. Their mission embodies multiple of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, a set of global goals set by countries to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda”.
For example, farmers are the primary stakeholders in the value chain of this model and BOHECO actively works with farmer groups to understand the local environment, test new crop varieties, and collaborate with micro-finance institutions.
BOHECO then works with women artisans to produce handmade textiles like yarn or scarves, (see SDG Goal 5). Born out of this initiative is B label, a sustainable clothing line that represents BOHECO’s desire to advance the slow fashion movement as well as create positive impact on those that matter the most, rural farmers and artisans (see Goal 1 and Goal 8).
Yet while these crops are traditionally thought of as a basic material for textiles, the natural fiber industry in India is becoming a strong producer of environmentally sustainable materials. For example, industrial hemp can be found in building materials now as it is carbon-negative which means it stores carbon instead of emitting it like traditional building materials, therefore effectively offsetting greenhouse gases. The use of these crops as construction material also comes with other unique advantages, such as being more energy efficient, stronger than most traditional materials, non-flammable, and more resistant to pests.
They are now exploring using these undervalued yet very profitable crops as an environmentally sustainable, low cost, and mass producible replacement for materials like graphene. Graphene is a thin layer of carbon that powers a host of products from utility grids, batteries, solar cells, and more. Existing technologies currently rely on harsh mining and use of rare earth materials like graphene, which is also too expensive to mass-produce. Utilizing natural fibers that can be transformed into graphene-like carbon nano-sheets, which are sustainably grown, environmentally friendly and mass producible, creates the potential to disrupt several key sectors. Imagine electric car batteries, cell phones, smart grids, sensors, and much more running on sustainable plant-based materials.
The timing for this is key – developing countries are adopting new electric transport and energy technologies. New research is also coming out regarding sugarcane waste to create nano-composite film as well as phyto-chemicals in tea to produce biocompatible gold nanoparticles. Overall, the demand for technologies running on scarce resources are exponentially increasing and providing a low-cost, mass producible, and sustainable supply is not only critical for companies producing these technologies but also for the health of our planet.
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By empowering farmers in rural India to utilize crops that are abundant in the wild and creating the opportunities for these high-value crops to generate enormous economic value, BOHECO is revolutionizing key industries in a sustainable way.
Additionally, BOHECO has created a path for the Himalayan Valley to power various industries, including the Silicon Valley. This young group of friends in their twenties are truly living the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi by following his philosophy of self-respect & dignity of all.
In this case, connecting scalable innovations across continents, impacting multiple SDGs and turning the paradigm of Global North helping Global South on it’s head. As co-founder Yash Kotak states, “The SDGs guide BOHECO to strike a balance to achieve social, ecological and economic impact.”
Leading Indian Philanthropic group The Tata Trusts has also been an early champion of BOHECO, leading the way by example of the amazing things that can be achieved when philanthropy and social entrepreneurs come together. The SDG Philanthropy Platform hopes to catalyze this kind of deep collaboration between social entrepreneurs, philanthropists and governments leading to the type of scalable innovation and social change needed to achieve the SDGs - this leading to the birth of many more BOHECOs all across the world.
Radhika Shah is Co-President Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs and Advisor, Sustainable Development Goals Philanthropy Platform.
Eloise Duvillier is Staffing Manager-Baidu USA.