Sanvar Oberoi

This description of Sanvar Oberoi's work was prepared when Sanvar Oberoi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014 .


While the potential industrial market for natural fibers in India is $ 3.7 million, it has so far been leveraged only as raw material for subsistence use and a local and restrictive handicrafts market. By building supportive infrastructure and eco-systems for the growth of the natural fiber industry, Sanvar is unlocking the value of natural fibers for the first time in India to significantly boost farmer incomes.

The New Idea

Sanvar recognizes the untapped economic value of natural fibers like coir, industrial hemp, Himalayan giant nettle and Roselle as raw materials for different industries like cordage, construction and textiles. Sanvar is enabling farmers to capture this value by creating the research infrastructure that demonstrates their use for different purposes, inclusive value chains and enabling a regulatory framework.

As the architect of these new age industries, Sanvar is also building a self-sustaining ecosystem around these crops. He is influencing the state governments to create policy and implementation structures at different levels, agriculture research institutes to develop indigenous seed varieties and explore the potential uses of these crops, micro-finance firms to facilitate access for producer groups to mechanized processing units, and local CSOs and farmer cooperatives to build the capacity of small and marginal farmers to tap these alternate sources of income. The DNA of the value chains are designed such that farmers remain at its center and draw the most share of value. Through strategic partnerships with popular textile brands and design institutes, he is generating market acceptability for the products made of these crops with a new generation of consumers. Sanvar is creating the opportunity for each stakeholder in the value chain (cultivators, processing units, distributors, wholesalers, retailers) to benefit from these natural fibre industries by strategically positioning these crops as ecologically-sensitive, natural source material that have so far been used only for subsistence purposes or for cottage industries.

Sanvar currently works with 20 artisan families in the Himalayas to help process hemp and nettle fibre with an aim to impact 450 families by 2017. Additionally, through agreements with the state governments of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra, he is expanding this form of value chain management to natural fibers in these states.

The Strategy

As India’s first social enterprise to focus solely on the promotion of natural fibers, BOHECO, the company that Sanvar founded, systematically builds supportive eco-systems that not only make these crops a mainstay in India’s agricultural sector but also views farmers as primary stakeholders.

Sanvar’s first iteration of this model is focused on industrial hemp. Extensive research on the status of industrial hemp in India and world-wide helped him locate strategic opportunities to enable its growth and industrialization in India. Cognizant of the specific challenges in the industrial hemp value-chain, Sanvar is simultaneously addressing research, regulatory and implementation infrastructure to enable its widespread cultivation in India. This ecosystem, while optimizing the economic potential of industrial hemp, also introduces a system of checks and balances, critical to ensure that it’s not misused for recreational purposes. Beginning in Uttarakhand, which has the largest reserve of naturally growing hemp, Sanvar is establishing a comprehensive framework to spur a legal, industrial hemp market in India.

Recognizing the need for an indigenous hemp seed variety, with a low 0.3 per cent THC content (internationally accepted level), BOHECO is engaging with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and similar governmental bodies and universities to develop a germplasm suited to Indian climatic and soil conditions. Sanvar believes that for the hemp sector to be equitable from the start, seed ownership should be maintained by the National Seed Corporation of India (a central body mandated by the government), and not a monopolizing private interest. By developing seed variety with a low THC content, Sanvar is ensuring that this strain of hemp cannot be used for recreational purposes, and falls in line with the NDPS Act which allows the cultivation and processing of only industrial hemp.

BOHECO is also actively engaging with the Ministry of Finance, to draw from its authority under the NDPS Act to draft India’s first comprehensive industrial hemp policy and bring clarity in the legality of industrial hemp. This directive provides guidelines for setting up India’s first centralised hemp licensing authority (run in a PPP model), for the systematic cultivation and regulation of the industry in its nascent stages. The license will be made available to both state sponsored and private cultivators subject to certain conditions which act as protections against the misuse of this fiber. To further protect the growth of the industrial hemp industry, these hemp licenses are also subject to cancellation if the cultivator is unable to procure a low THC seed or develop a low THC variety themselves. This further eliminates the risk of a cultivator appropriating the seed for growing recreational hemp.

As a key contributor to this draft policy, BOHECO has helped incorporate provisions which ensure that the growth of the industry is intrinsically linked with increase in profits for the farmers. For instance, the renewal of a hemp license for cultivators (who can in turn authorise small and marginal farmers to cultivate hemp), depends on the measures taken by them to develop local value-addition technology and build capacity to process the hemp instead of merely being a source of raw material. To support the policy on moving the chain of processing closer to the farmers, BOHECO is also working with industrial bodies to alter expensive machinery like decorticators used for the processing of hemp and other fibers, into low-cost prototypes for distribution to these producer groups. Sanvar has already partnered with the Uttarakhand Bamboo and Fibre Development Board (a state government body, as well as other organizations, as strategic partners to build such prototypes to grow the hemp infrastructure in the state. By empowering these community-based structures with information and resources, Sanvar is creating a system whereby a community can derive maximum economic and subsequently, social benefit from these crops. In doing this, Sanvar is building in the concept of an inclusive value chain into the foundation of the hemp industry.

Sanvar is also simultaneously developing a network of skilled producer groups. Sanvar and his team train and provide information to farmer cohorts on growing patterns and soil conditions best suited to grow hemp and other natural fibers for various industrial uses. For instance, Sanvar identifies the need to educate farmers against mono-cropping of hemp, and instead grow it between their summer and winter crop cycles. This ensures that farmers are not completely substituting staples like rice, wheat or vegetables with a cash crop like industrial hemp and endangering their revenue stream or subsistence.

While building the policy and implementation infrastructure on the ground, BOHECO is also preparing the urban markets to absorb the economic potential of these crop-based products. For instance, through strategic engagements with the National Institute of Design (NID), Sanvar has negotiated a space for industrial hemp on the agenda of their newly constituted, multi-disciplinary research and innovation center for the application of natural fibers for the textile and construction industries. Through initial links with the organic textile and building industries, BOHECO is seeding the idea of other natural fibers as a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to existing materials like cotton in the market.

Instead of creating parallel structures for operationalizing these fibre industries on the ground, Sanvar instead is building an ecosystem by linking existing bodies like farmer cooperatives, local CSOs, research institutes and government agencies towards creating a sustainable and equitable natural fibers market to enrich the agri-sector. By bringing together these diverse agencies for the promotion of these crops, Sanvar is developing a process which can be adapted to promote the nascent natural fibers industries in various parts of the country, including introducing new crops to regions that were thus far bereft of its economic benefit. For instance, BOHECO is promoting the cultivation of kenaf in the saline soil of Gujarat, where the land is otherwise considered fallow but provides the ideal conditions for its growth by local farmers. In collaboration with the ICAR, and similar governmental bodies, BOHECO is developing the appropriate germplasm (seed bank) for the widespread growth of kenaf as a biodiesel crop. Similarly to promote coir and hemp, by working with the Muthoot Group in the State of Kerala and the Coir Board, BOHECO now has access to women-led self-help groups who are being trained to work on coir products. Sanvar is empowering small farmers to not only multiply their earnings, but ensuring that they gain a competitive edge in the national and global natural fibers industry by equipping them to meet the demands of the mainstream market.

BOHECO’s focus on creating consumer acceptability for products made of these natural fibers is key to remaining sustainable as a for-profit enterprise in the long run. Currently self-funded, BOHECO earns an average of $3500 annually from its sale of imported hemp fabric to the Indian market. Using the current ground swell in the favour of organic products in the market, Sanvar has also pioneered the idea of BOHECO Innovation Lab to conduct fundamental research with natural fibers to discover their various uses. Some of the research projects that the lab currently handles are the use of hemp in nanotechnology and of kenaf geo-carpets in oil spill clean-ups.

The Person

Sanvar grew up in two parallel Indias. One was his cosmopolitan upbringing in Mumbai, and the other was his maternal home in Punjab, where he visited every summer as a child. Situated at the border of India and Pakistan in the rural heartland, these farms were Sanvar’s first introduction to the harsh realities of a farmer’s life in India. He witnessed his maternal family struggle to maintain these farms and earn their livelihood through them in the face of deficient farm infrastructure (like irrigation and storage) and lack of knowledge resources to improve their productivity. Sanvar witnessed this loss first-hand when a close family member lost his life on the farm due to poor agri-infrastructure.

Vulnerability of the crop to external factors like volatile weather patterns and lack of efficiency in farming processes finally pushed his family to give up agriculture and take up a more lucrative alternative. Sanvar’s exposure to the problems with Indian agriculture, coupled with his real life experiences on the farm sealed his intention to improve the sector by focusing on dignity and economic growth for the agricultural sector.

Sanvar’s education and training has been an exercise in preparation for his ultimate destination in agri-innovation. A student of business finance, Sanvar led the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) chapter in college and was part of a rural electrification project (Project Chiraag) which brought lighting into the homes of the poorest and most remote regions of India.

Since the age of 16, Sanvar worked with two for-profit start-ups, one of which dealt with digital marketing services for companies. In both organisations, Sanvar was in charge of market research and exploring new business opportunities. As part of these teams, he began to pitch for big business accounts like Cadbury’s to define their digital media marketing strategies. Sanvar’s methodology and strategy for winning the account for the start-up was taken up as a marketing case study for Sanvar’s graduate class..

An introvert in high school, Sanvar challenged himself to become an avid debater and Model United Nations expert, representing first his school and then the country at international model UN conferences. Sanvar was part of global youth platforms like the UN Youth Changemakers Conclave and the Harvard Model United Nations where his leadership potential was recognised and nurtured. Sanvar continued to excel academically and developed a keen interest in how systems (like agricultural farms) worked and could be improved. It was at this time that his Sanvar first hit upon the idea of hemp cultivation in India.

Keen to develop skills that would ultimately help him find a way to streamline agricultural systems that were broken, Sanvar joined Deloitte right after college. For close to two years, he worked in their internal audit wing, studying how companies streamlined their operations. Though a junior member of the staff, Sanvar showed initiative by working with the senior management to explore new business development opportunities for Deloitte in India to improve their market position as well as initiate intrapreneurship projects to create an internal structure of lower management to aid the larger visioning and growth of the firm.

Sanvar soon realised that his potential lay elsewhere, and was keen to re-join the conversation on industrial hemp from college. This, combined with the desire to create a sustainable and socially-responsible agriculture company led him to quit Deloitte in 2012 to found BOHECO. To strengthen his own grasp of the industrial hemp sector, Sanvar is simultaneously pursuing his doctorate research in the “Economic Significance of Industrial Hemp to Indian Agriculture Economics.”