Media personality, Chris Kilham, also called ‘The Indiana Jones of Natural Medicine’ by CNN, emphasises the importance of a sustainability ethos which embraces the entire operation. “When you have a truly sustainable system in place, all parts flourish and thrive, taking in healthy air, healthy soil and – not least – healthy farm and factory workers,” he says.
KSM-66 has 1,550 acres (627 hectares) of organic farmland dedicated to ashwagandha in Rajasthan, northern India.
The strictest organic principles are applied across this huge acreage, not simply in avoiding the use of any toxic chemicals on the crop but in overall management of the operation. This involves, for example, collecting the tops of the plants for compost and regularly leaving the land to lie fallow. “This is critical to beginning growing a crop with the phytochemical density you need for an extract,” Kilham points out.
“You can’t abuse the environment and expect to have a healthy product at the end,” he says, adding that ashwagandha is extremely hardy, and does not need artificial support to withstand disease or to grow well.
The company has a 67% market share of the ingredient globally, but is one of only very few ashwagandha farming operations to be certified organic.
The societal dimension of sustainability is often overlooked. But KSM-66 sees benefit-sharing as being at the core of its responsibilities towards its workforce and the wider community within which it operates.
“So, for example, the company has completely funded several schools, at the level of both the facilities themselves and of the teaching staff,” Kilham reports. “This is providing an education for around 1,000 students every day.”
Other initiatives include a free hospital, providing healthcare for 100 or so local people a day, and support for women in their traditional crafts.
“Being able to make a meaningful contribution to health and education is especially important because, in general terms, there are significant gaps in the healthcare system, and education provision is often poor,” he says.
KSM-66 worked for 14 years on its proprietary ashwagandha extraction technology, before perfecting a system that introduces no harmful substances into the process or leaves any in the form of waste or residues.
“If you’re going to be truly sustainable, as KSM-66 is, then any processing methods have to be non-toxic and environmentally-friendly,” says Kilham. “Critically, this also means there is no potential for harmful exposure among workers, either.”
As a vertically-integrated ashwagandha specialist, KSM-66 operates five identical, state-of-the-art extraction plants of its own further south, outside Hyderabad. “These plants meet all the appropriate international standards, and take care of the packing and shipping, as well as the extraction itself.”
Alongside wider practical support for the community, the empowerment of women, specifically, is an important plank in KSM-66’s global sustainability plan.
“Worldwide, women earn on average less than men and have fewer opportunities, but this tendency is magnified in the developing world,” Kilham explains.
Women account for the majority of the KSM-66 workforce. Harvesting the ashwagandha crop, for instance, tends to be an all-women operation. Within the company, they can expect to earn some 10-20% more than in similar positions elsewhere in the community.
Meanwhile, KSM-66 is ensuring it is in a position to pass on its sustainability vision to others. Only a few months ago, the company was part of the launch of the World Ashwagandha Council, bringing together scientists, government ministers and other stakeholders, as well as business. This will be a major platform for enhancing the visibility of this exciting ingredient, as well as for reinforcing best practice in the wider industry.
Meet the KSM-66 Ashwagandha team at their booth I80 during the coming Vitafoods show.