Ashwagandha, a powerful adaptogen with multiple pharmacological actions, has neuroprotective, anti-tumour, anti-arthritic, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory effects, and is an essential herb in Ayurvedic medicine.
And its popularity is soaring: the global ashwagandha extract market generated $864.3 million in 2021, and is expected to reach $2.5bn by 2031, according to Allied Market Research.
Monique van de Vijver is health innovation manager at Solidaridad Network, whose mission is to make international supply chains fairer and more sustainable. Aromatic plants caught her interest because many botanicals are sourced from the regions where the organisation is already active.
Ashwagandha was identified as an interesting opportunity for India, partly because of its importance to Ayurvedic medicine but also because it is gaining a lot of traction in global markets.
Leveraging native plants and knowledge to benefit local communities
How to exploit ashwagandha’s benefits without compromising the health of the surrounding communities and environment? Van de Vijver said diversity was key to achieving true sustainability – and that this needed to start from the source: the farmers.
She told Vitafoods Insights: “A healthy farm needs diversity, and … our ecosystems are becoming more impoverished because of the introduction of single cash crops in industrial farming systems.”
However, despite the problems associated with dependence on a single crop, there is little incentive for change, she added: “If you're poor, you have other things on your mind than risking losses because someone wants you to not use chemicals.”
Farmers in the region where the pilot is taking place have become very dependent on soy and industrial farming, “using a lot of chemical inputs which are also impoverishing their soils”. Growing ashwagandha alongside the soy presents an opportunity for converting to organic practices.
“We take a ‘farmer first’ approach,” said van de Vijver. “So, what does the farmer as an entrepreneur need to build a healthy business from farming? It's connecting them to rewarding markets, but … also to see how, if other crops are introduced for diversification, these can also be connected to more rewarding markets.”
Simplifying supply chains
Van de Vijver identified “short and transparent” supply chains as another key driver of sustainability, as this is “the only way that value edits along the chain can be distributed more evenly”.
However, smallholder farmers “are dependent on very intransparent supply chains, and so they might sell to local markets … and from there it's really not clear what is happening”.
She explained: “One trader may come, and then the trader sells to another trader, and another… And that is how it ends up in bulk, and it's then exported – so you will never know where that ashwagandha is coming from.”
However, solving this problem will require input from players at all levels of the supply chain. “We need to find buyers who are interested in sustainability, who understand that unsustainable practices at source and this lack of transparency [are] affecting everybody – not only the farmers, but in the end, it's also affecting the buyers and the consumer,” she said.
Solidaridad is working to build similar alliances and partnerships to those it has built within other global markets – but botanicals present their own unique challenges.
“The botanical supply chain is quite chaotic,” van de Vijver said. “It is not well organised. It's not really been invested in in that way. I think it's not monopolised in the way that the global commodities are monopolised. So here lies an opportunity.”
Building a business case for going organic
If used for medicinal purposes, the quality and safety requirements for botanicals are very high, which can present a barrier – but, if rewarding, they can also present an incentive.
“There is no … easy conversion to more ecological farming practices,” van de Vijver said. “This requires time. If you want to convert as a farmer to organic, it needs a conversion period of three years. You will have to make a lot of investment. You might face yield losses in the process, and if no one is compensating you for that investment, you will just not do it.”
And she highlighted the importance of collaboration to ensure that “we're not getting farmers into investing in things that end up for being nothing. You have to be very responsible there.”
Without that balance, she said, there was a danger of farmers switching from one monoculture to another, “also is not very feasible or sustainable”.
She also spoke of the strict standards required for organic certification and floated the idea of an “in conversion” label for products that fell short. “Sometimes certification is supportive, but sometimes it is in the way,” she said.
Sustainability ‘is not a linear process’
Not only are behavioural inputs needed for this shift to more sustainable practices, according to van de Vijver; communication needs to change as well.
“People think so easily about sustainability as being a linear process. But it is not,” she said. “For companies, this can be a problem. They tend to communicate in a way which is like ‘we're doing this so well’ – and if you cannot live up to your claims, then you have a big problem.”
She pointed to technological advances as offering an alternative for changing the narrative – for example, via data-driven storytelling. “Communication on sustainability needs to become more honest and more transparent – more on the real impact which is there on the ground,” she said.
But overall, she is hopeful that similar programmes will become a possibility across south-east Asia.
“The urgency is being felt more, legislation is out there pressuring companies to create more transparency in their supply chains, consumers are asking for it far more – so we really feel that it is a good moment, and we really hope that we can make this type of supply chains work for smallholder farmers – and for nature,” she said.