Biolaya

Quality Reflections

Quality Reflections

For those who are not involved in the business of growing or collecting herbs, ‘quality assurance’ may not sound like the most interesting part of the website, but in the context of protecting Himalayan herbs through sustainable production, it is an important, and often fascinating subject. Below are a few reflections on quality assurance that I haven’t covered elsewhere, including thoughts on whether and how these concepts can be applied beyond Biolaya on an industrial scale.

#1: Tracing the herbs through the processing facility
#2: Finding a balance between ‘rigour and practicality’
#3: joining the dots: how to encourage more holistic supply chains?
#4: Where do we go from here?

#1: Tracing the herbs through the processing facility

In telling the Biolaya story I have focused mainly on cultivation and sustainable wild collection, and have only briefly mentioned the importance of processing. In terms of providing quality assurance and being able to trace a batch of herbs back to its origin, this is a crucial stage, and also where things most commonly go wrong.

It would be nice to be able to share photographs of Biolaya’s exemplary rural processing facility, but in reality – like most small companies – we had to make do with what was available and what we could afford. For us, this meant renting a hotchpotch of small buildings around the village: one for storing tools and sacks, one for storing fresh herbs, one for distillation, and so on. Not ideal, but it did the job.

Most importantly, we had a good system for recording the origins of all herbs and kept a paper trail (in addition to our field to shelf system) through every stage of processing so that each batch could easily be traced back to its source.

The diagram below shows an example of a ‘product flow’ through a processing facility and examples of corresponding records that may need to be maintained. There are many variations on this that depend on the species, the facilities available and the requirements of the buyer.

In terms of providing traceability, the most important records are kept on arrival at the processing facility. The Goods Received Note (GRN) should record details of where and when the herb was harvested with reference to any relevant cultivation or wild collection records. At this point a batch number should be allocated, and every sack of herbs clearly labelled.

Depending on how big the batch is, it may need to be blended with other batches before it is dispatched to the buyer. The resulting batch of consolidated herbs should then be issued with a new batch number with reference to all the batches that went into it.

From a buyer’s perspective it is helpful to be shown a product flow diagram as in the example below. If they want to trace a batch back to its origin, they can easily understand how and where the records are kept in relation to each stage of processing.

Biolaya Process Flow Chart

An example of a ‘product flow’ through a processing facility


#2: Finding a balance between ‘rigour and practicality’

Although Biolaya was a company with commercial aspirations, our main objective was conservation. This meant it was important to develop rigorous quality assurance systems to ensure that the herbs were sustainably produced.

But it was also important that we developed systems that could be replicated by other organisations and accessible to marginal farmers. And in this respect I question whether we set the benchmark too high.

Many Indian companies I have spoken to consider Internal Control Systems, Wild Harvest Management Plans, GACP and so on to be impractical. The most common argument is that they require extra resources to implement and that these costs are not sufficiently reflected in the price of the product.

In many cases this is true; it costs money to construct a herb dryer, or even to buy a clean tarpaulin. If the collector has no money, or no support from the buyer, he/she will dry it on the floor or on the roof of their house.

But there are many improvements that can be made through changing basic practices such as instructing people not to walk on the herbs, or to harvest the herbs at the correct time of day. These require no extra resources other than the effort to train and monitor the relevant people.

Biolaya could afford to invest in quality assurance as we were selling herbs to a niche market who were willing to pay extra for the assurance of high quality, sustainable herbs. If our only option had been to sell to a local trader, I wonder what methods we would have used? Is quality assurance a privilege for the minority that sells to high value markets, or is there a way of finding a balance between rigour and practicality?

Some certification bodies have come up with a useful answer by distinguishing between what is ‘required’ and what is ‘recommended best practice’. This encourages people to aim for a higher standard whilst recognising that a more achievable minimum standard may be required.

In the pages on the Internal Control System and Wild Harvest Management Plan I have given examples of how we developed simplified versions to find our own balance of what we perceived to be both rigorous and practical. These can be further simplified – to a point – to meet the different standards of other organisations and their buyers.

There are also examples of quality assurance systems that are significantly more rigorous. For example, a management plan developed for Arnica montana in Romania, which took six years to complete and reportedly cost several hundred thousand euros, shows the extremes to which it can be taken. I personally have no intention of replicating such a complex system, but it is a very useful document in providing guidance on best practice.

So my conclusion, for now, is that it is equally as useful to have examples of quality assurance systems at both ends of the spectrum. We need projects that demonstrate best practice, and at same time we also need to find ways of simplifying these systems to make them accessible to herb producers on every level.


#3: joining the dots: how to encourage more holistic supply chains?

If the Indian herbal industry continues ‘business as usual’, it will inevitably lead to the loss of many valuable plant species. Change is needed on an industrial scale.

I believe one of the biggest problems is the existing predominance of linear supply chains. For as long as herbs are traded through long and secretive chains of middle-men, it will be very difficult to make any significant change.

But with the current status quo so well established, where do we even start?

I suspect there must already be many producers, traders, and Ayurvedic manufacturers who are already asking the same questions, but have no way of finding a more transparent and sustainable source.

So we need a way to help the different players in the supply chain connect. I believe the simplest way to do this would be through a purpose-built website. There are some good examples of how this has already been done in building local food networks, such as food-hub.org and foodtrade.com – the latter being dubbed as ‘a dating site for the food industry’. This concept can easily be transferred to the herb industry.

We need something similar through which Ayurvedic manufacturers can, for example, seek ‘cultivated kutki with a certificate of cultivation’, or producer can offer ‘fully traceable cultivated jatamansi’, with a framework designed specifically for providing quality assurance. This could easily include elements of the field to shelf system to provide the buyer with more details of where and how the herbs were produced.

At times it may be necessary to directly connect manufacturers with the producers, but that doesn’t mean there is no role for the middle-men. Ideally the traders need to adjust their working model to become more involved with the farmers and/or collectors – perhaps set up a simple Internal Control System or Wild Harvest Management Plan, or create a processing facility to add value. In this way they can make themselves an indispensable part of the supply chain and as a consequence there would be no need to hide the source of the herbs from the buyer.

I am sure there are many other solutions, but I think this would be a good starting point in encouraging the creation of development of more holistic supply chains.


#4: Where do we go from here? Next steps:

  • Improve GACP training material. There is a lot of work to do to develop more tools for training farmers, collectors and herb processors in Good Agricultural and Collection Practices, including a few changes to the training videos, which I am working on at the moment.
  • Create an online system for connecting producers with buyers. As already mentioned in #3 above.
  • Design an improved version of the field to shelf online documentation system. Or work with others who are working on similar systems.
  • Tell me what you think is needed – I’d love to hear your thoughts…