An idea that started while attending Brown University in 2008 has flourished into an exciting social venture for Tyler Gage, one of the founders of Runa Tea. This green entrepreneur has turned an environmentally-sustainable organic, fair trade tea project for into one that will benefit the local community financially and socially. Tyler, while working with indigenous communities in South America, witnessed firsthand the tradeoff indigenous communities face–while they want to preserve their cultural and environmental heritage, they also have an immediate need to earn cash and feed their families in an increasingly globalized world. After long nights of storytelling and ceremonies, Tyler would awaken the next morning to the crisp sound of a chainsaw cutting down hardwood trees nearby.
In 2007, Tyler hosted a family of Ecuadorian shamans at his home in California. They shared an ancestral tea the shaman had carried with him from the Amazon: guayusa (pronounced why-YOU-sa). They began imagining how a Fair Trade business could share this rich-tasting tea with a global audience, and pioneer a proactive and culturally valuable way for the Kichwa people to participate in the global economy.
One year after starting from scratch, Runa Tea has reforested over 200 acres of degraded land with guayusa in organic agroforestry systems, provided technical assistance to over 600 small farmers, built and operated their first guayusa drying facility, and sold out of tea during the sales launch in December 2009.
The Amazonian Kichwa communities Runa works with have already met the market. Or rather, the market has met them in a way that is largely disempowering and culturally invasive. Runa’s goal is to facilitate access to capital markets in a way that gives the Kichwa people money to feed the family and send their children to school, and resources to invest in their own development.
What are some of the challenges of building a socially-conscious company with indigenous people in a developing country?
In Ecuador concepts like “email” and “the internet” are still very, very new. We find conflicting information about export logistics and registrations, large amounts of haze in the Ministry of Environment’s land management regulations, and strange requirements for selling products in Ecuador, among endless other informational jungle gyms.
Undoubtedly keeping our principles in focus makes the work more difficult – more stakeholders, more priorities, more balance required, more communication required, more levels to think about constantly. On the flip side, it’s more fulfilling, more sustainable, more exciting, and more participatory. That said, we are constantly reminded by our advisors that we must remain a successful business if we are to benefit anyone.
How is Runa different from other development type social entrepreneur projects?
Compared to other market-driven development initiatives, Runa stands out with the strength of its vertically integrated supply chain, integrated land management training programs, and its strategy for leveraging Fair Trade social premium funds.
In comparison to a similar market-based reforestation NGOs, Runa is reforesting with a native, culturally important, and perennial crop that grows exclusive in biodiverse agroforestry plots, as opposed to mono-crop plantations. Guayusa begins generating income after 3 years (in comparison to 15+ years for hardwood trees in the Amazon), produces harvests every 3 months, and exemplifies the efficacy of the “Specialized Cultivation” strategy for non-timber forest products, proven to be the most effective in cross-country comparisons.
How can a social enterprise like Runa remain sustainable as it grows?
Because guayusa requires the shade of other trees in order to grow, it cannot be produced in mono-crop plantations, and thrives in a biodiverse forest ecosystem. Even as demand grows our organic agroforestry model will stay the same.
The results for the farmers are also important. Runa has been able to raise 300 farmers income by 25% each, money which is most often used to buy staple foods and for school expenses (uniforms, transport, books). The average monthly income for a farming family is $30 to $70 / month, and every day we pay three different farmers $35 each for fresh guayusa leaves.
How have you promoted your products in the US? Do you use social media avenues?
We just recently launched our products and are only now starting to promote seriously. Our main focus is through product demos, where we get to interact directly with consumers and share the unique, smooth flavor or our tea with them.
We’re about to launch a brand new website and blog, where we’ll be using social media as an additional way to engage consumers and educate them about guayusa.
Our new Social Media Director will be moving to the Ecuadorian Amazon in February, and working from Runa ground zero to share our story, the guayusa tradition, and the Kichwa culture with the world. She’s got a pretty sweet job.
How did you establish your fair trade, organic standards? How do you verify those standards are being met?
BCS, one of the leading independent third party organic certification agencies in the world, certifies our operations and each one of the smaller farmers we work with, according the USDA NOP Organic Certification. We are working with the FLO-Cert and TransFair USA, the world’s leading Fair Trade certification agency, on the Fair Trade certification right now.
From the very get-go, organic and Fair Trade standards were a must. So we design our whole operational structure and production system around the standards. In contrast, most companies or producers “convert” to organic and Fair Trade, which is a much more difficult process.
How are you funded? How did you raise funding?
We’ve raised a convertible debt round from angel investors and received grants from USAID, the German government, and the Ecuadorian government. We also received $75k in cash and services after winning both the Brown University and Rhode Island state business plan competitions.
What advice do you have to other young, social entrepreneurs? Any mistakes that you made along the way that you would like to share?
Follow your heart. Make sure the market understands and likes what your heart has to say. Then persevere, persevere, and persevere some more.
I attribute most of our early failures to a lack of clarity around what exactly we wanted to do. Are we an NGO or a business? Are we a tea company or a bottled beverage company? Are we helping farmers or selling tea? The answers to all of these questions were never black and white. As a social enterprise we’re accomplishing many goals at the same time, and feeding many ducks with one piece of bread (I’m not sure the killing metaphor works so well for social entrepreneurship). Thus, we must understand the points of intersection, the levels, the results, the conjugations, and various languages we speak with a high level of precision, in order to stay focused and accomplish our goals.
Tell us about how the tea is made by the Kichwa.
Guayusa is traditionally brewed by boiling whole leaves in a large clay pot on the fire for long periods of time. Farmers harvest whole guayusa leaves, form piles of approximately 15 leaves, fold them in half, and string many of these leaf packets together on a string, forming a large wreath known as a sarta. The sarta is then hung from the thatched roof of the hut over the fire to dry.
When guayusa times comes around every morning, the women remove a few of the now dried leaf packets and place them in a large clay pot on the fire. Traditionally every family has one special black clay pot that they use only for brewing guayusa.
The leaves are left to boil in the water for anywhere from 30 minutes to 7 hours. Often times the pot will be left to brew overnight. Because guayusa leaves do not have any tannins like other teas, it can be brewed for long periods of time and never acquires an astringent or dry flavor. Once the guayusa is ready, the mother dips a large gourd into the pot and pours servings into the individual gourd that each family member has.
We’ve worked to capture a similar flavor to what the Kichwa people drink through our industrial processing methods. Community leaders often come by our factory to take samples back to their communities, because they appreciate the way we’ve captured the rich aroma and smoothness of guayusa in our drying process.
You can learn more about Runa at www.runa.org. In particular, check out their new Amazonian Holiday Gift Basket, available exclusively from Runa!