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New Energy From The Amazon

October 5, 2011

Crist asked if I would share some of our experience starting up Runa because, as a social enterprise, we are working in some of the same space–environmental and social responsibility being centerpieces of our business model–as other businesses that Raxa Collective showcases on this site.  We agreed that a good place to start would be with some questions we encounter frequently.  If there is interest in hearing more, I will be back to tell more of the story in finer detail.

Your website says Runa does not actually farm Guayusa. What do you do and why should people care about Guayusa?

Runa is creating markets for beverages created with Guayusa (“gwhy-you-sa), a native Amazonian tree leaf that contains more caffeine and double the antioxidants of any tea. With a flavor that is smooth and clean, guayusa offers a new kind of energy what the indigenous Kichwa people call “mental strength and courage”.

Additionally, our non-profit arm, Fundación Runa provides tools and resources to indigenous communities and farmers’ associations working towards their vision of sustainable development in the Amazon. We focus on three core areas: social empowerment, community development, and environmental management.

In partnership with over 600 indigenous Kichwa farmers in the Ecuadorian Amazon, we have built and now mange the world’s only value chain for guayusa.  We provide technical assistance to small farming families to grow guayusa in organic agroforestry systems, and by purchasing guayusa at a guaranteed minimum price, Runa creates economic incentives for sustainable management of natural resources and rainforest conservation.

You’re right, we do not directly farm guayusa, but rather provide  market for the indigenous farmers that do.

How did a bunch of Brown students start a project in the rainforests of Ecuador?

Tyler, while working with indigenous communities in Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil during his time at Brown, witnessed firsthand the tradeoff indigenous communities face: while they want to preserve their cultural heritage, they also experience an immediate need to feed their families and earn cash in an increasingly globalized world.  The indigenous communities also  shared an ancestral tea they consume every morning while sitting around the fire as a community: guayusa.  Together, 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.  Dan, meanwhile, had traveled to Ecuador in his semester off from Brown and observed many development projects that had the best intentions but little financial stability or buy-in from communities, and had built a diverse background in non-profit management, sustainable development and conservation.  With these experiences providing a grounding and operative view to the goal, Dan and Tyler teamed up in Danny Warshay’s Entrepreneurship and New Ventures course during their last semester at Brown in the Fall of 2008, and wrote a business plan for Runa that later won both Brown and Rhode Island’s Business Plan Competitions.

Tell us about how Runa involves people with backgrounds very different from you.

Diversity is a great thing, and not as some lip service to a politically correct ideology, but as an environmentally and socially proven basis for success.  We compare our organizational diversity to the “agroforestry” land use systems Runa designs and implements with farmers. An agroforestry plot is a diversified agricultural area where hardwood trees, food crops, medicinal plants, and cash crops are intermixed and grown together. The diversity of plant life creates healthy soils, prevents erosion, cycles nutrients efficiently, and is more profitable for the farmer.

Similarly, Runa would be weak if it were a monocrop of young white gringos, or only the farmers. Our diversity gives us deeper vision, resources, and ability to be effective in every area of our business.

What process did you use to select your board of advisors members?

Industry expertise, availability, and the degree to which they “get us” and fit into the team.

Please describe specific activities you are doing so the project continues after the U.S.-based founders leave.

Our Ecuadorian Subsidiary is fully managed by our local management team, and Tyler plays an active, yet back-end role as the company President.

Additionally, we’ve found an amazing Executive Director for Runa Foundation who carries a deep vision of Runa’s opportunity and a clear strategy for scaling our social impact.

Moreover, we don’t plan to leave! We love Runa and are in it for the long haul.

How did you get Whole Foods to carry your product?

Reached out to the buyer, she liked it and brought in the line.

Where else can I buy it?

Check out the store locator on runa.org. We have almost 300 stores that now carry the products.

Do you drink tea and when is your favorite time of day to drink the tea? 

I’m an avid tea drinker, primarily guayusa, but I also appreciated Taiwanese Oolongs and White Tea varietals in particular.

I usually drink guayusa right when I wake up, and take some time to sit with it, focus my mind, and feel connected to the Amazon and the mission of our work.

How does Runa tie into supporting the cultural heritage of the Kichwa?

At its core, Runa is not “helping” but rather “buying, training, and connecting”. Wain Collen, Education Director of Fundación Pachamama, emphasizes that “NGOs who aim to ‘help’ indigenous communities most often end up causing more problems than they solve.” Similarly, Comuna San Jacinto President Antonio Vargas, said, “We don’t need more workshops, we need markets and people to buy our goods.”

We support the cultural heritage of the Kichwa people by providing a market.  This sounds off and contradictory I know.  However, in practice, economic forces drive development, and our goal is

I find it very important to highlight that Kichwa culture is, by nature, evolutionary.  I see that many westerners picture these “pristine” communities that haven’t changed for thousands of years, living in “pristine” environments.  While there are many ancient and beautiful parts of Kichwa culture and spectacular tracks of primary forest, the very practice of drinking guayusa in early morning ceremonies is quickly dying while over 3% of the Ecuadorian Amazon is cut down every year.  The culture itself is woven into the environment, an ever-changing, ever-evolving place.  As a shamanic people, the Kichwa people maintain close relationships with their environment, one that used to include jaguars and now includes more tractors and tourists.  So, they continue evolving.

Rather than preserving or conserving a historical concept of culture, Runa offers the Kichwa people viable, sustainable, and fulfilling opportunities to live valued lives in the globalized world to which they are inextricably bound.

We chose the name “Runa” for the organization because of its powerful link to the Kichwa identity.  Runa means “fully living human being” in Kichwa, and brings together their power, knowledge, and ancestry into their way of living.  In stark contrast, today the term Runa is used in Ecuadorian society as a derogatory term meaning “worthless” or “mut” (without pure Spanish heritage).  Runa has chosen this name as a symbol of support to the Kichwa people’s cultural identity and prove that their ancestral traditions continue to have value in the globalized world.

Does it ever become difficult to run a company with the People Planet Profit leading the way, and why do you think most companies are still so tied to running the B with with one bottom line instead of three?

Undoubtedly its more difficult. More stakeholders, more priorities, more balanced 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.

Our advisors and industry experts continue to remind us that above all us, we need to run a successful business, regardless of how social it is.  Without a strong, successful business we can’t generate any benefits for anyone.

As the company Runa expands, do you think it will still remain sustainable? Are there enough farmers looking to be a Runa employees and Guayusa plants to meet demand as operations increase?

Guayusa requires the shade of other trees in order to grow.  It is a crop that cannot be produced in monocrop plantations, and thrives in a biodiverse forest ecosystem.  Even as demand grows our organic agroforestry model will stay the same.

Runa recently received a generous grant from USAID to reforest 1200 acres of degraded lands with guayusa agroforests.  We are planting guayusa with food crops, medicinal plots and hardwood trees, so that farmers can have additional income, forest ecosystems are rebuilt, and of course, Runa has guayusa to bring to market.

How did you get your start in social enterprise?

While working with indigenous communities in South America, Iwitnessed 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, I would awaken the next morning to the crisp sound of a chainsaw cutting down hardwood trees nearby. Here, Tyler was significantly impacted by the stark choice communities were forced to make between cultural and environmental values and immediate economic needs. Then in 2007, I hosted a family of Ecuadorian shamans at my home in California. They shared an ancestral tea the shaman had carried with him from the Amazon: guayusa. We 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. I then teamed up with one of my best friends, Dan MacCombie in an entrepreneurship class at Brown University in 2008 to write a business plan for our dream, and then moved to Ecuador in January 2009 together to make it a reality.

What are the three qualities you look for most in a potential employee?

Proactive, resourceful, and deliberate.

Everyone in Runa must be entrepreneurially, and able to set their own work flow, make and hit goals, and look for new opportunities to grow the business. To accomplish these goals, they must be resourceful and use the tools and knowledge at hand to make stuff happen. I think the word deliberate is actually more on target than the usual “passionate” or “committed” terms thrown out. Even if some one makes a mistake. They must be deliberate, and have a strategy and idea behind their moves. Being deliberate shows a commitment to the business, exhibited by a commitment to being intentional about every move by thinking through and around the goal before action is taken.

If you could give advice to someone looking to get into social enterprise, what would it be?

First and foremost, find people you enjoy working with. If you’re interested in water issues, but find an incredible group of people that is working to save elephants, jump on board and save some elephants! Good leadership, camaraderie, and a fun atmosphere are so important to create a fulfilling and meaningful experience for you.

Beyond the people, find an idea or enterprise that is first a good business. I know this sounds harsh, but forget the social side to start. Find an enterprise that offers a needed and valuable product or service, and has a unique business model that allows them to be profitable and successful.

Then look deeper. What is the organizations impact? Is impact built into their business model or is it a one off PR campaign?

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