Building a global tea business with farmers in the Amazon

  • In Ecquador, Kichwa people grow guayusa, a native plant of immense cultural importance and mythological significance. Tribespeople wake at 3 a.m. each day to boil the leaves, followed by community members gathering together to drink gourds of guayusa and share stories, dreams, and myths with one another. Fundacion Runa

  • Guayusa (gwhy-you-sa) is an Amazonian super-leaf naturally packed with caffeine, polyphenols, and 15 essential amino acids. Since 2009, Runa has worked to develop a new value chain of guayusa in the Ecuadorian Amazon. By creating a fair trade market for guayusa, Runa has generated an alternative income stream that continues to raise the standard of living for indigenous farmers in the Amazon. Fundacion Runa

  • Runa believes guayusa can be a driver for environmental stewardship. The company's nonprofit partner, Fundacion Runa, supports and works with farmers to develop land management plans that designate conservation areas and forest reserves. Fundacion Runa

  • Why the name Runa? Among the Kichwa people, the term holds immense value and means “fully alive” or “fully living human being”. For Runa co-founders Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie, the term represents the company's commitment to sharing and celebrating the Kichwa's cultural traditions with the world. Fundacion Runa

  • Fundacion Runa interns have the option to work on a variety of projects in Ecuador, including community development, organic sustainable agriculture, social entrepreneurship, public health, forest conservation, and social impact storytelling. Here, a group of interns visited Mushullakta to participate in an ecology tour and to set new camera traps. Fundacion Runa

Traditional energy drinks conjure images of aluminum cans decorated with brightly colored labels, caffeine contents in large, bold numbers, and cheeky commercials.  Nothing about this product screams environmental responsibility or cultural preservation.  But in 2009, Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie developed Runa, a company that believes creating an energy drink business in the Amazon can be more than just financially viable – it can be environmentally sustainable and supportive of local traditions and customs.

Since hitting the shelves of retailers in 2013, Runa’s “clean energy” drinks have steadily grown in popularity, allowing the business to expand its impact on society and the environment. The company’s identity is steeped in the leaves of the guayusa plant, a naturally occurring plant in the Amazon and one valued by local communities for its health benefits.  Farmers in these communities are successfully harvesting guayusa leaves, thereby alleviating the financial incentive to participate in destructive activities such as logging.  Additionally, the forest gardens in which the guayusa plant thrives create important corridor habitat for plant and animal movements.

The notion of sustainability as practice, that one can turn a profit in an environmentally and socially responsible way, is what attracted Runa’s main investor – EcoEnterprises II, L.P.  With financial backing from outside investors, like blue moon fund, EcoEnterprises invests in small businesses that seek to involve and engage local communities in Central and South America in a way that provides them with a dependable livelihood while also protecting endemic natural resources.

The COO of EcoEnterprises, Michele Pena, notes that “people living in and around fragile ecosystems, faced with a daily struggle to survive, not only lack the financial resources to dedicate to conservation or broader environmental issues, but also have no economic incentive to adopt alternate methods of development that would remedy environmental degradation or encourage the sustainable use of the natural resource asset base.  EcoEnterprises Fund and our portfolio companies help create that incentive to shift from an unsustainable course of action by supporting economic activities that promote sustainable resource use, such as organic agriculture or ecotourism.”

Traditionally, businesses similar to Runa are viewed as risky investments because long-term success is uncertain, and they often are not large enough to catch the attention of traditional investment firms. But where most investment companies see only risk and unprofitability, EcoEnterprises sees the future.  Says Pena, “We have certainly seen consumer interest in sustainability catch up in areas where it was lagging…we definitely feel like the market will continue to head in this direction for the foreseeable future.”

EcoEnterprises continues to promote change in the current investment model, and, with a market capitalization of USD 35 million, they are proving that sustainability as practice is profitable. Pena notes, “(Our) investments have generated impressive results – more than 4,400 jobs created and 150,000 local people benefited, more than $300 million in sales, and 7,000,000 hectares of land conserved.”

As the fund moves into the future, Pena envisions that EcoEnterprises will continue to provide fuel for the engines driving economic and environmental change in Latin America.

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