Business initiative draws Inspiration from South American indigenous cultural legacy
Two years ago, when Tyler Gage hosted a Peruvian shaman in his home as part of a cultural exchange, the shaman brought with him a small bag half full of a sacred plant called wuayusa. It was a serendipitous meeting. The plant, Gage would learn, brews a nutritious, stimulating tea, and carries with it an Amazonian legacy of cultural responsibility and sustainability.
The meeting was for Gage, and a number of alternative-thinking indigenous Amazanga Kichwa people, the beginning of a fledgling international business initiative called Runa. Gage would begin a plan to commercialize a line of wuayusa-based drinks in the United States, and use profits to help sustain farmers in Ecuador in a way that was responsible.
“So much of what we see in Ecuador and South America is just development,” Gage, a recent Brown University alum and president and CEO of Runa, says. “You have destructive industries: oil, deforestation, and pharmaceutical companies. People grow coffee, which comes from a different part of the world, and they grow green tea, which comes from a different part of the world
“There really aren’t any ways that [indigenous people] can connect with who they have been and also with their future. Wuayusa does both of those things.”
In Kichwa, runa means to be fully human, to be ancestral stewards of the rainforest. The venture that takes the same name is based on that concept and what the leafy, indigenous wuayusa plant symbolizes.
Wuayusa is sacred to the Kichwa, Shuar, and Achuar of the Ecuadorian Amazon. It is a vital part of their rituals and ceremonies, and can be cultivated without employing much maligned slash and burn farming methods.
Runa’s tale reads part Amazanga prophecy, part backpacking adventure with a cast of heady Brown entrepreneurs, and part lesson in international economics and sustainable development.
Runa LLC, based out of Rhode Island, will launch a line of energy beverages and teas next summer. Fundacion Runa, the fully nonprofit Ecuadorian arm of the Runa initiative, is set up to train farmers and invest in sustainable farming methods with funds from its United States partner’s sales.
Runa LLC offers .35 cents for a pound of wuayusa, a figure that is above comparable market prices. An additional 20 percent bonus is given for a social premium fund which farmers can use to implement health and education projects. Gage is currently seeking matching funds from the Ecuadorian government, and international NGO’s and foundations.
At this point, Runa employs 18 Ecuadorians, 16 of whom are indigenous Kichwa. Another 243 farmers are applying to cultivate their own wuayusa plots. Fifteen hectares of wuayusa have been sown.
The innovation here is not so much in the products offered, but in the business model that channels consumer dollars into sustainable development. When the shaman first came to visit Gage, a market for wuayusa did not exist, nor was there viable trading network. But venturing into new ground enabled Gage and his business partners to think outside of the box and to set their goals very high.
“You can imagine we started with essentially nothing,” Gage says. “One of our original goals was to think of what it means to go beyond fair trade. The opportunity we have is that there is no market mechanism for wuayusa.”
Gage expresses unease with fair trade cacao markets in Belize, which, according to him, are unjust by nature and still haunted by the specter of three hundred years of slave trading.
“From the beginning, our goal was to say, ‘this is how wuayusa production is done sustainably, and this is how wuayusa trade is done.’ One of the phrases that the Kichwa people say is, ‘development with identity.’ This is about the people. It’s not an NGO or a government or a multi-national. This is what we want to do.”
Gage says that companies like Guaya and Ben and Jerry’s were of paramount inspiration for their ability to see, in his own words, “that business cannot only be a force for profit.”
“We look at a triple bottom line: we can use market mechanisms to create benefits for the environment, for society and also economically,” Gage says.
“It’s true—there are other ways to do business.”
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