After graduating from Brown University, Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie gave their parents “the speech” that many parents of up-and-coming social entrepreneurs would hear. The speech goes something like this: “I hope to make the world a better place, I hope to change the world, I am about to do something that I can’t fully explain, I know you think I am about to make the worst decision of my life and that I have lost my mind, but this is what I need and want to do now”.
Both Gage and MacCombie had a bright future ahead. One had a job offer in consulting and the other had a Fulbright grant. But their hearts were in Ecuador, the country they met and learned to appreciate during college. They would also learn that indigenous farming communities struggled to meet financial needs and preserve their heritage. Many development projects in Ecuador had all the good intentions with little financial stability or buy-in from communities. Over 3% of the Ecuadorian Amazon is cut down every year with little signs of rejuvenation.
When the two of them met in an entrepreneurship class at Brown University, they put together a business plan that would turn Ecuador’s cultural heritage into an income generating opportunity for farming families. After leaving Brown University and dropping “the speech” on their parents, they left for Ecuador in January 2009 and eventually launched the business in December 2009.
“Both of us called them on the phone when we’d made the decision, and they’ve been some of our biggest supporters since inception,” said MacCombie.
Their social enterprise Runa is a business built on an Amazonian tree leaf called guayusa, native in the Upper Amazon regions of Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. Traditionally, indigenous families wake up together at dawn to drink guayusa while the village elders teach the youth about ancestral myths, hunting techniques, social values, and what it means to be “Runa”, or “fully living human being”.
Every day, Runa pays three different indigenous farmers $35 each for fresh guayusa leaves to make guayusa tea products sold through their online store to the US and Whole Foods stores in the Mid-Atlantic region. So far they raised the income of 300 farmers by 25% each, whose family income averages $30-70 per month. Sales are expected to surpass $1 million for 2012.
The United States Agency for International Development has given Runa a grant to reforest 1200 acres of degraded lands with guayusa. Guayusa requires the shade of other trees in order to grow and thrives in a biodiverse forest ecosystem. For these reasons, they will be planting food crops, medicinal plots and hardwood trees to ensure healthy, steady growth of guayusa and as a bonus, to supplement farmers’ income and rebuild forest ecosystems.
“It’s more fulfilling, more sustainable, more exciting, and more participatory,” said the founders in regards to the company operating a triple bottom line. “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’. Our advisors and industry experts continue to remind us that above all, 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.”
When asked about some challenges of running the social enterprise, the founders mentioned the process of acquiring knowledge as a big obstacle. “As university students we were accustomed to the ready availability of any and all knowledge any time all the time. However, 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.”
Today, their parents are less skeptical of their work as they put it, and if one thing is for sure, navigating uncertainty is a daily requirement for social entrepreneurs. But if they didn’t take the first step to do something they can’t fully explain or make what seems to be the worst decision of their life, nothing would have changed. No increased farmer income, no restoring the Amazon, and no Runa.
Photo from Runa.
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