What a great way to finish up the week! Today’s interview is with Tyler Gage, a founder of Runa organic tea. Runa is made in Ecuador from guayusa (why-YOU-sah) leaves which has been cultivated and used by the Kichwa tribe for thousands of years. Today’s interview is all about how Runa operates from the support of the Kichwa people while respecting and honoring their culture. Meet Tyler, learn about Runa, and get ready to drink some really good tea ’cause this triple bottom line practicing, community enhancing, and industry re-defining company is showing you how it’s done.

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

TG: 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.

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.

LC: As Runa expands, do you think it will still remain sustainable? Are there enough farmers  and guayusa plants to meet demand as operations increase?

TG: 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. 

LC: I read that the Kichwa use agriculture for consumption more than for income. Most of their work is through manual labor and growing guayusa can give them the opportunity to double or triple their income. Has this occurred? How does this affect the future generations of the Kichwa people?

TG: The Amazonian Kichwa communities we work 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.

LC: Runa supports 600 farming families in the Amazon. Has this number grown? As more adults are employed and earning higher wages, how has this affected their offspring? Have you noticed any shifts in education?

TG: To date, we have been able to raise 300 farmers income by 25% each.  Most farmers have been using this money 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.

LC: 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?

TG: Undoubtedly its 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.

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.

LC: What gets you up in the morning?

TG: Guayusa.  Literally. Or one of my dogs, Noé or Penelopé. I also like getting to the office early to have a calm space to plan and work on our business.

LC: Upon the start of Runa, the core mission was to connect producers with consumers. As the company develops and grows, has the mission been redefined at all?

TG: Good question.  Not really.  Our specific goals have become more consolidated around economic opportunities and market facilitation, rather than broader “let’s help the Kichwa people any way we can.”  We recognize this component as the major white space that Runa fills, and the decided strength of our team and business model.

LC: I read that there is a 20% bonus given to farmers for the purpose of implementing health and education projects. Have you gained matching funds from NGO’s or the Ecuadorian government?

TG: The matching fund strategy is the future strategic plan. We’re still in the early stages of implementing this fair trade social premium (actually 15%), and will continue to leverage this resource as a powerful tool for the farmer associations.

LC: Runa is sold in Whole Foods stores in the Mid-Atlantic region and through your website. Do you ship to anywhere in the US, say, for the holidays?

TG: Yes!  We have a new Amazonian Holiday Gift Basket that we’re proud to offer. We ship all products throughout the US.

Thank you Tyler! What a wonderful way to kick-start the holiday season on a high note. This company is living proof that it is possible to have a great product that enhances the environment in-which it came from. The tea also tastes pretty damn good.

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