In 2009, days after graduating from college, we moved to the Ecuadorian Amazon. We had both been inspired by the people we met during our travels in the area, and we were drawn back to the cultural traditions and amazing Amazonian superleaf that had energized us so much.
In our work and travels in South America, we were both struck deeply by the tough trade-offs we saw indigenous communities faced. While many communities expressed a strong interest in preserving cultural traditions and protecting the environment, they also acknowledged a desire and immediate need to participate in the cash economy. In an increasingly globalized world, cash unlocks the door to healthcare, clothing, education, and more. Tyler saw this clash of needs firsthand: after long nights of celebrating the natural environment through storytelling and ceremonies with indigenous communities, he would awaken to the sound of chainsaws cutting down hardwood trees nearby. This drove home the point that illegal logging and land conversion were seen as necessary evils by people living in the Amazon to earn cash.
Guayusa is a central part of cultural traditions in many of these communities. When Tyler first tasted guayusa in the early morning hours of the rainforest dawn, he was amazed by its smooth flavor and by the clean energy it provided him. From this experience sprang an idea. A conversation started about how the Kichwa could share guayusa – and their cultural heritage – with a global audience, while creating a new income stream that brought cash to the community without necessitating rainforest degradation.
The two of us returned to school from living in South America with our combined experiences, conversations, and ideas fresh in our minds. When we took an entrepreneurship class together, we realized there was an opportunity to turn these concepts into something more concrete. However, when Dan had lived in Ecuador, he had seen many development projects that had the best intentions but little financial stability or buy-in from local communities. He was wary of beginning a project that was unrealistic and would falter on the ground. So after we drew up a business plan in our class and graduated from school, we moved back to Ecuador. We linked back up with the indigenous communities that had many cultural traditions surrounding guayusa, and detailed a plan to bring the superleaf to the global marketplace.
Our parents, needless to say, were skeptical…
After moving to Ecuador, we drank many, many gourds of guayusa with different Kichwa communities and focused on building partnerships.
We slept very little.
Now, a few years later, Runa buys guayusa leaves from over 2,000 farming families. Those leaves are processed in a plant in Ecuador and then are shipped to the U.S. where they are packaged and shared with a growing number of guayusa enthusiasts. Runa is proving that sustainable, high-impact businesses in the Amazon can support producers and connect consumers to ancient traditions.
We couldn’t be more excited. (And yes, our parents are a bit less skeptical now.)
- Tyler and Dan