BY: MATTHEW CHIN
If you’re an avid coffee drinker, you might be disappointed to find out that every cup you drink destroys roughly 3cm2 of pristine rainforest.
The Amazon is also one of the world’s largest producers of coffee, and cocoa plants. And to keep up with demand, every year farmers clear-cut sections of the rainforest to plant sun-grown coffee crops that, although they grow faster than their ecologically superior shade-crown counterparts, are unsustainable and require high maintenance.
To combat deforestation, Tyler Gage and his friend Dan MacCombie started a business that harvests the Amazon’s naturally caffeinated plant “guayusa,” and turns the leaves into a highly marketable caffeinated beverage.
After Gage’s first year of college, he ventured into the Amazon to live with the native Kichwa people indigenous to Ecuador, and learn about their culture. He discovered that at dawn the entire village would gather around the fire to drink the tea from the guayusa plant—which they claimed to have magical powers. Gage researched the leaf and learned that the guayusa plant is naturally sweet, has double the antioxidants of green tea, and the same caffeine content as coffee.
Runa gave the farmers 100,000 seeds from its plantation so they could expand their harvest and encourages them to start their own plantations. It hopes to give people the self respect and tools needed to grow.
Gage returned to the United States, and several months after graduating both he and MacCombie created Runa, meaning “fully alive.” Runa is a hybrid business that focuses on preserving the rainforest by helping the farmers harvest their crop, and empowering Amazonian community development.
The guayusa plant that Runa sells gave $400,000 to more than 3,000 farming families in 2014. An additional $50,000 went to improving the community and the planting of over 150,000 trees a year, according to Runa. The company also buys the leaves for three times the price that farmers could sell lumber for, to deter farmers from clearcutting.
The guayusa crop is also indigenous to the land and requires little maintenance.
Silverio Mamallacta works as an advisor for Runa. He explains how to cultivate the guayusa in the traditional way of planting and harvesting. He shares his knowledge by organizing tea ceremonies with tourists.
Being liberal arts students, the two didn’t know the first thing about business. They realized they needed to network if they wanted to get their start-up going.
“We didn’t know the first thing about managing exports or the supply chain in the Amazon. But we are trained to ask questions, think critically about issues at hand, synthesize a lot of information, and make decisions. So that’s what we did,” Gage said in Fast Company.
They went to every conference they could manage, and over time they began meeting with major beverage companies such as: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé Water, and David’s Tea among others.
Their business also caught the attention of socially conscious athletes, musicians and actors. Channing Tatum, among many others openly endorses Runa.
Runa began selling loose-leaf guayusa in 2009 and now the six-year-old company’s revenue shifted from an $800,000 evaluation in 2012 to a $10 million evaluation this year. But Gage takes his pride from the positive environment and social impact the brand has had for the Amazon and its indigenous population.
“We’re very clear we started this project to make a big impact…Our goal is to be working with roughly five to 10,000 farmers in the next two to three years,” Gage said in an interview.