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Interview: Dan MacCombie of Runa on how a high-caffeine tea can protect the Amazon and a traditional way of life

   /   Oct 14th, 2010Business, Environment, Food, Interviews

A few years ago, three students took an entrepreneurship class at Brown University in which they explored ways to use international markets to foster social change. The result is Runa, the world’s only dedicated supplier of Ecuadorian guayusa tea, which is now being sold through Whole Foods stores across the Mid-Atlantic region.

Guayusa is a naturally caffeinated tea leaf native to Ecuador that indigenous communities consume as part of their cultural practice. Guayusa is known for its continuous energy lift without the jitters of coffee. Kichwa farmers who grow guayusa play a central role in protecting the Amazonian rainforest by cultivating local crops that do not despoil the environment. Runa has sought to support these small farmers by creating the world’s first guayusa factory and building a market for guayusa in the United States. Runa works with 600 families in 80 communities in Ecuador. Here, the company’s co-founder Dan MacCombie explains how the idea came to life.

Dowser: In the language of Ecuador’s Kichwa people, the word ‘Runa’ means a fully lived human being. How does Runa’s work help Ecuadorian farmers ‘fully live’ sustainable development?
MacCombie: Runa is completely vertically integrated, works directly with farmers, and is all about connections. We take the strongest pride and quality control in everything between tree and consumer’s cup. Our biggest goals are representing our farmers on an international stage and supporting them in selling a product that allows them to sustain their families and preserve their culture and environment.

What do you think is most innovative about Runa’s model?
A big differentiating factor is the virtual nature of what we do—we are of an age and generation where we don’t have a physical office space, are always communicating across country and continent, and are very network-based. Because of that network model, everything we sell is a more direct connection between the farmer and person drinking it.

How does Runa’s connection between its nonprofit and for-profit sides work?
Within our organizational model, we have Fundacion Runa, which works on agroforestry in Ecuador; Runa LLC, which builds guayusa as a consumer product in the U.S.; Runatarpuna, which purchases and exports in Ecuador; and the Runa Foundation, which, promotes fundraising, research and intercultural exchange from the United States and channels resources to Fundacion Runa.

I understand that Runa started as an idea in an entrepreneurship class at Brown University. How did it move from classroom idea to viable business?
During time off from Brown, I worked at the Clinton Climate Initiative and engaged in the concept of how business models can be used to solve social and environmental problems. When I returned, I took an entrepreneurship class at Brown with Tyler [Gage] and Charlie [Harding], [two Runa co-founders]. We were all passionate about sustainable and social development, and didn’t want to be working on some tech website. Tyler had been working with Ecuadorian shamans in California, and threw out the idea of guayusa.

While our original intention was an academic exercise, the more that we worked on it, the more we realized that what could make guayusa a real success was to build a market in the U.S.. In Ecuador there had been similar concepts with selling shiitake mushrooms while respecting forest ecosystems but the missing ingredient was having a U.S. brand. We’d done so much research, had begun to build what could become a great board, and came to the conclusion that we needed to run it ourselves.

How did you structure and finance Runa?
From the get-go we operated as a collaborative. Tyler had the most experience building things on the ground, so it made sense for him to be the leader of the company and run it in Ecuador. Tyler and I financed Runa ourselves for the first five months. In May 2009 we won the Brown Rhode Island Business Competition, which gave us some starting money—and some legitimacy! We were fortunate in that we had a pretty wide network with means and interest in social investing. We started selling online and at local gift fairs and events, with everything made in my house, and got our first retail placement at Blue State Coffee in February 2010.

What are your metrics for success and how have you measured them historically?
Central to our metrics is our capability model, which means supporting communities by building their own capability to succeed. We have been able to build a model where our own financial success is directly related to the model and success of our farmers in Ecuador. In social enterprise, people often think you can slack on business side. We really set standards for ourselves for business sustainability and think it’s possible to judge success on all aspects of the triple bottom line.

We’ve also done a lot of work collecting solid data. At one point the Ecuadorian government actually offered to buy it from us, because we had such a comprehensive GPS-based data set on our farmers! That data includes metrics like the number of trees planted and the number of dollars per year for our farmers. We can provide up to $1,200 per farmer per year, which is a huge amount when their average income is about $300. It’s been harder to measure land conservation. We’re not quantifying that as much because it would take time effort and data we don’t have, but we hope to someday.

What do you wish you had known when you first began working on this project?
We assumed there’d be more of a preexisting supply chain than there was, but we had to build that and learn the logistics of it ourselves. We should have started some processes sooner, like developing the newer, more cost-effective tea bags we’re using now. Our focus was on building the on-the-ground operation, but we could have started sales sooner and gotten interest from the get-go.

Do you think that Runa’s development was particularly relevant to this point in time?
Yes. What we’re doing is innovative, but only in today’s context. We’ve been one of the earlier adopters of a holistic benefit model in Ecuador, and it’s an idea that really just took shape in the last decade. The model of using economies of international markets in a non-exploitative manner with social and environmental aims is also a newer concept.

How would you like to see Runa grow going forward?
I’d like to see us selling globally in grocery stories, family farms and farmers markets and working to develop the national market for guayusa in Ecuador. The Kichwa have faced prejudice in the past and we hope to connect them with the international market by building their sales and revitalizing the identity of Runa. I’d like to see us as a carbon positive—not just neutral—company where with each bag sold we are actually reducing carbon impact. In some ways my dream is that we’ll succeed ourselves out of our jobs, and that this market will be managed by Ecuadorians!

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: Runa.org

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