an interview with tyler gage on guayusa tea, fair trade and agroforestry in the amazon

Guayusa (pronounced “why-you-suh”) tea comes from a plant that is native to the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest, and is perhaps easily described as a cousin of yerba maté.  It’s a tea with a complex and revered social story, for many Ecuadorian indigenous people the morning drinking of guayusa is a social ritual; with families gathering at dawn to drink guayusa from gourds around a communal fire.  Hunters in the Ecuadoran Rainforest call it “the night watchman” because it keeps them alert for hours on end.

I had a chat with Tyler Gage, the President and Co-Founder of Runa about this special tea, starting a socially conscious tea company and about true social enterprise.

After traveling in the Amazon Tyler clearly saw the dilemma facing indigenous people: while they want to preserve their cultural heritage, they also experience an immediate need to feed their families and earn cash in an increasingly globalized world. Ancestral cultural practices link indigenous people to the land but they are also faced with extreme economic pressure to exploit the land despite their traditional relationship to it.  Runa recognizes that there is a trade-off between sustainable development and cultural preservation and believes that by creating an economic incentive for sustainability in agriculture, cultural and environmental preservation can become not only a dream, but a profitable enterprise. *[quote].
Tell me about guayusa tea – what is it, where does it come from, what’s it’s cultural significance and heritage.

What is it / Where does it come from:

Guayusa is a shade-grown Amazonian holly tree that grows under the forest canopy of other native tree species. Runa cultivates guayusa in organic agroforestry systems, where guayusa is grown with other food, fruit, timber and medicinal plants to create bio diverse and ecologically healthy agricultural plots.

Cultural Significance:

Traditionally, indigenous families wake up together at 3 AM to drink guayusa, and sit around the communal fire drinking gourds full of guayusa tea until sunrise. During this time, the village elders teach the youth about ancestral myths, hunting techniques, social values, and about what it means to be “Runa” or a fully living human being in the indigenous cosmovision.

Community shamans, known as yachaks or rukus in Kichwa, will also play a traditional bamboo flute (known as kena) and a two-sided weasel-skin drum, and sing soft rhythmic songs during these early morning hours. The shamans also interpret dreams from the previous night, and make recommendations to guide the community and help them live in harmony with the rainforest.

Runa is young company, can you tell me about how you got started and how you came to work with guayusa tea.

In 2009, Runa became a functioning business because of the insight, passion and hardwork of myself, Dan MacCombie and Charlie Harding. However, the need for a socially conscious business benefiting Ecuador was brought to my attention years earlier after spending time with indigenous tribes in the Amazon. Like any parent trying to provide for their children, the Kichwa people were accepting jobs from lumber companies to cut down surrounding hardwood trees to earn a living. They were being asked to sacrifice the Amazon, their main lifeline, in order to make money to feed and educate their children. It was apparent that globalization was mistreating their culture and their environment.

In 2007, I hosted an Ecuadorian Shaman in my US home. The shaman brought with him one suitcase. The suitcase was filled half with clothes and half with guayusa.

While sharing this sacred drink, we began to brainstorm the cultural and environmental benefits of a fair trade guayusa company. To be able to earn money while proudly sharing a traditional beverage with the world was an exciting concept that continues to motivate me to this day.

Runa has a clear focus when it comes to sustainability (development through reforestation, empowerment of small farmers). Can you please give me some examples of how you have been successful in this area.

Currently we purchase 300 pounds of fresh guayusa leaves from small farmers every day. On average we buy 100 pounds from three different farmers, paying our guaranteed price of $0.35 / pound.  We pay $35 to each farmer, when their previous average monthly income ranges between $30 and $70 per month. To date we have raised 300 farmers by on average 75% each, accomplishing our main goal of providing indigenous farmers with sustainable sources of income.  Additionally, we have already reforested over 120 acres of degraded lands with guayusa and native hardwood trees.

how it all starts

in the ground

post-harvest guayusa leaves

What are some of the challenges of building a socially-conscious company with indigenous people in a developing country. Will you face new challenges as your company grows in size.

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.

Undoubtedly keeping our principles in focus makes the work more difficult – more stakeholders, more priorities, more balance required, more communication required, and more levels to think about constantly. On the flip side, it’s more fulfilling, more sustainable, more exciting, and more participatory.

That said, our advisors constantly remind us that we must remain a successful business if we are to benefit anyone.

Vicente - one of the local guayusa growers

What advice can you give to other your business that are looking to have strong CSR principles, what did you learn along the way that you wish you’d known earlier.

First, find your dramatic difference and find it early. For us it’s the Amazon and a new kind of energy. Without a dramatic difference you’ll struggle. Second, love your product. Tea and tisanes carry infinitely rich stories from their sourcing to their flavor. Weave yourself into them.

We learned along the way the importance of presenting a cohesive and polished branding front-line. We waited a bit too long to design our brand and company aesthetic, which likely caused many people to not take us seriously early on. Similarly, we won a free website through the Rhode Island Business Plan Competition, which was a blessing and a curse. Yes it was free, but it didn’t meet the level of professionalism and sharpness required by a serious consumer brand. Only recently have we launched the new website and are thrilled to have our digital voice tuned.

Why do you feel it’s important to connect producers with consumers.

Exchange and trade are essential human activities that allow us to know other cultures, acquire new tools and resources, and leverage our relationships to grow stronger as communities. One key part of being “Runa” in the Kichwa language is to know other cultures, as the Kichwa people identify this as a core component of what makes them wise and fully living as human beings.

While our ability to trade and ship massive volumes of commodities and goods around the globe is truly impressive, but we seem to have lost the stories and relationships that accompany these endless exchanges.

Beyond this poetic take, direct links between consumers and producers empower producers who often get ripped off by middle men. Producers earn higher prices in Fair Trade markets and overcome disadvantaged supply chain dynamics when they can reach consumers directly.


Interesting point and links:

  • The word “Runa” means “person” or “fully living human being” in the Kichwa language.
  • Check out this beautiful photo essay showing the Amazonian tea ceremony,  photos by Caroline Bennett.
  • Runa are involved in the community that they work in, they recently held a workshop on intellectual property rights, ancestral knowledge, and legal regulations related to the commercial production of guayusa. Working with the community, and not just purchasing from them are integral to the way that Tyler, and the entire Runa team have chosen to do business.
  • Runa also offer internships and volunteer spots based out of Ecuador, you can find out more information on these programmes here – If you’re an independent, entrepreneurial and adventurous person get in touch!
5 Responses to “an interview with tyler gage on guayusa tea, fair trade and agroforestry in the amazon”
  1. Austin Yoder says:

    HOW cool. Love that you’re finding solid CSR tea peeps to interview, Deb. This was superb, and has some really quality pics.

    Happy new year!

    • travel&tea says:

      Thanks Austin! There are so many great CSR stories out there, I’ve loved exploring them and chatting with the people behind the brand name – it’s nice to be reminded that there are companies doing exciting and ethical work out there. Happy New Year to you too, I hope you have a legendary 2011!

  2. Genevieve says:

    What an awesome company and an awesome story – maybe my next stop will be Ecuador after El Salvador! 🙂

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] some other great tea companies that are doing some neat things in the CSR space, such as Rishi Tea, Runa and BOH Tea and now I’m so pleased to be able to add Canada’s nourishtea to this group. […]

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