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Social Enterprise 'Fully Alive' in Ecuador

By Amanda Hartt

I have an academic background in food system analysis and armed with theories and policies surrounding supply chain issues, I stepped out of my books and ventured to the Ecuadorian Amazon to volunteer with a social enterprise. My curiosity to see on-the-ground policies of where the supply chain begins is what brought me to Runa.

Guayusa Leaf.

Runa means "fully alive" in the language of indigenous Kichwa farmers, which have been growing guayusa, a tea-like leaf for generations. It is also the philosophy adopted by the young entrepreneurs and philanthropists behind this new enterprise to embrace and share guayusa and its Amazonian Kichwa traditions with the U.S. market, while building economic stability for its farmers. This goal transitions guayusa farmers from traditional subsistence and barter systems into a market economy where education in a typical family rarely surpasses middle school. However, it is a brave and exciting undertaking to try and change community systems to bring a new unknown product to the international market in hopes to improve economic status of poorer farming regions.

As a crop only grown through indigenous practices passed down from generation to generation, it's now at the intersection of traditional practices combined with new scientific research to understand modern issues surrounding ecosystem relationships, preservation of the rainforest and other environmental concerns. Social and economic change as well as environmental issues requires a lot of forethought and consideration for long-term sustainable development, which has not escaped the core values of Runa and its founders. This team of Americans, their Ecuadorian counterparts, farmers, scientists and behavioral consultants are aiming to develop a social enterprise that tackle various issues from the beginning:

  • Food Security: Educate the development of guayusa as a cash crop while enforcing commitment towards cultivation of subsistence crops, which are often neglected once a cash crop is introduced.
  • Genetic Diversity: Research varietal diversity. It's understood that because guayusa trees are clones made from trimmings of parent trees, there is no known genetic variation. The company is searching for other guayusa varieties with little luck. This could lead into breeding research and potential plant breeding techniques to create diversity.
  • Fair Wages/Labor: Runa is on a six-year plan to achieve all the necessary processes for Fair Trade USA certification. This requires educational seminars to learn what Fair Trade certification means, to understand the social premium, how the democratic process works to elect cooperative presidents and determine how social premium funds are used.
  • Environmental: Runa is certified USDA Organic. Research is continually being done on various agroforestry systems to determine the best fit for the guayusa plant to thrive with high yield, resilience to environmental changes and role in over-all wellbeing of the ecosystem.

To monitor and implement these programs, Fundación Runa was established. The foundation acts as a watchdog to guide and teach the for-profit company how to maintain the principles of Runa as a social enterprise. The foundation is always looking for interns, so improve your Spanish and visit their websites to learn how you too can feel “fully alive."

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