Every morning before dawn, the Amazon-dwelling Kichwa tribe partake in a 2,000-year-old tea-drinking ritual. Guayusa (pronounced gwhy-yoo-sa) is their brew of choice, served in a hollowed-out gourd. Rather like many of us before our first caffeine hit, the Kichwa say they are not ‘Runa’, which translates as ‘fully alive human being’, before their first bowl.
Now, thanks to a group of young social entrepreneurs, a bottled brew made from guayusa leaf is becoming a leading health drink in Hollywood, with a premium filtering back to the villagers.
It started in 2009 when Dan MacCombie and Tyler Gage, fresh out of Brown University, went travelling in the Ecuadorian Amazon when they stumbled across guayusa. They set about joining forces with the local farmers to produce and sell a bottled iced drink made from guayusa, which, with permission, they decided to name Runa.
The energy drinks business is estimated to be worth US$50 billion, and MacCombie and Gage marketed Runa with a USP of being high energy but ‘clean energy’, unlike highly caffeinated, acidic and artificially sweetened drinks. While Runa has the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee, it also contains 15 amino acids; polyphenols that are believed to neutralise free radicals; chlorogenic acids, which contribute to cardiovascular health; and is packed with antioxidants. “It tastes incredibly smooth, is super-healthy and makes you feel amazing,” says MacCombie.
They moved fast. In under a year they had planted 75,000 trees as part of the existing forest — rather than in cleared plots — which has since grown to 1.2 million trees. After a year they got the USDA Organic Certification for the farmers. Today, Runa works directly with 3,100 indigenous farmers who they pay US$0.35 for a pound of the leaf, which MacCombie says is higher than the market rate. Runa is Fair Trade Certified and pays 15 percent on top of each sale into a social premium fund for communities to use towards their own vision of sustainable development. Around seven million bottles of Runa are sold every year, along with loose-leaf tea and tea bags, predominantly in the US, Ecuador and Canada, with sights being set on wider markets.
“I was overpowered by the connection these communities have with [Runa], and had a strong desire to think of ways to link conservation with supporting these indigenous peoples,” says MacCombie.
A major turning point for the company came after winning The Venture, a social start-up competition run by Scotch whisky brand Chivas Regal. Then, actor Channing Tatum, who was already a fan of guayusa, heard of the start-up and became an initial investor. “I was going through six to seven cans a day, because we were exhausted,” he said in a recent interview. “Our blood was guayusa, it became an obsession. I don’t drink coffee, because it gives me the shakes. This is my everyday.” Tatum’s investment was soon to be followed by one from Leonardo DiCaprio, while Virgin billionaire boss Richard Branson praised Runa in his best-selling book Screw Business as Usual.
The journey has not been without challenges. The hardest thing about running a start-up, says MacCombie, was having to let down farmers when demand was miscalculated early on. “In the early years the supply-demand relationship was tricky to figure out,” says MacCombie. “We put a lot of thought into planting enough guayusa to be harvestable ahead of time. We didn’t want to run out of stock.
“We made optimistic projections because we wanted to grow as quickly as possible. But, over the course of time, as we had more understanding, we had to go to the communities and say we are not going to purchase as much this year [as we thought] and that was a big lesson for us. It was a very humbling experience. We learned that under-promising and over-delivering is critical [as a social start-up], as well as being transparent and sharing with communities everything as timely as possible.”
Now that demand is more predictable, the plan is to swell production to two million trees that should generate annual revenues of US$1 million, increasing the income of 3,100 families by 200 percent.
Clearly guayusa is no flash-in-the-pan fad. As a testament to guayusa’s status, famous Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes found a 1,500-year-old bundle of guayusa leaves in a medicine man’s tomb high in the Bolivian Andes, far beyond the natural range of the plant.
That could be because its significance goes well beyond a mere pick-me-up. Several myths say guayusa was the plant that taught human beings to dream. Community shamans, known as yachaks in Kichwa, will play a traditional bamboo flute (known as kena) and a two-sided weasel-skin drum, and sing soft rhythmic songs during the early-morning drinking ceremony, as well as interpreting dreams from the previous night. The guayusa ritual continues to be a cornerstone of Kichwa culture, a practice that brings the family and community together around the simple experience of drinking tea.
All in all, powerful lessons from a humble cuppa.