Runa: Innovative solutions for forest conservation


By: Jyotsana Saha | First published on See Change Magazine


There is a common trade-off that many agriculture-based communities face in today’s globalized world, stemming from a desire to preserve their cultural heritage and environment, while at the same time having to earn immediate cash and compete with fast-paced production systems. This often results in vast deforestation and soil erosion, which has a direct impact on sustainable livelihoods of communities.


But, does there need to be a trade-off between community values, conservation and economic necessity?


Traditional accounts of the impact of globalization suggest so. However, a number of small-scale, for-profit organizations around the world are reversing the trends. These organizations, often run by entrepreneurs committed to making a difference, are developing innovative, inclusive models that connect low-income farming communities to market opportunities.


Runa, the winners of Ennovent’s WWF Tropical Forest Challenge is one such example. Runa, meaning “fully living human being” in the traditional Kichwa language of South America, creates sustainable livelihoods for indigenous farmers in the Amazon through products that respect cultural traditions, support small farmers and maintain the integrity of the Amazon. The organization was founded by two young entrepreneurs who, while at university, came up with the idea to develop the first fair trade value chain for guayusa – a native American tree leaf that has been brewed like tea for thousands of years by indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon.


Woman harvesting guayusa tea

Woman harvesting guayusa tea


Today, Runa has a proven hybrid model of high-impact, locally driven businesses in the Amazon that supports farmers and connects customers to ancient traditions and healthy consumption. It supports 2,000 farming families, employs more than 40 people, has raised more than $120,000 of direct income for farmers, and augmented each family’s income by at least 30 percent.


Runa’s work shows that sustainable, high-impact businesses in the Amazon can support producers and connect consumers to ancient traditions. In fact, a detailed intake survey of over 3,000 farming families in the Ecuadorian Amazon indicates their social impact has been so successful that the national government’s land planning agency recently offered to buy Runa’s farmer database. The survey also showed that indigenous farmers earn between $40 and $75 of monthly income, earned primarily from illegal deforestation, migrant labor, and cattle farming.


Runa’s survey system is derived from a combination of IRIS, World Bank, Acumen Fund, and Asset Map models, and will serve as the basis through which the organization assesses how successfully income generation and capacity building translate to improved land management, health, education, and economic participation by local farmers. A farmer can earn over $800 per year of direct income per hectare from organic guayusa production, and Runa’s system monitors a variety of socio-economic factors: income generation, access to credit, health care, etc.


It doesn’t happen overnight


Early stage entrepreneurs looking to make an impact in low-income markets need to be nurtured to achieve scale, and often need flexible start-up support, ongoing opportunities to collaborate with other entrepreneurs, and platforms for visibility. This was no different for Runa.


Runa recently won the WWF Switzerland Tropical Forest Challenge, a global search run by Ennovent for the best enterprises addressing tropical forest conservation through their business models. Ennovent, an accelerator for innovations in sustainability, provides an ecosystem of start-up support for organizations such as Runa, so they can refine their business models and expand their reach. Search Ennovent’s Network and you will find a network of organizations, investors, mentors and volunteers working together to discover, start up, finance and scale innovations in sustainability.


If promising models such as Runa’s are scaled and nurtured, perhaps we will see more examples of inclusive, equitable trade, and “conscious consumption” that goes beyond tokenism, that enables less trade-offs and more win-win.


Ennovent manages a variety of challenges that are designed to find and select the best solutions. Learn more about the latest challenge managed by Ennovent – the Artha Venture Challenge, a unique opportunity for social ventures in India to raise upto 25 lakh of matched funding. 

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