RUNA is a Brooklyn-based beverage company, providing drinks made from the Guayusa leaf from the Ecuadorian rain forest. The company was founded by Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie, two highschool friends, that stumbled upon Guayusa whilst conducting research in Ecuador in 2008.
What’s so special about RUNA and Guayusa?
First, RUNA does direct fair trade with a purpose. Second, Guayusa has never been used commercially before. Third, the tea (although it is not related to black or green tea) tastes great and provides a lot of health benefits.
So here’s the thing. Apart from having that air of a „two friends from school setting up a social business together“ venture, RUNA is the perfect case of „conservation through commercialisation“ by putting an underutilised crop or species into commercial use. The basic idea behind conservation through commercialisation is monetising a natural ressource sustainably in order to prevent other ressources from being exploited. In the case of Guayusa it is the local forest that is being preserved.
Further, there is significant increase in income for the local Guayusa producing population. RUNA also pays an additional 15% social premium to the local producers executive body, who uses this fund for community development projects. Apart from that, RUNA set up a foundation, that is dedicating itself to joint research on the impacts and benefits the Guayusa production has on the environment.
Guayusa has never been used commercially before until RUNA started to market it. They got the USDA organic certification as well as the fair trade certification. The Guayusa case has also been picked up by the German Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) creating a project together with RUNA focusing on the above mentioned targets of creating a sustainable source of income, preserving the natural ressources and fostering bioderversity.
Is it really „tea“?
Well, Guayusa (Ilex guayusa) from a botanic perspective, is more related to the family of „holly“. It is more like the Mate tea (Ilex paraguariensis) that is the preferred source of caffeine in southern Brasil and Argentina (and in the Berlin start-up community). That’s the reason why Guayusa on the one hand is high in caffeine, antioxidants, theobromine and lots of essential amino acids, but on the other hand does not have that bitter adstringent taste of tea.
So, is this it?
Like other businesses, RUNA got the basics right. Backed by a supervisory council of marketing and business professionals from large companies, they are able to focus on the core of their business, that is: going for a good cause. However, at the end, everything comes back to market and consumer. There was a time, when consumers bought fair trade products as an act of benevolence, swallowing poor quality and high prices. Yet, with the recent trend of fair trade becoming more and more popular and consumers becoming more aware of social and economical imbalance, these times are over. The best well-intentioned project will fail, if there is no market or no one willing to buy your products.
In case of RUNA we can tick those two boxes: price and quality. On top of this, there come the benefits; tangible and intangible. As previously explained, Guayusa comes with a lot of health benefits that are similar to green tea for example, but with a different taste. So the tangible benefit is, that it energises you the healthy way. The intangible benefits are probably the differentiation (from other consumers) and expression of a personal statement with the consumption of Guayusa.
The rest is just good marketing. RUNA provides four product lines. An infusion drink in four different flavours, coming in the 14oz bottle (0,4l), a light infusion without sugar, tea leaves for home brewing (bags and loose) and an energy drink that could hit the bull’s eye. 😉 The packaging is clear but distinct, conveying the message of clean and natural energy.
Distribution has been set-up and Guayusa is available throughout the US in wholefoods markets, cafés, organic foods market etc.
Conclusion: RUNA’s Guayusa is a perfect example of social entrepreneurship combining a good cause with a good business model and good marketing. RUNA has created a direct fair trade business that helps preserving the natural ressources of the rainforest through mindful commercialisation, creates a livelihood for producers and fosters biodeversity. The Guayusa project has also been supported by the German „Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit“ (GIZ).