A jaunt to South America four years ago turned into a job in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest for Nick Olson, a 2005 Durango High School graduate.
Olson is back now to open markets in the Rocky Mountain region for guayusa tea, a drink the Quichua inhabitants have used for millennia as an energy drink and an herbal medicine.
The guayusa is a tree of the holly genus from which the leaves are dried and ground to make a tea. The leaves of the guayusa, which grows from 20 to 70 feet tall, contain caffeine and flavinoids that contain twice the antioxidants of green tea.
In his travels, Olson, who graduated in 2009 from Birmingham Southern College with a major in economics and a minor in Spanish, met Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie, who had founded Runa LLC only the year before. He started with them as a volunteer in 2010, but soon became manager of operations for the firm, which markets loose-leaf, bagged and bottled guayusa tea.
Runa’s stated mission is to respect the indigenous culture of the Amazon, support small farmers and protect the integrity of the rainforest.
Runa literally means “fully living human being,” but is used as a greeting among the indigenous Quichua.
Olson described his adventures to members of Durango Daybreak Rotary recently. Sharing the microphone was his girlfriend, Cassandra Walker, an Englishwoman from Devon. Walker is program manager for the nonprofit side of Runa that focuses on social issues and improvement of conditions for the Amazonian Quichua in an area about the size of the Western Slope where guayusa is found.
When Olson joined Runa, the firm had six employees. There are now 40 in Ecuador and 10 in the U.S.
Walker was the second hire on the nonprofit side, which now has 10 employees.
The Quichua of the Amazon are subsistence farmers, eking out a living growing cocoa, coffee, plantain and manioc, Olson said. Every family has a guayusa tree or two as a source for the tea they drink and use in ceremonies and as a medicine.
Guayusa tea, which doesn’t contain the tanins that make other teas astringent, is known as the “night watchman” because hunters drink it to stay awake.
The guayusa leaves that Runa buys are certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and has Fair Trade USA approval.
Since the guayusa tree produces no seeds, propagation is done by planting shoots, Olson said. Runa technicians help the rainforest denizens expand their stands of guayusa – 150,000 shoots planted so far – and teach them the benefits of pruning.
Pruning spurs growth but keeps a tree within comfortable harvesting height, Olson said. Technicians also are experimenting to see if simply a leaf and a bud will produce a tree.
“We work in 150 communities with about 2,000 farmers, about 60 percent of whom are women,” Olson said. “We work at elevations of 300 to 1,000 meters.”
Runa headquarters is in Archidona (Napo Province), a colonial town founded in 1560. The 2001 population was 4,200.
Runa has invested $100,000 in machinery and renovation of the factory where guayusa leaves are dried, milled and sifted, Olson said. The structure formerly housed a firm that raised frogs for export to China and Japan, he said.
Current tea production is 20,000 to 25,000 pounds of raw leaves a month, which translates to 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of dried leaves. A tree is harvested every three months.
Indigenous Amazonians who sell guayusa leaves have seen about a 30 percent increase in yearly income, Olson said. Ordinarily, a great percentage of Quichuans earn about $1.30 a day, he said.
Runa, which got its foothold in U.S. markets through health-food stores, now sells to the Stash Tea Co., Whole Foods, Nature’s Oasis and Vitamin Cottage. Albertsons Market in Durango carries bagged guayusa tea.
BevNet, a beverage industry organization, rated Runa the top 2012 best tea or tea-based drink. In the competition were 300 new, revamped or extended-line beverages.
Beyond his current assignment to promote tea sales, Olson has no sure plans.
“I’ll figure out the next step,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll always have a connection to Runa.”