When it comes to making a difference, companies don’t have to be huge. These finalists for the 2015 Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence started small — and found success helping workers and communities build better lives.
Have you ever heard of “guayusa”?
This caffeine-rich plant, growing in the shade of tall rain forest trees, is the secret ingredient in Runa LLC’s teas and energy drinks. Tyler Gage, Runa’s co-founder, first learned about the plant while living with the Kichwa, an indigenous community in Ecuador. Here, farmers cultivated the plant in “chacras,” gardens that grow and thrive within a healthy rain forest.
“These sustainable practices have preserved the biodiversity and ecosystem of the Amazon for millennia,” said Eliot Logan-Hines, executive director of the Runa Foundation. Working with more than 2,500 farmers, the company developed a business model that includes farmers in decisionmaking, promotes labor rights and invests in indigenous communities.
Since 2011, the Runa Foundation has planted more than 1 million trees in the rain forest.
“We feel that we must promote and respect this ancestral knowledge for the long-term survival of the Amazon and the planet,” Logan-Hines said.
If you’ve heard of “guayusa,” it may be because I-DEV International in Peru helped grow Runa’s business by connecting the company with its first round of capital. In Latin America and elsewhere, I-DEV matches socially conscious companies with markets and investors.
I-DEV is attuned to “the unique challenges and realities of growing businesses in the emerging markets, as well as an extensive network of investors comfortable investing in those countries,” said Dan MacCombie, Runa’s co-founder.
Since 2009, the firm has mobilized more than $40 million for small, high-impact companies around the world.
Based on the company’s unique set of business development and matchmaking skills, “we can begin to provide a new perspective and create new opportunities for families,” said Patricia Chin-Sweeney, a co-founder of I-DEV. “The local community can and should be a key contributor and beneficiary of local industry.”
Chris Haughey wanted to build a wooden toy company — but without resorting to the illegal logging and deforestation he had witnessed in Honduras. He and his brother started Tegu, whose magnetized wooden building blocks are made from 400,000 hectares of sustainable forests.
Tegu blocks even attracted the attention of former president of Honduras Ricardo Maduro Joest.
“I have known the Tegu project for a few years and have had the opportunity to become familiar with it,” he said. “Tegu produces world-class products using local raw materials and operating mainly with Hondurans. They have always behaved with high respect and social responsibility for our people, environment and culture.”
The blocks have also benefited the Honduran economy, he said. “I know their products to be sold successfully in many highly developed markets of the world where we have normally only been able to sell raw materials. The combination of high local value added, socially highly responsible behavior, and consistent and effective transfer of knowledge to locals makes Tegu an outstanding model for sustainable job creation.”
One employee, Martin Alvarado, has big dreams for the company. “My biggest desire, and I am sure it will come true, is for Tegu to be a world-famous brand,” he said. “Not only for their social responsibility … but for giving hope of a better future.”
East Bali Cashews
Aaron Fishman learned a lot about cashews, a local crop in northeast Bali, as a health-care volunteer in 2011. Talking with villagers, “I was surprised to learn that almost all of Indonesia’s cashews are exported for processing, 5,000 miles away,” he said.
In the villages of Desa Ban, most workers made less than $2 per day. Balanced diets and school expenses were often a luxury. But Aaron saw an opportunity: If people in surrounding communities processed and packaged cashews locally, they could keep that extra value close to home.
So with four local investors, Fishman started East Bali Cashews, which has grown dramatically through cashew-processing profit and international “impact investing.” Most of its 350 workers are previously unemployed women.
East Bali Cashews also provides an early learning center, AnaKardia Kids, for employees with young children.
The company works with farmers to modernize cashew production. Once farmers are trained as suppliers, they can typically produce 20 percent more cashews and sell them to East Bali Cashews at a higher price.
Runa, I-DEV, Tegu and East Bali Cashews are finalists for the 2015 Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence in the Small or Medium Enterprise category. Started in 1999, the award recognizes American companies that are leaders in responsible business practices.