Ecuador Learning Exchange

This learning exchange focused on identifying solutions to a globally important problem: addressing poverty reduction and conserving biodiversity in the tropical rainforests.

In the Amazon rainforest, three 2014 Kinship Fellows visited Ally Guayusa, a 100% indigenous farmer-owned cooperative with an integrated supply chain that exports organic Amazonian tea harvested from the guayusa tree, a relative of holly. Ally Guayusa is one of the cooperatives that works with Aliados, an organization that incubates community enterprises that conserve biodiversity in important and vulnerable ecosystems. 2014 Kinship Fellow Wain Collen serves as Aliados Executive Director and hosted this five day learning exchange with 2014 Fellow Matthew King, Founder and President of the COMMON Foundation in Boulder, Colorado and 2014 Fellow Andrew Goldberg, Project Manager at Rainforest Alliance, leading the Appalachian Woodlands Alliance.

As a new initiative in the Kinship Fellows Community, learning exchanges such as this one provide an opportunity for Fellows to gain a deeper insight from one another on conservation challenges and bring solutions back to their own work by visiting other Fellows organizations and project sites. Wain, Andrew, and Matthew completed the first learning exchange in February 2020 in Ecuador.

This learning exchange focused on identifying solutions to a globally important problem: addressing poverty reduction and conserving biodiversity in the tropical rainforests. Aliados, which already incubates various social enterprises, is looking at building an incubator focused on this issue. COMMON Foundation has conducted research and advised clients on the development of incubator and accelerator models over the years. "The model that we’re working with Wain and Aliados to develop in Ecuador builds from previous work of the COMMON Foundation,” according to Matthew. “Incubators have to be tailored to a client’s specific context and, ideally, focused on how they can assist with achieving the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs)." Wain and Matthew identified their shared interest and the benefit of pooling resources, sharing knowledge and experience, and networking to help solve the dual priorities of reducing biodiversity loss and poverty in the Amazon. Simultaneously, Andrew’s work at Rainforest Alliance is expanding to include tropical rainforests, a new landscape for his portfolio, and this exchange in Ecuador provided first-hand knowledge and expertise with Wain’s decade-plus experience in the Amazon and Andes. 

While together in Ecuador, Wain, Andrew and Matthew visited two producer associations in the Amazon and two producer associations in the Andes to look at business models and supply chains and spent time discussing challenges and opportunities with each group.

In Cayambe, where the Andean agave plant grows wild, they visited the Mishkita agave producing women’s association. For generations, this indigenous women’s association has produced a sweet sap harvested from the agave. This sap is now purchased at fair trade prices by Andean Spirits. Aliados works to help Mishkita strengthen their organizational capacity and to diversify their farming system and income streams. 

The Fellows also visited the Azama association, an organic goldenberry farmer producing association. The association is part of Aliados pilot cohort program with five farmer associations to help take the associations to the next level of growth. 

At Ally Guayusa, where the goal is to maximize benefits to farmers from the guayusa supply chain, the Fellows visited some of the 40 hectares of guayusa under organic production. They also learned about Aliados partnership with Ally Guayusa, discussing how Aliados helps the association with many key activities including building community enterprise management and governance capacity, financing infrastructure costs, certifying agroforestry, and providing international marketing. Ally Guayusa generates income for 140 farming families. 

The Fellows also met with the Tsatsayacu farmer association, which Aliados is partnering with to incubate a new heirloom peanut value chain. In 2016, Aliados reintroduced muru inchi, a peanut variety grown in the Ecuadorian Amazon, in partnership with an indigenous women’s group in one community. The peanuts are good for the agroforestry system by freeing up nitrogen for surrounding plants. Since 2016, four additional communities have reintroduced the peanut variety. Aliados is now working with Tsatsayacu to increase production and develop a sustainable revenue source for association farmers that also strengthens conservation of the forest. 

Visiting a number of producers associations provided a unique opportunity to discuss the challenges and limitations of developing viable products for the global market while also advancing and incorporating market-based approaches to conservation. “Both Wain and Matthew are deeply engaged in market interventions,” said Andrew after the exchange in Ecuador. “I learned a lot about the different types of investment that might be necessary to get a project off the ground.”

As an added bonus, Wain, Matthew, and Andrew traveled with the Charitable Giving Manager from Lush Cosmetics North America, giving them a better understanding and deeper insight into how a corporation with a clear social responsibility mission thinks about investing in products that incorporate market-based approaches to conservation into their operating models. A in depth look at the unique partnership between Ally Guayusa, Aliados, and Lush Cosmetics is covered in a Mongabay story, written by Matthew. “This was the first time I hosted a diverse group of institutional partners around our work in Ecuador,” remarked Wain. “It helped build my confidence and could be an important piece for our network development.” 

Additionally, Andrew connected with 2017 Fellow Garrett Siegers, Co-Founder and CEO of Whole Forest, a social enterprise working to mitigate climate change by helping forest communities conserve endangered rainforests and prevent large-scale carbon emissions. Whole Forest has created a sustainable forest projects supply chain connecting forest communities to US green construction markets. It is the first private initiative to be registered as a REDD+ project in Ecuador and works with over 400 local families. During an afternoon in Quito, Andrew continued to learn about tropical forest conservation and discussed Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. Andrew is currently working with FSC on new models for smallholder certification, while Garrett is preparing to certify Whole Forest with FSC. An upcoming BBC article, authored by Matthew, on the future of capitalism includes more insights from Andrew on the FSC certification process and its value to the forestry sector.

The exchange in Ecuador provided on-the-ground learning and experience to kickstart a deeper partnership and continued work between Matthew and Wain. “We made good progress outlining a framework to establish a fund to support business innovation for sustainability in tropical forests,” said Wain. Later this year or in 2021, Wain will visit Matthew in Boulder, Colorado and Andrew in Asheville, North Carolina to complete the learning exchange. In Boulder, Matthew will arrange visits with a number of accelerators, natural product companies, foundations in the impact investment space, and venture capital firms in the natural space, which will greatly strengthen Wain’s work in Ecuador. The experience of the learning exchange paved the way for important network development essential to supporting and strengthening the work in the Amazon and Andes. In Asheville, Andrew will discuss Rainforest Alliance’s smallholder forestry work in the Appalachian region of the United States as well as some native medicinal botanical businesses, identifying lessons Wain can bring back to community projects in Ecuador. 

If you’re interested in learning more or connecting with these Fellows, contact Wain, Matthew, Andrew, or Garrett

If you are interested in completing a learning exchange or are looking for assistance on a specific challenge that a Kinship Fellow may help you solve, email Shelby

Visiting a number of producers associations provided a unique opportunity to discuss the challenges and limitations of developing viable products for the global market while also advancing and incorporating market-based approaches to conservation.

Photo Credits: Matthew Wilburn King