Homegrown guayusa brand seeks to have big impact on Ecuadorian farmers

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Guayusa leaves are brewed in a traditional beverage that has been used in the Amazon rainforest for thousands of years.  Getty Images - Zuberka
Guayusa leaves are brewed in a traditional beverage that has been used in the Amazon rainforest for thousands of years. Getty Images - Zuberka

Related tags botanical herbal tea guayusa

A home grown ingredient supplier is seeking to support indigenous farmers while expanding overseas markets for guayusa, a traditional botanical of the Amazonian rainforest.

The brand, called Waykana, was founded by fellow Ecuadorians Demetrio Santander and Juan David Gomez. In travels in the country’s eastern Amazonian rainforest lowlands the pair became familiar with guayusa’s health effects and the indigenous cultural practices that surround the use of the leaf.  

Keeping the profits at home

They also became aware of how those cultural practices were being expropriated by foreign suppliers, however well meaning, and they decided to do something about it, said Waykana sales manager Maria Estela Corral.  She said the company seeks to have as big of an impact as possible on local communities and to keep the money earned within the country.

“We work with 100 small scale suppliers,”​ Corral told NutraIngredients-USA.  At one point the company was working with a larger number of indigenous farmers but decided to pare back the roster.  This was both to be able to manage the organic certification process better and to have a greater individual impact in each case.

Waykana advertises that it pays wages that are 15% above what’s set by the international Fair Trade standard. And Corral said the company deals directly with farmers to make sure the money it pays for its raw material has the most benefit.

“We deal directly with the famers. We don’t deal through middlemen.  We want to make sure all of the money goes directly into the farmers’ hands,” ​she said.

Two thousand year plus history of use

Guayusa, while relatively new on the North American market, has one of the longest histories of use among New World botanicals. A profile on the herb put together by Josef Brinckmann and Thomas Brendler​ and published in HerbalGram​, the publication of the American Botanical Council, said the leaves of Ilex guayusa​ have been in use since at least 500 BCE.  Pouches of guayusa leaves have been found as burial goods in Bolivia in a tomb dating from that time.  The individual is thought to have been a traditional medical practitioner, based on the specialized medical equipment such as snuff trays found at the site.

In addition, archeological evidence shows the plant, which when left to its own devices grows into a substantial tree, has been cultivated within plantations since at least 350 CE.  And while the botanical has a short history on the modern market, Brinckmann and Brendler said that Jesuit missionaries had already established a local trade in the botanical by the seventeenth century.

Cultivated plants are pruned to remain as large bushes to ease harvest, Corral said.  To make sure the plants have the highest possible expression of bioactives, the new plants are established as cuttings from ‘mother trees’ rather than propagating them from seed which might induce variability, she said.  The knowledge of how to do this and how best to harvest the leaves is part of the cultural tradition of the local growers, Corral said.

“All the leaves we use are harvested by hand.  They don’t take all of the leaves at once but just the ones that are ready.  We work with Kichwa communities where they have the ancestral knowledge to know exactly when the leaves are ready for harvest,”​ she said.

Rich suite of bioactives

That unique suite of bioactives is one of the things that is heightening the modern excitement about guayusa.  When it first debuted on the market is was mostly talked about as an alternative source of natural caffeine.  Brinckmann and Brendler said that while there is some literature on the plant it is mostly descriptive in nature and as of 2019 there have no human clinical trials done with guayusa.  But product developers point to the potential of the leaves’ potent biochemical profile that addition to caffeine contains secondary metabolites such xanthines, chlorogenic acid derivatives, flavonoids, and triterpenoids.  Anecdotal evidence suggests the entourage effects of these metabolites serve to ameliorate the jittery side effects that some people experience with caffeine.

In addition to its attractive biochemical profile, the botanical is widely distributed and so is not in any danger of extinction.  Also, the cultivation of the plant seems to be integrated into the local landscape, instead of the potentially devastating monoculture approach taken for some other hot foodstuffs, such as has been seen with palm oil cultivation.

Energy drink under development

Corral said Waykana, which has a North American office in Houston, sells bulk leaves wholesale and has its own line of herbal teas which are sold on Amazon.  In addition, the company has formulated a proprietary energy drink sold in Ecuador and is working to establish the product in overseas markets.  The first area it will be available outside of its home base is the country of Brunei, Corral said.

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