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August 02, 2010

Industry with Heart

MonaVie: Salvation in the Rain Forest and Beyond

by Katherine Ponder

Quantifying MonaVie’s Help

  • 5 years have allowed MonaVie to launch a business and help Brazilians
  • 80 percent of the annual açai harvest is purchased by MonaVie
  • $60 million has been invested to help instruct Brazilians on the management, harvesting and pasteurizing of the açai berry
  • Schoolchildren participate in MORE after-school programs, immersing them in reading and writing, math, the arts and music
  • Children receive much-needed shelter and care for their basic needs through MORE
  • Children receive ongoing dental care, as needed, with MORE
  • 1,030 adults and teenagers acquire essential skills and knowledge to become productive employees at the MORE vocational classes
  • 15 young men receive housing, job skills and care for their physical needs as MORE steps in to help break the cycle of poverty
  • 236 adults attend MORE classes to learn reading, writing and computers—some of the most important skills for self- sufficiency

Randy Larsen, MonaVie Founder, Founder and Vice Chairman, repeatedly treks into the jungle of northern Brazil, bunks outside with the families who pick açai and builds the sourcing relationships crucial to MonaVie’s success.

The heart of MonaVie products is the açai berry from the Amazon rain forest, and MonaVie leaders are changing lives for thousands of Brazilians.

There are places in Brazil where even the police won’t go. They have been paid or warned off from these favelas, or slums, by the drug lords who are in charge. There are places in the rain forest where even intrepid scientists and environmentalists can’t make an impression. But MonaVie isn’t afraid. Through goodwill, understanding and local partnerships, the company has helped thousands of Brazilians improve their lives and their livelihoods.

It Started with a Berry

MonaVie is known for its beautiful bottles, reminiscent of fine wine, that contain fruit blends based on the açai berry. As “one of nature’s top superfoods,” the açai berry grows only in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest. This unassuming berry found nestled beneath palm fronds has now created an entire industry. MonaVie leads that industry, buying up to 80 percent of the annual açai harvest. It has also led Randy Larsen, the company’s Founder and Vice-Chairman, to undertake many treks into Brazil. He saw for himself the living conditions of local children. From the very beginning of MonaVie’s creation, Randy knew that it was all intertwined. He also knew that it was an opportunity to improve things for the Brazilians.

Rain Forest Sustainability

Despite national and international agreements to conserve the Amazon, the “lungs of the Earth” are still subject to tree harvesting. Subsistence farmers and expanding ranching and farming efforts are still cutting into the rain forest. Soybean crops and cattle ranching are two of the most cited cutters, but there are others. In fact, hearts of palm found in very chic salads and buffets come from the core of palm trees—açai palms (Euterpe oleracea). Harvesting the heart of palm almost always kills the tree. There has been monetary incentive for people to cut and clear the rain forest, which is a driving force for those who have very few resources. Yes, it is shortsighted, but for people who are hungry today, tomorrow is a distant worry.

MonaVie entered the picture almost five years ago and began to change things. “We were able to show people how to harvest the açai fruit,” Randy said. “We went down there and spent about $60 million on açai alone in the last four years, helping the people learn how to harvest, process, pasteurize and export it. This gave incentive for Brazilians up and down all the rivers to plant trees and to not cut them down. Now they can make more money, sustainably, by keeping the trees alive.”

As this açai berry industry began to grow in northern Brazil, it stimulated other industries and services. Transportation and processing plants blossomed. The funds that have been coming into Brazil because of the berry are allowing local people to build schools and enjoy the “luxury” of electricity and generators for the first time. “There are hundreds of families now making their living harvesting açai and other fruits that we export around the world,” Randy said. “One of my passions is what’s going on positively in the rain forest because of MonaVie, in that really poverty-stricken area.”

Randy estimates that thousands of acres are being saved from cutting because of the açai harvesting practices, and more trees are being planted. This will help slow and perhaps even reverse the deforestation trends in Brazil. As a corporate executive, Randy could conceivably stay at the corporate offices and direct others on his behalf in Brazil. However, he chooses to go to the Amazon himself and meet people, oversee initiatives and thoroughly understand how MonaVie positively impacts the region.

“Life has changed up and down the river for these people,” he said. “It’s amazing. That’s why I get up every day. We have always said, If you’re blessed, you’ve got to be a blessing to the world.”

Dallin Larsen, Founder, Chairman and CEO

Dallin A. Larsen, MonaVie Founder, Chairman and CEO, is a champion of the MORE Project.

The MORE Project

Another way that MonaVie blesses the world is by reaching out to those who live in southern Brazil. For a growing nation, there is still a significant divide between the haves and have-nots. It’s estimated that more than a quarter of Brazilians live below the poverty line. Seven and a half million kids live on the streets in Brazil, often as victims of ruling drug lords and rampant prostitution. Historically, there isn’t an infrastructure or corporate social responsibility underpinning to address the needs. Drug lords control the police and politicians, so there are no official efforts to “clean out” the problems. This is where MonaVie has chosen to work.

The company was in its earliest days and already knew that it wanted to pursue humanitarian efforts in Brazil, the country that was providing a bounty of healthful fruits. That’s when a distributor told the founders about Sergio Ponce and his family, who had been helping children in Brazil’s favelas but had just run out of funding. It was serendipitous.

“This guy was just an angel walking the earth trying to help the children in the favelas,” Randy said. “As part of our whole purpose, we wanted to give back to where our product comes from. As soon as we met with Sergio and his family, we got goose bumps. We knew we had the right guy, the right cause and the right time.”

Ponce is now director of the program and says that the deliverables grew as the program went on. “In the beginning, it was just to take care of these kids, just to give food,” he said. “Then we started to learn that they need healing.” The MORE Project—an apt acronym for MonaVie Operational Rescue—was officially launched to provide that healing. MORE is a stand-alone nonprofit designated to help entire families escape the cycle of poverty. MORE provides food, water, education, mentorship and even housing to those who are most vulnerable.

There are currently six homes for nearly 100 children, taking them off of the streets and offering a safe haven. The children are offered school lessons, and young adults can take vocational courses. Young men and women and even adults enroll in hundreds of classes for cosmetology, jewelry-making, computer sciences and mechanics.

“We teach them to go out into the real world and provide them a way to make a living besides drug trafficking or prostitution,” Randy said. “A lot of our classes are really helping people who have lived in orphanages but have no place to go once they get too old. We help them learn a trade and get placed out in the community.” This includes single mothers, many of whom work the streets, whose children have bleak futures without some sort of help. They’re finding that help at MORE.

Construction operations even help local families build homes or put proper roofs on their own meager dwellings. The MORE Project offers dental care for the children and their families, sometimes giving them their first-ever trip to a dentist. “When we get right down to it, we’re changing lives of children, teenagers, adults and families,” said Katy Holt-Larsen, Executive Director of the MORE Project. “We’re breaking the cycle of the generations before.”

Distributors and MonaVie employees play a significant role in the MORE Project. Children are “adopted” and their needs are met, their successes shared and their challenges addressed. Throughout the corporate headquarters, photos of children who have been adopted by company departments and individuals are posted, as are notes and well-wishes sent halfway across the world. Individuals step forward with donations and a sincere desire to help the disregarded poor in Brazil.

Many distributors also go to Brazil to work, learn, inspire and be inspired as part of the annual expeditions. These trips offer memories of a lifetime and sometimes tear-inducing lessons that persistence and faith can pay off, even in the darkest of places. Distributors roll up their sleeves to help with construction, laughing through sweat and blisters. They meet families that are being helped through MORE and indulge in talking to and playing with the children in MORE. Youth also can get involved with the MORE Expeditions, getting a taste of what it is like to help others who have so little compared to the “wealthy” neighbors from the north. These life-changing trips consistently are filled within days of their announcement.

Perhaps most important of all, MORE shows Brazilians how to believe in themselves. They hear a message similar to that delivered to prospective MonaVie distributors: You can live a better life. You can pursue a dream. For the poorest of the poor, no one has ever given them a glimpse of something more. They don’t even know that they can or should expect better. “We really work with these people on dream-building, to show them that there is a life outside of the favelas,” Randy said.

From helping with April floods in the MORE favelas to donating $500,000 in six minutes at the MonaVie annual convention, the MORE project and MonaVie distributors have proven that they can not only dream, they can inspire others through their support. All of the collective work in Brazil serves also to unite distributors, the corporate officers, and local people in the home country of the açai berry. It has created a magical combination that continues to build on itself—and keeps everyone coming back for more.