A Startup Hundreds of Years in the Making Comes to Life in Costa Rica
¡Pura vida, amigos! My name is Mario and I am writing to you from Costa Rica where I lead Sustainability operations at Thrive Natural Care. Well, that’s not entirely true. I lead operations which aim to go beyond sustainability.
Instead of just limiting the negative we aim to actively create more positive. That way, as we grow unique ingredients for our powerful natural skincare products, we’re also leaving the world better than we found it.
Our story begins before I was even born, in the voices of my ancestors and with two grandmothers who carried those voices with them.
While working on an ethnobotanist project in Tortuguero (Northern Costa Rica)
Both my grandmothers were very present in my life while growing up in a small village in rural Costa Rica. For many afternoons I was their eager errand boy.
These errands took me deep into the corners of my rural hometown searching for just the right plant for just the right concoction of plants for just the right cure.
My grandmothers were encyclopedias of traditional botanical knowledge, the only source of such wisdom for us in a pre-Google era.
They would tell me to go get a plant that looks like this, or that smells like that. But it wasn’t until they had both passed away in my teenage years that I would ever question, why that plant? What does it do? How does it do it?
With scientists, Tony Durst (Chemist from University of Ottawa), and Luis Poveda (Ethnobotanist/Taxonomist, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Costa Rica).
As a teenager, I wanted to find out how the remarkable plants I had collected for years nourished us on a physical level, what science could tell me about generations of intuitive wisdom.
I pursued that knowledge in university, studying ecology and tourism at campuses in Costa Rica and while working on a project for a Canadian University. I also embarked on a project to recover all uses of the plants mentioned in these oral traditions in Northern Costa Rica, while also working as a guide for tourists sharing my knowledge of these jungle ecosystems.
Then, it all came to an abrupt halt.
Mario, you’ve been selected as a candidate to be a part of a team developing a one-of-a-kind agriculture project in Costa Rica.
It was an email with very few details. Only that a friend of mine had recommended me without my knowledge. But here was an invitation from someone who seemed to like me, and to be like me.
Sometimes life gives you a nudge in a new direction. And this felt like one of those. So I traveled 8 hours to the capital for a meeting with people I didn’t know to learn about a project I knew nothing about.
When you know, you know
In that meeting with Thrive CEO, Alex McIntosh, he told me that he and his team wanted to use ingredients native to my country to develop natural skincare products. As I had spent years documenting such medicinal plants, I was intrigued.
Alex and his team had already identified two plants they wanted me to collect and grow, Fierrillo and Juanilama. I knew these plants. Both possessed powerful healing properties and both had been used for generations in my country to address various skin conditions.
Fierrillo packs a strong antioxidant-punch along with its anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory properties which can help promote healthier skin. Juanilama is also an anti-bacterial powerhouse, with antifungal properties to boot. These were natural candidates for plant-based, effective skincare. And they had never before been used for skincare products!
In that meeting, Alex also shared his vision for a new kind of business. It was a vision for a business which operated as nature operates, in a cyclical process of growth and restoration. Simply put, he envisioned a natural skincare company which, through its operations from farm to face, would leave the world better than it found it. Now, I was more than intrigued. I was in love with the idea.
This was the dream job for any botanist in Costa Rica. The opportunity to do what you love, work with plants and farmers, and also play a part in doing something positive for both the land and its people.
I jumped on board. With Thrive, I set out to see what we could do to change my country and the world of business for the better.
Harvesting learnings from our failures
We hold ourselves to a high bar at Thrive. That’s true for the quality of our products and the depth of our impact. So when our first harvest of Juanilama and Fierrillo didn’t meet our expectations, we studied why.
We had planted about 250 plants expecting a certain amount of leaves to harvest as a result, which simply did not happen.
In the case of Juanilama we eventually learned that trimming the stem at a height of 30 cm gave us an optimal harvest and was best for the plant. With Fierrillo, we learned to just harvest its leaves, leaving the stems.
Of course, these are two learnings of many, many more that we’ve implemented either on the harvest side, the planting side, or somewhere in between. And today, we’ve gone from 250 plants to over 20,000 per harvest!
As we plant more our labor has become more refined and our harvest more efficient. We’re hauling in 5,000 kilos of Juanilama every 3 months and about 800 kilos of Fierrillo. One reason we’ve been able to expand that number so much (other than our awesome customers) is because we’ve taken good care of the soil that makes it all possible.
Going All-in For All Natural
We’re constantly taking stock of how we’re doing in our mission to leave things better than we found them. In my day-to-day, that means ensuring that our plants play a cornerstone role in their ecosystem, improving soil health and biodiversity.
I work together with our farmer Don Juan and the 23 families of our partner co-op, Coopecuna, to track our progress in these areas. What kind of plants can benefit our soil the most? How much organic matter should we add to the soil to make it more productive? These are questions we continue to explore, so that we get better, so that we learn year after year.
For example, the results of one of our assessments a couple years ago showed very low amounts of phosphorus in the soil. An expert colleague recommended we use phosphorus rock in an attempt to address this, but we wanted something more natural.
After a recommendation from another colleague of mine, we planted Tithonia diversifolia (a yellow sunflower-like plant native to Costa Rica) with Don Juan. He would trim it and put the organic matter back into the soil. At Coopecuna we didn’t plant any so that we could compare the soil from the two locations after 6 months.
The plant nourished the soil exactly as we had hoped, while the soil at Coopecuna remained lower in phosphorus than we would have liked. Now, all our farms have added Tithonia diversifolia and our soil is thriving better than it ever has before.
What’s important especially for us, is that our plants contribute to a positive cycle of ecosystem development. Because each plant, each plot of soil, every organism plays a role.
That’s why we didn’t trim all of the Tithonia diversifolia that we planted. Don Juan let some grow so that the large yellow flower bloomed. And with that bloom, we welcomed butterflies and other insects, which in turn brought more birds, allowing nature’s intelligence to do its thing and biodiversity to flourish.
Using nature as inspiration, our farmers continue refining their practices so that together we improve the soil and biodiversity of our land using all the natural tools that nature provides us.
More Than a Company, We’re Creating a Movement
Any great company is greater than the sum of its parts. I believe I am living that experience at Thrive. Ancestral knowledge. Powerful plants. Thriving ecosystems. Inspired farmers. Dedicated scientists. A passionate team. Empowered customers. The ingredients that make Thrive great are diverse and they are many.
I’m extremely proud of what we’ve done and extremely excited for where we’re headed as our Thrive family grows. With our restorative model, the more our business grows (our sales increased by 400% last year) the more we are able to restore land and livelihoods along the way.
With that growth comes new learnings and new challenges. Because as we grow, we’ll need more extract, more of everything, it affects the whole restorative cycle. More farmland. More farms. More farmers.
To continue creating high performance natural products within this model, we have to care for each piece as it grows with us. I’m proud that we’re doing so in Costa Rica and look forward to a time in the near future when we can be doing so with people from other countries and all around the world.
For now, I’m keeping the voices of my grandmothers close. And listening to the plants and to the soil that surround us here. With that in mind, I’m off to the farm. I’m interested to hear what the plants have to tell me today.