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Traditional Medicinals Foundation’s Social Initiatives Empower Botanical Farmers

When Drake Sadler co-founded Traditional Medicinals with Rosemary Gladstar in 1974, Gladstar was eager to educate the public on the benefits of herbal medicine, and Sadler was interested in applying the Buddhist precept of Right Livelihood to re-invent the business of plant-based medicine. Decades later, Traditional Medicinals is a leading seller of wellness teas in the United States, and Sadler, having stepped down as CEO of Traditional Medicinals in 2007, is focused on the Traditional Medicinals Foundation (TMF) he co-founded with his wife Nioma.

Guided by the Sadlers’s vision, the Foundation is unique in that it works in partnership with Traditional Medicinals to advocate for social sustainability in herb-sourcing communities. Using a portion of the company’s profits and resources, TMF goes to the sources of the company’s raw materials, many of which are remote and indigenous communities that rely on income from collecting or cultivating botanicals. Using a disciplined community-engagement strategy, TMF focuses on building schools, training village health workers, improving water and food security, providing women with opportunities for empowerment, and preserving culture and ancestral herbal knowledge.

“The Traditional Medicinals Foundation is the product of the Sadlers’s shared vision and a profoundly strong commitment to empowering people at the very beginning of the value networks producing high-quality botanical ingredients,” said Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council (ABC). “The Foundation is an integral part of Traditional Medicinals’s mission, as well as a meaningful, evolutionary step in the company’s purposeful history. Serving as a social business model, it is destined to become a highly positive and constructive force in the global herbal community.”

One example of this model is The Revive! Project, which seeks to reduce poverty among senna (Senna alexandrina, Fabaceae) farmers in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan. Senna is a popular ingredient because of the laxative properties of its leaves and fruits. In keeping with its sustainability commitments, Traditional Medicinals introduced the first organic senna farming practices in Rajasthan. Since 2009, the Foundation has sought ways to improve the quality of life for these smallholding farmers by focusing on the greatest threats to their well-being and security: food and water scarcity and lack of educational opportunities. To date, Traditional Medicinals has invested more than $1 million in The Revive! Project, impacting more than 12,000 people in six villages in Rajasthan.

In partnership with Traditional Medicinals, as well as global botanical supplier Martin Bauer Group, Indian herb extract manufacturer Umalaxmi, and California-based non-governmental organization WomenServe, TMF has built rainwater catchments for household, agricultural, and livestock use in Rajasthan. This allows the villagers to make better use of what little rain falls in this hot, desert climate, and reduces the labor needed to fetch water. Collecting water sometimes requires a 10-mile journey in extreme temperatures, and is a chore that usually falls to women and girls in the community. In addition, the Foundation has assisted in the construction of family gardens and communal grazing areas to help ease the burden of food scarcity for both the people and their livestock.

To help cultivate a sustainable future, community self-help and decision-making groups have been organized in Rajasthan, giving the villagers — including women of all ages and castes — the tools, education, voice, and confidence to foster permanent change in their communities. Martin Bauer Group has also constructed community resource centers in the villages, which serve as meeting places, schools, medical clinics, and training facilities, as well as clean, dry storage sites for the senna during harvest periods. As a result of this investment in the people, The Revive! Project villages now produce annually several thousand tons of very high-quality organic senna with high sennoside contents, demonstrating the long-term value of these community, social investments.

The Foundation will continue to expand its outreach, and incorporate the traditional knowledge of the company’s supply communities with progressive social programs to reduce poverty and improve the quality of life of the people at the very beginning of the botanical supply chain.

—Hannah Bauman