How Peruvian communities benefit from wild moss

elea Blog

Farming in the Andes

In an impressive region in the Andes, 3’200 meters above sea level, inhabitants live and work in rural communities. The Peruvian highlands are among the country's poorest areas, far from any larger cities and steady income opportunities. Most people are smallholder farmers who grow crops to meet their families' needs, with little or no surplus. Cultivating the land is extremely difficult, and the income generated from the vegetable harvest is low, irregular, and unpredictable.

Farming in the Andes

The inconspicuous moss with precious qualities

Around a decade ago, these communities learned about sphagnum moss, a wild-growing plant with unique benefits. It is a natural substrate with a high level of moisture retention, whose properties are considered as the gold standard in orchid cultivation. It is likewise used in berry and hydroponic plant production, which both require high humidity. Due to its antibacterial properties, it is ideal for organic crop cultivation, given that it allows for excellent growth without chemical inputs. The use of moss has also become quite common for the construction of environmentally friendly vertical gardens and green roofs, since it is a natural thermal insulator and purifier of surrounding habitats.

In Peru, sphagnum moss only grows in the Andes. However, the rural highland communities were unaware of the benefits of this wild plant and thus did not pay attention to it. This changed in 2010 when impact entrepreneur Marco Piñatelli, the founder of Inka Moss, reached out to the smallholder farmers. He outlined the qualities of sphagnum moss and convinced them to harvest this valuable plant to make it an additional income source in the previously harvest-free months.

From the Andes to your Orchid pots

Inka Moss trained the harvesters in sustainable practices. For example, they were told to only take the upper parts of the moss and not to pull out the roots in order to keep the plant alive; some moss fibers must be preserved to allow for further growth and dissemination to new places. Afterwards, patience is required, since the moss needs sufficient time to grow back, so that the fibers are long enough to be sellable. Another positive aspect of sphagnum moss’s new fame is the preservation of nature. Since its advantages are known to the local communities, the land is conserved and not burned to cultivate fields.

Here is how the agricultural value chain works: High up in the Andean mountains, harvesters from rural communities collect the wet moss, put it in bags, and bring it back to the village. Then, they load the bags into a cargo truck owned by a trusted member of the community, who transports and drops them off at a processing plant. Plant workers subsequently spread the moss on drying beds and sort through it to remove impurities. On a sunny day, the moss dries within less than four hours. Once dried, it is transferred to a vibrating machine to clear away pieces that are too small to sell and to remove any uncaptured excess debris, keeping only strong, resilient moss strands for sale. The moss is then compressed, packaged, and labeled for international sale.

elea colleagues in conversation with community member Constantina. She talks about the dire times during the pandemic and the relief she felt when her community signed a work agreement with Inka Moss. Now, with the extra income she has earned from the moss harvest, she can even contribute to her daughter's university studies.

Stable income source for harvesters

Inka Moss signs agreements with each community guaranteeing that they will purchase the product at a fair price. The average increase in smallholder farmers’ income is 20%–35%, depending on the quantity of moss that is harvested in the respective community. A bit more than half of the harvesters are women, which reflects Inka Moss’s commitment to empowering women and ensuring them fair and equitable participation. With higher and more stable incomes, the smallholders' quality of life has increased, and often, the extra revenue pays for their children's school or university fees. Another upside: people do not need to abandon their land and culture, since they can earn a living at home that makes a real difference in their lives.

Transformative impact for communities

Not only do individual harvesters benefit from the extra income, but so do the communities where they live. A certification from the Ministry of Forestry is a prerequisite for harvesting moss. Inka Moss supports the highland communities in securing the documents they need to officially register and obtain the certificate that allows them to harvest moss. In addition, once these communities are formally registered, they gain access to governmental funds. Moreover, the location of these communities is so remote that it is incredibly challenging to reach them. Inka Moss thus builds small paths and roads to facilitate access to these areas, thereby enabling the moss pickup and transport of goods in general. Since part of the proceeds from moss harvesting goes towards communal funds, these highland communities have seen further improvements in their infrastructure, upgrades in schools and public spaces, and refinements in the water and sewage systems.

Interview with Marco Piñatelli, Founder and CEO of Inka Moss

How did it all start?

Marco: In 2007, I met Anton Becker, a Dutch pioneer in the moss industry who discovered the existence of sphagnum moss during his travels to Cusco. At the same time, my interest in becoming an entrepreneur and working with communities was growing. I evaluated multiple products but was immediately intrigued by sphagnum moss. I thus conducted further intensive research and developed a business plan that led to the inception of Inka Moss in 2010. I just knew that I had found the ideal product, one with a sustainable global demand and immense potential for economic success that would have a tangible social impact on Andean communities.

“One of my greatest accomplishments has been creating a production chain where the greatest value goes to the Andean communities.”

What was the biggest challenge?

Marco: Without a doubt, it was logistics! It is a major endeavor to transport the moss from the Andes in Peru to our processing plants and then to our customers worldwide. In the early days, there were no paved roads to access these remote communities. We also needed to formalize the communities, so that they could be officially recognized, as well as create business plans and documents, i.e., for getting the moss through customs – everything that these communities did not have at the time. Furthermore, we needed to speed up the whole value chain to ensure timely delivery of the ordered quantities to our customer locations.

How did elea provide you support?

Marco: In Peru, no bank wanted to finance an agricultural company, but we needed patient capital to professionalize our organization and drive sustainable growth. When elea invested in us in 2018, it marked a real turning point in our company's history. Tangible results were realized within merely a year. The big difference between elea and other impact investors is that elea invests capital and provides strategic support and expertise while having realistic, sustainable financial return expectations. Moreover, at elea, social impact always comes first.

"My vision is to reach all communities in Peru, improving their quality of life while preserving their precious culture."

About Inka Moss

Inka Moss, founded in 2010 by Marco Piñatelli, is dedicated to processing and exporting sphagnum moss. They collaborate with low-income communities in remote regions of the Andes and generate work, stable incomes, and higher revenues for harvesters by including them as the main link in the value chain of a previously unused natural resource.

Since elea’s initial investment in 2018, Inka Moss has become profitable and has grown by more than 20% year-over-year despite numerous challenges, such as the pandemic and an ongoing political crisis. Their impact has increased from collaborating with 545 harvesters to 1’333. Inka Moss has since expanded to Huánuco, where they have built an additional processing plant and employ 11 plant workers.

Author: Romy Sauer, Communications Specialist at elea Foundation for Ethics in Globalization