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Harnessing the Power of Local Farmers: A Conversation with Ariana Yuen, CEO of Forested

Harnessing the Power of Local Farmers flyer
"Harnessing the Power of Farmers" event flyer. September 28, 2023.

Creating sustainable supply chains is not an easy endeavor, but one that Ariana Day Yuen MBA’19 has undertaken. As the founder of Forested, she has embarked on a mission to conserve the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems. In a conversation hosted by the Center of Business and the Environment at Yale (CBEY) with Tagan Engel, resident fellow at CBEY, Ariana shared with us the inspiring and at times fraught journey that led her to starting her own business and scaling it up.

Ariana has always had a passion for forestry and helping communities. Before coming to Yale, she worked for TechnoServe, assisting clients such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Nespresso, and the Swedish government to build equitable ecosystems in East Africa. While at SOM, she co-founded Common Farms, Hong Kong's first indoor specialty produce farm, before launching Forested. Upon graduation, she returned to Ethiopia to develop Forested.

Ariana discussed Forested and its three phases. The first phase began when she was a student at SOM. She started building a sustainable supply chain for honey in Ethiopia, which she brought to market under the brand name “Maryiza”. This project demonstrated that sustainable supply chains could be built from countries like Ethiopia to international markets. Despite its successes (noted in major outlets such as The New York Times), Ariana wanted the company to have a broader and deeper impact. After taking a step back, she realized that honey in Ethiopia was just one product in one country. She aimed to contribute to forest conservation on a larger scale. In its second phase, Forested transformed into more of a trading company, which Ariana affectionately referred to as "The Forest-Friendly Cargill." They were able to reach more farmers, scale up from 200 to 1,000 factories, expand into different products such as spices, and sell their products to the cosmetics industry. The business model shifted from small volumes with high margins to high volumes with smaller margins. Through this experience, she and her team of 15 began to recognize that farmers’ limited market access was the primary barrier to scaling impact. Farmers needed to connect their products with major corporations. After years of navigating the complexities of setting up these supply chains, the Forested team decided to share their insights. In its third and current phase, Forested not only expanded to include over 50 ingredients harvested in various countries but also started developing solutions to increase the commercial value for local farmers and for small- and medium-sized businesses. They are now also working on an insetting calculator that measures the carbon and nature footprint of products, as well as financing solutions to help farmers understand the value they bring and the prices they deserve.

Following her presentation, Ariana responded to questions, sharing her insights on social  entrepreneurship with students. She discussed the growing importance of carbon insetting, which involves financing decarbonization projects within their supply chains to create a positive impact on the communities they depend on. She also revealed that she recently realized that the secret to Forested's success lies in combining an understanding of how large corporations operate with knowledge of how forest communities and ecosystems thrive.