A view of Rocinha, the largest hill favela in Rio de Janeiro and the modern communities nearby in Brazil in June Photo: Courtesy of Pan Ziang

Not far from Copacabana beach, Sugarloaf Mountain and the symbolic Christ the Redeemer, the international tourism hot spot of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil has thousands of clustered condos, sometimes blanketing an entire hillside: The 280 favelas in Rio contain about 20 percent of the entire population. 

The life expectancy within favelas is approximately 48 years compared to the national average of 68. Drug trafficking is rife among male teenagers, who are 80 percent more likely to die before the age of 21.

To improve life in favelas, social innovators in Brazil have never stopped trying. Instead of passively relying on external donations, they realized that only people living in the favela could help the favela.

Favela tour

Zezinho da Rocinha is a renowned tour guide born and raised in the biggest favela of Rio: Rocinha. He is also a passionate cat lover who meows to greet others and was therefore named Mr. Meow.

To show love and support for Rocinha, Mr. Meow founded Favela Tour in 2009, through which he brings more than 500 tourists annually from different countries such as the UK, Germany and Australia to visit the biggest favela.

Mr. Meow donated 40 percent of the receipts from tourists to social projects in Rocinha which he supports and visits. Among about 30 projects that he brings tourists to visit, five have benefited from his contribution and are thriving. 

With his income as a tour guide, he invested 400 Brazilian reals ($97) per month in Spin Rocinha, a DJ school for teenagers. Of the 60 students who until now have graduated from the school, 30 became part-time DJs who can earn 200-300 reals extra a month.

Although the extra income may not be life-changing, “I think every little bit of money they earn can help them and their families,” Mr. Meow said. 

Experimental practices 

While Mr. Meow’s method of donating funds to local projects through tourism could represent the proverb “giving a man a fish,” Impacto, a newly found social enterprise in Rio, is the epitome of “teaching a man how to fish.”

Francisco Araujo, who used to be the director of education in a large NGO in Rio and worked on projects in the favelas, was upset about inefficiency of a large NGO. Therefore, he decided to start his own experimental enterprise, Impacto.

“Mature NGOs go to places with less violence, less mosquitoes,” he said. Like Mr. Meow, Francisco thinks that the locals who live in the favela should be the key game changers. 

Impacto provides capacity building to residents in the favela who have innovative ideas and projects, and then connects them with companies which would invest. 

For example, Impacto identified Julia, a psychologist who dedicated herself to counseling women in favela, and planned to connect her with companies that focus on female products and would support related social projects as charity.

Although the company was established only six months ago, its potential in terms of funding was clearly recognized. Over 20 companies have built up their connection with Impacto and one large gas company donated over 60,000 reals.

Sustainable development

Unlike “teaching a man how to fish,” another NGO in Rio focused on, or as its director, Dr Teresa Williamson referred to – “introducing the man to his neighbor who knows how to fish.” 

The NGO Catalytic Communities created a project named sustainability favela network to support Rio’s favela projects by linking new and old social projects.

The sustainable favela network project, which officially began in November 2018, already received joining requests from 130 favela schemes and 300 individuals. These projects are able to exchange ideas and execution with other plans inside and outside their favelas via community meetings and online chats.

In April 2019, 85 project representatives gathered at favela Babilonia. There, the first photovoltaic panel installer in Babilonia, Adalberto Almeida, led a discussion describing the recent loss of funding support to local schools. He emphasized the importance of installing solar panels on school roofs for economic and environmental reasons.

After his speech, more projects related to environment were encouraged to change and improve their plans for solar panel installation accordingly, and the monthly workshops designed by Catalytic Communities became an effective source to facilitate alternative energy education of different social projects.

In the favela Mare, a small, yet well-decorated building stands out among the bleak, squalid condos on the street. The ambient light of the orchestra hall and the mellow symphony music created a peaceful aura and distract the visitors’ attention away from the outside world.

Carlos Eduardo’s father was a conductor who was passionate about bringing orchestral music to favelas. He was assassinated in Mare during a work trip. Motivated to inherit his cause, Carlos founded the orchestra Orquestra Mare do Amanha (Tide of Tomorrow) inside Mare in 2010 starting with 20 students, hoping music could change the people there.

At first, the orchestra faced opposition from many people. Parents in the favelas were worried about the possibility of their children being targeted by others who were not part of the orchestra, in addition to the already unsafe environment. The images of young students carrying instruments around were out of place in the traditional favela and the idea didn’t find favor with the locals. Nevertheless, the situation changed after the success of the first group of musicians. They went on to pursue better education in colleges, or even the music career of their own. In a couple of years, the orchestra became a protected, almost holy space, because most local children became a part of it.

Similar to such innovations, the orchestra focuses on empowering young people in favela to change their lives by themselves. Tide of Tomorrow hires 12 professional musicians to teach 30 young music students, who then teach 4,000 preschool students in the whole favela.

Through the education chain, the burden of the professional teachers is lightened, while the young music students are provided with steady jobs, each earning 2,000-3,000 reals a month, two times more than the average income in Rio.

Isadora joined the orchestra when she was 14. With the help of the orchestra, she was able to become a professional musician, to play cello in front of the Pope in Vatican, and go to the state university. All such experiences are impossible for a girl in a favela. 

“Before I joined the orchestra, I had nothing to do,” Isadora sighed, “When kids have nothing to do, they walk on the streets all day, meet bad people, and never come back on the right track.”

Although innovative, orchestra is an expensive project for a favela. Fortunately, after Carlos started this project in 2010, State Grid, a Chinese company, just entered Brazil, and became interested in investing in a local social project. 

“Today a third of the sponsorship we receive every year is from State Grid. At the beginning, they were the only donors. Without them we could not have grown like this,” said Carlos.

From giving people fish, teaching people how to fish, helping people learn from those who know how to fish, and eventually, helping people to farm fish, social innovations keep emerging in favela. 

“It is like throwing starfishes on the beach back to the sea. It may not change the sea, but would change the fates of these starfishes,” said Francisco.

Ri Hai and Yu He contributed to the story
Newspaper headline: Slumdog innovation