Brazil: Exploring Favela Culture

I’m in São Paulo this week, where more than 2 million people, about 11% of the population, live in working-class settlements called favelas. Global media coverage of the estimated 1,643 favela neighborhoods usually focuses on the negatives: gang violence, drug culture, and lack of infrastructure. These are real and pressing issues that residents and community organizers work daily to address.

There is another narrative that needs to be written about the favelas. They are Brazil’s cultural incubators – vibrant spaces that influence the larger city and with growing influence in their own rights.

The favelas are “alive with sound and movement.” They are unique, walkable spaces with a blend of retail and residential property use; something urban planners strive to create in other cities. Gatherings tend to happen outdoors and create a lively street culture. Living in close proximity to neighbors encourages the exchange of ideas, and “incubates” novel blends of culture and commerce. For example, I saw in my visit many an ad hoc musical performance outside a grocery store, where an enterprising entrepreneur was leveraging that to sell drinks and snacks to curious on-lookers.

Not unlike the far-reaching influence of U.S. hip-hop culture, the expressions and ideas that develop in the favelas trickle out to influence tastes in the broader Brazilian culture. They shape music, fashion, food, and language. Samba, Carnival, and more recently funk carioca all emerged from these spaces.

Brands and Retailers looking to connect with the country’s large, relatively young population would do well to take notice. This is especially true for foreign companies that seek to expand into the Brazilian market and need to tailor their offerings to local tastes.

In addition to sending cultural influences out, recent years have seen new occupants flowing in. Students, artists, expatriates, and middle-class Brazilians are taking up residence in favela neighborhoods – seeking affordable housing and cultural diversity. They bring higher expectations about the rights and services they deserve, and favela dwellers are increasingly finding ways to make their voices heard. In the last few years, they have been empowered by the ability to use social media for connecting, organizing, and problem-solving. Taking notice, Google recently launched a mapping project with the goal of giving Rio’s favela communities visibility and, therefore, louder voices in the complicated politics of the country. By the way, one interesting observation on my trip was the very high frequency of use of waze app by Brazilians to navigate their challenging traffic situation.

Amidst this change and growth, new business models are developing in many favela communities, including tour operators, hostels for young foreigners, and community art projects.

One start-up, Friendly Mailman, is taking on the problem of unreliable mail delivery. Because residences and businesses lack street names, much less physical addresses, it is almost impossible for government carriers to reliably deliver mail within the favelas. The company’s founders used algorithms to create a proprietary digital “map,” which their private carriers use to deliver parcels to customers who pay a modest monthly fee. This is surely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to innovative tech platforms that could serve favela residents in meaningful ways.

I do not wish to detract from the complex history that created Brazil’s favela neighborhoods or the often-difficult conditions of daily life within them.

However, I am enthused to think about how they also embody the power of human creativity and ingenuity. Forward-thinking companies have an unprecedented opportunity to consider new ways to meet the needs of Brazil’s growing working- and middle-classes. I’m particularly fascinated about the potential to use technology platforms to cater to emerging consumer needs and aspirations. For example, could a retailer use a click-and-collect model to improve food access within a larger favela neighborhood?

True, there may be missteps and there is no one-size-fits-all model. However, success in this arena represents the dual opportunity to simultaneously create company value while also bringing value to a currently underserved market.