Running an enterprise in a stable environment can be hard enough. Operating in a favela - a Brazillian slum or shantytown where drug gangs are dominant and shootings are an everyday reality - is something else. How can it be possible to run a business that actually makes money? Josi Fernandes went to meet some of the world's most resourceful entrepreneurs in Rio.
When I told Brazillian friends I was planning to research the micro-enterprises in the favelas, they all gave me the same advice: don't do it. It's not safe, day or night, to go into the higgledy hilltop settlements made up of homemade houses, forming their own separate and unregulated cities. They're a place of poverty, misery and murder. Even Google omitted these vast communities from its maps. But the problem with relying on these kinds of views was that none of them had actually been into a favela themselves. It was all perception based on mainstream media reports.
So I went to Rocinha (which translates as 'Little Farm'), the biggest and most famous of the favelas, stretching up a steep hill to the south of the centre of Rio de Janeiro. More than 200,000 people are believed to be living there , with those who do earn any money are thought to be living on just $2 a day. I made sure I didn't go at night, and didn't just wander. I was always on my way to somewhere in particular, to an arranged appointment with a member of the community.
First referred to in formal Building Law in 1937 as "illegal constructions", the Rio favelas grew rapidly in the 1970s as people from poorer, rural areas of the country moved into the cities. Despite their unofficial status and lack of state organisation, all kinds of informal associations have come together over the years, allowing areas to organise access to key services like water and electricity. There are well-organised religious, social and arts groups. But most of all, the biggest organisations are involved with drug trafficking, run by what are known as the comandos. In theory the favelas have been under the control of 'Pacifying Police Units', first introduced at the time of the 2014 World Cup (but since my research was carried out, have become practically non-existent). rather than any local government. But this was more a case of occasional raids and interventions rather than constant patrols, and inhabitants of the favelas associate the police mostly with bringing violence and prejudice. You know when a confrontation between Special Operation Battalion police and drug gangs are going to happen, with the possibility of gun battles, because the drug gangs will set off fireworks as a warning. The problems with sanitation, pollution and poor diets mean that mortality rates are high; even without the regular gang shootings.
Despite this extreme context, people were making money. Not by going into the city centre -which is really another universe to a favela, home to the super wealthy and a large proportion of affluent middle class families-but using their own wits and networks of people. In my first visits I wasn't sure what to expect, and went without any preconceptions about how enterprises were being formed and run. I ended up spending a number of weeks of my visits into Rocinha getting to know fascinating entrepreneurs and being referred on to other people, learning about their lives and how they manage to keep going, and the research snowballed.
POP UP TOURISM
In Rocinha, many legitimate entrepreneurs have been able to make a fairly regular income from tourism, from taking visitors into their own different kind of world and showing them how they work, the different kinds of properties, the nurseries and schools, the shops and services being offered, and the voluntary projects going on. Tourists are taken to the main streets and often have the chance to walk around and meet with locals, before being taken to a cafe or restaurant, and to local arts and craft stalls; all connected to the shared enterprise. The great majority of Rocinha tourism customers come from outside of Rio, from other parts of Brazil or overseas. Tours highlight the practical challenges of living in an underprivileged community, but also their humanity, resilience and character.
The businesses rely on being able to sell tickets to visit some of the most dangerous places in the country: a favela where they don't know when Special Operations are going to be carrying out raids, and when there might be gang-related killings anytime. TripAdvisor reviews make such associations explicit, describing favelas as both "dangerous places" as well as "safe places to visit on supervised tours". The stigma associated with somewhere like Rocinha is strong, but the entrepreneurs manage to cleverly balance the danger with reassurance about the low level of actual risk involved. It's a sexy alternative to the over familiar, conventional tourism offerings of Rio, for those who don't just want to visit Christ the Redeemer and see the views over the bay; it's different, there's potential danger there, but actually, it's not going to be a problem if you stick together in the right places, they say. An urban safari:the wild places are out there, but kept at arm's length. The evidence of the drug gangs is always there; but you don't have to see that if you don't want to.
The favela tour operators are very informal - have to be very informal - but run in sophisticated and highly resourceful ways. They can't run every day because when there have been deaths the night before there's too much police presence, maybe some grisly evidence left behind. So the networks of people involved use word of mouth, often via WhatsApp messaging, to let each other know the situation. When there's been no trouble the members of the business spring into action and come together very quickly, the driver, the guide, the cooks and the craft stalls. The next day the operation might need to dissolve again. There's no formal structure or organisation, it's all temporary. They are the kinds of businesses that work in the ultimate form of VU CA environment (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity), and are a model for how many more firms may have to work in future.
In terms of marketing and sales, social media is essential in making the seemingly inaccessible feel a possible place to be. Despite the levels of poverty, everyone involved in the tours has a smartphone and internet access. Social media platforms are used to alert potential customers to the alternative tours, and also to provide a sneak preview of what they'll get from the tour. The platforms provide that all important assurance of where they will go and what they will see, that there's knowledge, experience and some organisation involved. In this way the microentrepreneurs assemble methods to provide planned and safe navigation and engagement with favelas. They provide links to the infrastructures that exist, whether by internet and websites, trains, mototaxis, the alleyways of Rocinha themselves; and present exciting knowledge (maps, timetables, photos, historical and contemporary favela stories). Other things include the rules (web details of how to engage with the tour), practices (tour collection, conduct and drop-off, shopping, cafe stops). and the specific roles and competences of the entrepreneurs themselves (as tour guides, shop keepers, cafe managers, residents). Photos of visitors taking a tour around Rocinha are posted on social media, with connections to virtual tours in the streets via Google and positive reviews on Facebook and TripAdvisor.
The offerings are also tailored and made flexible to meet different needs and customer groups, with walking tours for some, and others solely driven up to the top of Rocinha and down. The biggest challenge for the fa vela operators is competition from formal businesses, who have more resources to draw on for advertising and facilities, moving in from the city because of the revenue potential. This is seen as unfair to locals, for the wealthy to drain money from Rocinha while exploiting its reputation.
As for me, I can vouch for the safety of spending time in a favela. The only time I had any trouble was in the centre of Rio, when someone stole my phone. In Rocinha I met lots of people and they looked after me. Just once did I hear explosions. The fireworks were going off, the signal for the police to arrive. I braced myself for what might be coming. But nothing appeared to change.just ordinary members of a community, getting on with their lives, working together and trying to keep businesses going for another day.
Josiane Fernandes is a Lecturer in Marketing. Her work is focused on finding out how people living in extreme conditions - settings of violence and institutional and social 'voids' - manage to overcome barriers and find motivation to shape the world around them. j.fernandes®lancaster.ac.ukBack to News