Financing the favelas: a shanty town in São Paulo. Photo: Getty
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Start-up finance and the Brazilian favelas

The country has embraced e-commerce since a series of tax reforms in the Noughties, despite stifling bureaucracy.

Parked under a tree in a cul-de-sac off the gleaming Avenida Brigadeiro Faria Lima in São Paulo, the strip that is home to Google’s new Brazilian headquarters, Deocleciano Tolentino sets out his wares, popping open the boot of his car to reveal a spread of cheeses, salamis, nuts, home-made jam and bottles of honey and cachaça. The epitome of a microempreendedor (micro-entrepreneur), Tolentino is one of a generation of Brazilians whose small businesses in the informal economy were regularised in a programme of tax reforms that began in 2003.

Twenty yards down the road stands a building whose beanbag-lined hallways and ping-pong table mark it out as an archetypal start-up HQ. Mansão Startup (“the start-up mansion”) was co-founded in September 2012 by Florian Hagenbuch of the online print-on-demand service Printi.

Hagenbuch, a 27-year-old German brought up in Brazil, left his job as a financial analyst in New York to set up in business in São Paulo in 2012. Printi was one of a wave of Latin American start-ups in the early-2010s which brought an influx of young, foreign would-be entrepreneurs into Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Brazil in particular. Hagenbuch is predictably upbeat about the opportunities for businesses like his, particularly given the enthusiasm with which Brazil has embraced e-commerce.

Yet it is not easy to infuse an emerging economy with start-up culture. Brazil’s formidable bureaucracy can make sorting even basic documentation expensive, time-consuming and unpredictable. As Hagenbuch says, “In places like London, you just start work. Here, it takes around six months to get going legally.” Most daunting of all is the labour legislation. “No matter how careful you are, if there’s a problem, people can sue,” he says. “The risks are huge and you are personally liable.”

Start-Up Brasil, the federal programme launched last year, shows how fragile new firms can be. A fifth of the 62 companies chosen in the second round of selections in December 2013 have already dropped out. The reported reasons include demands for 20 per cent of a company’s equity in return for investment.

Such statistics explain why some micro-entrepreneurs are “bootstrapping” – rejecting outside finance. Since Bruna Figueiredo launched her jewellery firm in 2010, she has held back from seeking external investment. She is targeting what is often referred to as Brazil’s “new middle class” but might be more accurately described as a growing, newly solvent, formally employed working class. “Our customers come from all walks of life,” she says. “Some of them are living in semi-favelas: we can tell from the addresses.” Her jewellery starts at R$200 (£53) for tiny, wafer-thin religious pendants in 18-carat gold – “We have all the saints, even the really obscure ones” – and goes up to R$5,000 (£1,300) for diamond bracelets and earrings. “They can pay in instalments, and it’s e-commerce,” says Figueiredo. “People don’t need to feel intimidated by a fancy storefront.”

Unexpectedly, the biggest-name foreign start-up in recent months is MoneyGuru, modelled on Britain’s MoneySuperMarket and backed by George Mountbatten, the Marquess of Milford Haven.

Hagenbuch confirms that despite the rise of a new, richer working class in Brazil, the tech scene is still dominated by people with wealth. “Creating a start-up has become a real career alternative,” he says. “They used to dream of being bankers.” 

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear