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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.