Social Innovation

3 social economy innovators that are driving change in Brazil

A group of women work at computers; female entrepreneurs; social economy

The social economy at work: Fundo Agbara is the first philanthropic fund created and managed by – and for – Black women in business in Brazil. Image: Folhapress/Renato Stockler

Eliane Trindade
Senior Editor, Folha Social+, Folha de São Paulo
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Social Innovation

  • The Brazil Social Innovation Awards are hosted by the Schwab Foundation's long-standing award partner, Folha de São Paulo. They recognize outstanding social innovation models that are addressing complex social and environmental challenges.
  • The three most recent winners have created solutions that acknowledge the significant contribution the social economy can make to life in Brazil.
  • These trailblazers have developed ways to boost female empowerment, improve children's love of reading and writing, and support Black women business owners.

In April 2023 the UN adopted its first resolution acknowledging the pivotal role of the social economy in advancing sustainable development. It recognizes the role of social entrepreneurship in alleviating poverty and creating social change by “strengthening the productive capacities of those in vulnerable situations and producing goods and services accessible to them”.

Amid growing global challenges – climate change, the cost of living crisis, geopolitical upheaval and conflict – the concept of the social economy is emerging as a beacon of hope for fostering inclusivity and sustainability within traditional economic frameworks.

Brazil is poised to take a pioneering role in this new movement, as proven by the winners of Brazil’s Social Innovation Awards, which is hosted by the Schwab Foundation's long-standing award partner, Folha de São Paulo. These trailblazers have shown their dedication to effecting profound transformations in their communities. Their initiatives tackle challenges ranging from structural racism to literacy enhancement and support for marginalized communities such as Black women in informal work.

Together, these social entrepreneurs show how we can build a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable world.

Empowering 11 million Brazilian women in business

Ana Fontes is the founder of Rede Mulher Empreendedora (Entrepreneur Women Network). This social organization supports women in the peripheral regions and slums of Brazil through entrepreneurship and employability programmes. Originally from one of the poorest regions of the country, Fontes has developed the largest national platform for supporting female entrepreneurship in Brazil.

Since 2017, 11 million Brazilian women from 26 states have been mentored, trained or received financial support for their businesses through the platform. Its six core programmes include an entrepreneurship accelerator, mentorship opportunities and skills-based training in areas such as artificial intelligence. So far, 800,000 women have trained at the network’s institute and 381,000 socially vulnerable women have participated in its economic inclusion programmes.

In partnership with UN Women, the government, the private sector and over 280 NGOs, Rede Mulher Empreendedora’s programmes aim to boost the personal and economic development of these women and their communities. Every six months, it releases the Mapa do Ecosistema (Ecosystem Map), a tool to promote collaboration and support public policy by listing organizations working with women in the country. It has also transferred BRL40 million ($8 million) in micro-donations to women entrepreneurs and social organizations.

In partnership with municipal and state funds and departments, the platform also helps victims of domestic violence to become financially independent. In 2022 alone, Rede Mulher Empreendedora helped 329 female victims of violence referred by public programmes.

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Helping 2.5 million students become published authors

Robson Melo was born and raised in Brazil’s second largest favela, Rocinha, in Rio de Janeiro. Using his experience as lecturer in basic and higher education, he founded Estante Mágica (Magic Bookshelf) in 2009 with the goal of promoting reading and writing from an early age. In the 13 years since, his model has helped 2.5 million Brazilian students write their own books, which are published and launched at public events in schools.

Operating in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, Estate Mágica works with all social classes, including indigenous communities and slums. So far, 2.5 million ebooks and 2 million personalized physical books have been created by children under the programme, while 170,000 teachers have been trained in creative and authorial writing through the initiative.

Estante Mágica not only sparks the desire to write and read, it also fosters creativity and enhances socioemotional skills through projects that involve the entire school community. The edtech provides playful and inclusive resources for teachers to use in the classroom. It also turns the published stories into games, exhibitions and animations.

The programme is funded through a business model that generated BRL40 million in 2022 by, among other things, selling the participants' printed books to private and public educational institutions, companies, education authorities and families.

Man reading a book on a balcony, city scene in the background. Estante Mágica (Magic Bookshelf), a social economy initiative launch in Brazil in 2009.
Estante Mágica (Magic Bookshelf) is a social economy initiative that aims to promote a love of reading and writing from an early age. Image: Folhapress/Renato Stockler

Brazil’s first philanthropic fund by and for Black women

Aline Odara launched Fundo Agbara (Agbara Fund) in 2020 to provide support and financial assistance to Black women in informal businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially crowdfunded, it is the first philanthropic fund created and managed by – and for – Black women in Brazil.

Half of black women in Brazil are in informal work, earning 44% less than white men, according to Fundo Agbara. The fund wants to ensure access to economic rights for these women by fighting structural racism and equipping them with life and business skills. Its technical programmes offer a broad array of tools on entrepreneurship, financial literacy, racial equity, creative economy and mentorship.

Since September 2020, 197 business initiatives have received contributions of BRL10,000 and the fund has mobilised a total of BRL2 million in terms of donations and services provided. Most donations (90.9%) have come from companies and foundations. Fundo Agbara currently operates in 14 states and has 300 recurring donors and a portfolio of 64 technical education programmes. Many of its beneficiaries (41%) are single mothers, while half come from the North and Northeast, which are among the poorest areas of Brazil.

The fund’s focus is on forming a network of women pushing for full citizenship and economic justice. Agbara means strength and power in Yoruba (a Nigerian language) and the organization uses data to influence public policy and get more Black women into decision-making positions throughout Brazilian society.

Have you read?

These three trailblazers show that the social and solidarity economy can be a powerful enabler to equip vulnerable people and communities with effective tools to improve their livelihoods. For decades, the social economy has been driving innovative solutions to solve the world's challenges. The endorsement the recent UN resolution has given to the social economy recognizes the key role social entrepreneurs and purpose-first businesses play in building sustainable development. We hope this will unlock the full potential of the social economy, particularly in terms of public support and private partnerships.

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Related topics:
Social InnovationBusinessSustainable Development
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