A place to call home: renovating Brazil’s favelas and underprivileged suburbs

DICE Young Storymaker Yael Berman reports on Moradigna, a São Paulo-based social enterprise that has improved 550 homes (and counting) ­– providing jobs, dignity and healthier living conditions along the way

DICE Young Storymaker Yael Berman

The Tietê River is an important waterway that flows across Brazil’s most populous state, São Paulo. It is known for its heavy pollution and floods which plague the communities that settled along its banks. Matheus Cardoso, 24 (pictured below), used to live in one of the periferias – underprivileged suburbs – that line the Tietê. His mother Alice provided the best she could, but his room was so humid that he caught pneumonia and bronchitis as a child. And Cardoso was not alone: many of his neighbours in the low-income community of Jardim Pantanal, in the eastern part of São Paulo, also suffered from unhealthy living conditions, in homes without proper lighting or ventilation and full of mould and mites.

Matheus Cardoso - MoradignaPantanal means “swamp”, and the neighbourhood of over 160,000 people is named for its location on the river. But this swampy environment which made the young Cardoso ill is also what would inspire him to become a social entrepreneur. When he got a scholarship to study civil engineering in a private university in São Paulo, it opened his eyes to inequality. He decided to draw on his life experiences to help his former neighbours: “At that moment I noticed I could help to tackle issues that affected my community,” he says. Cardoso started to attend lectures given by social entrepreneurs and joined a social enterprise study group. That’s how he came up with the idea for Moradigna, a social enterprise that provides affordable home renovations for low-income residents of favelas and periferias. (The name Moradigna comes from a combination of the Portuguese words for ‘home’ and ‘with dignity’.) 

“I noticed I could help to tackle issues that affected my community”

Cardoso launched the for-profit company in October 2015 – and his first client was his mother. Moradigna provides renovation services at low prices and on an instalment plan so that they are affordable to their clients. It sources the materials and manages the renovation, which is completed in no more than 10 days. In addition to providing healthier living conditions and dignity for low income clients, Moradigna generates paid work within the communities in which it operates: nearly all of its workers, from managers to builders, are from periferias and favelas.

Shifting the business 

Initially, Cardoso’s social enterprise provided both renovation services and financing for its clients, but this proved problematic and in the second half of 2018, Moradigna almost went bankrupt. Cardoso understood that the company couldn’t manage both services simultaneously: “We were trying to deal with two different and complex areas. It was too hard to maintain the two services under the same structure,” he says. So, to help his clients pay for renovations, Cardoso decided to partner with financial institutions that serve low income clients. By outsourcing the financing, he and his team would be able to focus on their core area: renovation. This model proved successful for Moradigna and their clients, and by the end of 2018, the business was flourishing. In 2019, they expanded to other neighbourhoods in São Paulo and started to operate in Rio de Janeiro. At the time of writing, they had completed 550 renovations, benefiting more than 2,000 inhabitants.

Above: Many homes (left) often make do without proper lighting or ventilation and suffer from mould and mites. Moradigna sources the materials and manages renovations, which are completed in maximum 10 days. Header photo: the interior of a Moradigna home.

About 30% of Moradigna’s renovations are for people who earn less than Brazil’s minimum wage (which is approximately £200 per month). These clients cannot afford a renovation, even one that is cheaper than average and repayable in instalments. Wanting to reach these people, the company designed the Moradigna Experience: a project that forms partnerships with large companies willing to fund the renovations as a corporate social responsibility initiative. These companies tell Moradigna how many people or homes they want to help, and Moradigna calculates the costs to make it happen. Employees of such companies can also spend a day volunteering on site to help finish the renovation.

Moradigna Brazil

Moradigno team members: (left) Paulo Henrique Chaves, construction supervisor; (middle) Mateus Drumond, financial manager; (right) Matheus Cardoso, founder. Their slogan on their t-shirts reads "Together, our energy transforms".

Darwin Grein is the founder of Juntos Estratégia, an education consultancy firm specialised in promoting learning through experience. They presented the Moradigna Experience to one of their clients, a multinational investment firm keen to develop competences like empathy and systemic thinking among its trainees. Grein explains the benefits of the immersive experience of volunteering on site: “Usually 90% of the trainees of such companies are privileged, speak more than one language and live in comfortable homes. In this experience, they are introduced to realities they were unable to see before. They are encouraged to reflect about their role as individuals and to ask themselves what they want to do with the reality they are facing.” And the project is proving to make an impact: “After participating, [the company’s] trainees say they see the world in a different way – a much more empathetic one,” Grein adds.  

“Usually trainees of such companies are privileged and live in comfortable homes. In this experience, they are introduced to realities they were unable to see before”

What about those whose homes are renovated? Ana Claudia Santos is among those who benefited from a corporate-funded renovation. She is 37 and lives with her husband, a construction assistant, and four of her five children; the family’s only source of income is her husband's salary. Before Moradigna renovated their home in September 2018, their kitchen floor was cement and their walls were made of raw bricks which allow the proliferation of mould and mites that cause respiratory infections. That has changed: the kitchen now has a tiled floor and finished, painted walls: “From the day Moradigna’s staff stepped into our kitchen, our lives have changed,” says Santos.

Matheus Cardoso - Moradigna

Matheus pictured with his mother and his sister, Tarcila. As a child, he suffered from pneumonia and bronchitis, due to the humid living conditions in the Jardim Pantanal area where he grew up. 

Women tend to be the ones that approach the social enterprise the most, representing 97% of Moradigna’s clients, a percentage that Cardoso attributes to the high concern that mothers have to improve the living conditions for their children.

Cardoso is the son of one of these mothers. Alice always encouraged her three children to study because she knew this would be the route to a better life. What she didn’t know then is that her son would not only become successful but would also help her, her neighbours and others who live in unhealthy homes. And the boy from swampy Jardim Pantanal who used to dream of providing a better life for his mother now has bigger plans. He wants to reach all favelas and periferias in all five regions of Brazil, so that one day everyone will have a proper place to call home.

The DICE Young Storymakers programme is a joint initiative of Pioneers Post and the British Council. Fourteen young journalists from six countries have been selected and will be reporting on social and creative enterprise in the coming months.

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