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Brazil may have bitten off more than it can chew – getting Rio de Janeiro in shape before the 2016 Summer Olympics. Many skeptics claim this task to be a nearly impossible challenge, and investors who’ve been following Brazil’s economy and lengthy recovery are biting their nails on the sidelines. So why am I confident in their ambitious drive to success?

Since the early 1960s, as Brazil’s economy was taking shape and testing the waters of global markets and the industrial boom, a saying was passed around that deemed the largest South American country to lead the rest of the continent into prosperity, equality and democracy: “The future is in Brazil.”

oscar niemeyer

The construction of Niemeyer’s Brasília illustrated and strengthened this point, however, rampant corruption and countless military regimes seemed to denote and erode the heart of their pride and ambitions. For decades, Brazil has struggled with its ups and downs, including sociopolitical negligence, severe inflation and crime. But recent shifts within their economy have stressed focus on the tech sector, and in turn, new developments have emerged that promise stability whilst imbuing Rio with a modernized agenda to become a leading global innovator – perfect timing as the Olympics are less than a year away.

Unlike other economies, Brazil’s has been blessed with experiencing capital growth at exceedingly fast rates, but at erratic intervals. However, their ability to rebound from deficits has allowed this “Sleeping Giant” to adapt to monetary fluctuations, leading to an outpouring of creativity and innovation. That’s where Silicon Beach comes in. Nestled in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s expanding digital niche is tackling one crisis at a time. This transition has been a few years in the making, resulting in an abundance of start-ups emphasizing grassroots politics that have caught the attention of companies like Microsoft and General Electric.

In case you’re wondering what is to be expected from these new ventures, one doesn’t have to look far before rummaging through a multitude of results. For starters, Brazil is currently facing a historic drought in a land that primarily runs on hydro power for energy. Needless to say, resources are limited, but people have turned toward other means to solve these scarcities.

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It should come as no surprise that Brazil is home to nice weather, thanks to the lush tropical sun and picturesque coastline. But aside from vacationing along nice beaches, Brazilians are putting the sun to use to fuel the nation. Where once they reigned supreme in orange juice, soybean and coffee bean exports, Brazil may soon become the largest source and supplier of solar energy. (Wind turbines have also populated the rural valleys of the Northeastern region). Much of the development has been accredited to assistance from GE, who has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars designating Rio as home to the new multi-disciplinary R&D facility. As for the drought, well, that seems to be a trend these days; Californians can certainly attest to that (#climatechange).

Programs like PROESCO, funded by the Brazilian government, help alleviate the cost of solar photovoltaic panels, and consequently the popularity of solar energy has risen significantly in metropolitan and residential areas. In an attempt to bolster the job force and economy, Brazil has looked to Globo Brazil, a domestic solar panel manufacturing plant in São Paulo to assist with this task. As the nation transitions from small to large-scale production, Brazil’s Energy Research Agency has already scheduled more than three hundred solar-based projects in response to the drastic push for alternative energy.

Microsoft’s participation has also helped bolster Brazil’s early stages of technological developments. With hopes of expanding and capitalizing off the success of São Paulo’s tech region, the software giant has established roots in Rio as well. Although their primary focus has been sales, Microsoft Brazil’s Rio headquarters is expected to revamp Bing in an attempt for Microsoft to break away from the hegemony that governs the blueprint for search engines. Achieving this goal will also situate Brazilians as global innovators in design, a feat that is greatly dictated by Western influence.

Already, the new location has experienced rapid growth, luring many new startups to settle closely within its range. Some of those smaller companies have been coined as copycats, a trend that has helped jump-start most of Latin America’s tech industry by taking a successful idea from abroad and running with it as their own. So far this trend has helped add a surplus of jobs to the economy in an industry that was nearly nonexistent a decade ago.

Companies like the Groupon equivalent Peixe Urbano (Urban Fish), Apontador (Brazil’s version of Yelp), the e-commerce platform VTEX and the mobile payment device PagPop have added to the bouquet of apps within the mobile niche. Unlike much of Western tech culture, which excludes lower income individuals, PagPop extends their services by offering a wider range of credit/payment options, as only an estimated 40% of Brazil’s population has bank accounts to begin with. And then there is Boo-Box, an advertising agency that focuses on marketing through social media outlets – the first of its kind in Brazilian soil, serving roughly one billion advertisements each month! To say the least, you can count on Boo-Box to dominate the online advertising scene.

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With startups sprouting up everywhere, how do these companies receive funding in a country plagued with severe inequality and soaring inflation? The same as here. Venture capitalists scoop up these infantile ideas and nurse them to health with sufficient financial resources. There is also Finep (AKA Agency for Innovation) that seeks out and encourages specific concepts and projects pertaining to scientific and technologic ingenuity, fostering a startup ecosystem of sorts. One thing worth noting is Brazil’s efforts to keep work domestic and to maintain an identity that separates them from the rest of the market. It seems their slogan from the 60s still reigns true within the hearts of the people, a mindset that is difficult to abandon.

As Rio de Janeiro begins witnessing the fruits of their new enterprises, let’s not forget about the area’s surrounding neighborhoods, specifically the favelas. According to a 2010 census, Brazil’s infamous slums cover and inhabit roughly 6% of the country, and the majority of those numbers are located within the outskirts of Rio. That means 11.4 million people inhabit these areas. Favelas are generally partitioned from the rest of civilization by a wall, and you can see the stark juxtaposition of lifestyle differences from above clear as day. Most evident is the lack of access to upward mobility, more specifically technology, that has imposed the greatest barrier. Google and Microsoft have already stepped in, providing their technologies to residents and volunteers to map several favela neighborhoods once indistinguishable due to lack of roads and adequate signage. Adding favelas to maps highlights their existence, a truth most of Brazil tries to ignore.

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With the locality of Rio’s Silicon Beach close by working to service an affluent demographic and tourists alike, an increase of accessibility has resulted. Most residents of favelas already have smartphones and computers; the real challenge is acquiring Internet. Though Brazil’s Internet Bill of Rights claims Internet access in favelas be supplied through accredited providers, that is hugely dependent on carriers willing to service those areas. That is where gatos come in. Gatos is a term for siphoning Internet (along with other utilities) from “the other side,” an easy explanation for the clumped network of wires and cables tethered along telephone poles. Is this practice sound? No, not really, but inhabitants are able to receive bundles of information at their fingertips until these sightings are reported to police.

Who’s to say what the future holds for Brazil, but it’s time the Sleeping Giant awakens from its slumber and addresses the needs of its people. If Lula was able to provide social reform and assistance to the working class and poor throughout his political career, imagine what the tech generation can achieve? There is one Brazilian proverb that sums up their tenacity perfectly: “A esperança é a última que morre,” meaning hope is the last one to die. As of right now, Brazil is testing the waters of the digital industry. It’s only a matter of time before these baby steps lead to giant strides in advancement. The tools and ideas are there; now it’s just the voice of Brazil that needs to be heard.

visions

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