On Saturdays in the community of Pavão-Pavãozinho, a high-reaching favela overlooking Copacabana beach in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro, children stream up the steps to an airy patio in the home of Gabriel Abreu, with notebooks in tow. They gather at a table and take out their pens and pencils, as a young volunteer writes a lesson plan on the whiteboard. They are boys and girls of all ages from the favela in which Gabriel grew up and has lived his life. This past year, Gabriel has successfully turned the profits from his tourguide business into creating and hosting a small English school out of his home. Although Gabriel’s modesty would prevent him accepting this description, he is an extremely bright social entrepreneur with a fantastic business model for creating change in his community.
From the beginning of his diligently curated community tour, it is clear Gabriel cares deeply for the community where he grew up. When he developed the tour five years ago, one of his biggest fears was bringing unwanted outsiders into the community of almost 20,000. He feared that by leveraging his language skills, others in the community would feel invaded, or worse, exploited. This is a legitimate fear, as favela tourism is rightfully a deeply contentious subject, especially in Rio. Gabriel takes care to navigate this issue by addressing and correcting some of the pitfalls of other tours. He begins by addressing the group, assuring them that “favelas are places where you will feel a community, and should feel more comfortable than walking the streets and beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. You don’t need to worry about your phone getting stolen—it won’t.” He then adds: “But you are entering a community and you need to be respectful with photos. Taking pictures of any person is not okay. You will also notice that many people keep their doors open, so please be respectful of people’s homes and lives.”
In addition to providing necessary etiquette skills to every visitor, Gabriel came to accept favela tourism because he based his mission not on gaining pity or attention from tourists, but instead on generating understanding and showing how favelas are different from how they are portrayed in the mainstream media. “I just want people to see with their own eyes. I don’t want to change anyone’s perception,” he states. Gabriel knows that his community and other favelas in Rio have qualities that are unseen, overlooked, or misunderstood: “To tourists who come to visit Rio, it doesn’t matter to them if they go to Santa Marta, Rocinha, or Vidigal—just that they see a favela.” It is therefore up to the tour guide, in Gabriel’s opinion, to provide an informative, sustainable and positive experience for all those involved.
Gabriel’s true passion is education. As a child growing up, he was fortunate to take private English lessons, but laments this is not the case for most kids in favelas. Gabriel has since taught himself French and Spanish and is working to conduct his tours in German as well. To Gabriel, education is among the biggest issues in the community, along with accessibility and trash collection—issues that have not been adequately addressed by the government. He says: “Kids go to school only five hours a day when their parents spend at least eight hours working. That’s three hours that children are uncared and unaccounted for.”
Gabriel stops the group at a construction site where cement rollers, tractors, and white dust mark the beginnings of a controversial road intended to connect the favelas of Pavão-Pavãozinho and Cantagalo to the metro station and elevator. “As you can see, the government is still working on this project,” he says with humor. “It has reached almost 50 meters…in the past eight years.” As he says this, a young boy hops on a ledge behind him, using hand motions and repeating unintelligible English words, gaining both the attention and poorly concealed laughter of his audience. Gabriel smiles and turns around, helping the boy down. “And now you see! This is exactly the reason I began the English school. The idea started when I was doing tours just like this, and I saw kids interested in learning about what I was saying.” Gabriel addressed this demand in the community by drawing together his language skills and tour profits. He admits that in the early stages of his school there are still issues and growing pains that need solving. “The biggest problem I have is just finding someone who knows how to teach and can develop a proper and lasting curriculum for the students,” he remarks.
Over the past six months, Gabriel has been working on his business model with six students from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Under the direction of Dr. Lynne Gerber, these students not only provide careful consulting, but also spend two weeks in Rio with Gabriel to get to know his community, compare other favela tours, and assist with branding and marketing. They also worked to define a curriculum and expansion plan for the English school. The students, comprised of four MBA candidates and two undergraduates, presented their recommendations, suggestions, and changes to Gabriel before their departure. Included in these recommendations were a formal website soon to be hosted in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, new names and logos for his tour company and school, and marketing brochures to increase awareness.
In addition, they suggested educational partnerships to help provide curriculum guidance as well as connect English-speaking volunteers. Favela Connection, the new name for Gabriel’s tour company, now has a presence on diverse social media platforms and is ready to engage curious and respectful visitors in the vibrant favelas of Cantagalo and Pavão-Pavãozinho.
From this point forward, Gabriel intends to grow his English school, now officially named “Pavão Acima,” to incorporate crucial after-school hours and accommodate the many students who want to learn. He points out that with English skills, his students will one day have opportunities to continue their education, assist in leading tours, or begin their own small businesses. He remarks: “I can’t possibly change everything. I am just one man. But I am trying to change small things, to help in any way I can. [The favela] needs changing, of course, a lot of changes. I’m just trying to do a little to make it better.” Gabriel is setting an example for young kids that effective development can come from within the favela.