Favela Fashion Brings Women Work

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


A highly successful cooperative of women in Brazil has shown that it is possible for outsiders to make it in the fast-paced world of fashion. Despite being based in one of Rio de Janerio’s slums, or favelas (, the women have developed a reputation for high-quality merchandise and even put on fashion shows.

Fashion earns big money around the world: The global clothing industry is estimated to be worth more than US $900 billion a year. But fashion also has a reputation for relying on sweat shops, poor pay and poor working conditions. The poor are the most at risk of exploitation in the industry – upwards of 90 percent of sweatshop workers are women (

Yet the COOPA-ROCA cooperative ( – or Rocinha Seamstress and Craftwork Co-operative Ltd – has pioneered a way to involve poor women in the business, build their skills while creating high-quality products, and be flexible enough to make time for their families’ needs. It particularly helps single mothers.

The cooperative was founded by Maria Teresa Leal in Rocinha – the largest favela in Rio, home to over 180,000 people. After visiting her housekeeper’s home in the favela, Leal was impressed by the sewing skills of the women but found they weren’t making any money from their work. She decided to found the cooperative in 1981 and start making quilts and pillows. By the early 1990s, the cooperative had attracted the attention of Rio’s fashion scene. And in 1994, it jumped into making clothes for the fashion catwalks. Fashion designers in turn taught the women advanced production skills and about fashion trends.

Today, the coop has established a hard-won reputation for quality and sells its clothes to the wealthy elite of Rio. Its success has led to contracts with major clothing stores, including Europe’s C&A.

“Creativity is an important tool for transforming people and raising their consciousness,” Leal told Vital Voice. “My great passion is beauty. Beauty has the capacity to inspire, to touch individuals in a more subtle way. For this reason, I like to make beautiful things with the artisans of COOPA-ROCA.”

Leal realized that most small businesses helping the poor fail despite their best intentions. They often make the same mistakes: they fail to produce high quality goods, they fail to do market research and understand who they are selling to, they fail to develop the skills of their workers, and most importantly, they fail to see that they have to compete in a global economy with lots of other enterprises. How many people have seen crafts and knickknacks for sale that nobody really wants?

Slum dwellers are on the increase across the South. As the world becomes a more urban place – and 70 million people move every year to the world’s cities (UN) – the growing population of poor women and households presents a dilemma: how to provide meaningful work so they do not fall risk to exploitation? Without work opportunities, women can feel pressured to turn to prostitution, or even be trafficked by gangs for work or sex. And women in slums experience greater levels of unemployment than those who live elsewhere (UNHABITAT).

Women now make up the majority of the world’s poor: 70 percent of the world’s poor are women, as are a majority of the 1.5 billion living on less than US $1 a day (UNESCO).

Established in 1981 from a recycling project for local children, COOPA-ROCA started with finding ways to use thrown away scraps of cloth to make clothing. It eventually evolved into a cooperative. It focused on improving traditional Brazilian decorative craftwork skills like drawstring appliqué, crochet, knot work and patchwork.

“COOPA-ROCA works with traditional handicraft techniques that are widely used by women around the world,” explains Leal. “As COOPA-ROCA works with fashion, and fashion is always linked with media, the COOPA-ROCA artisans inspire other women who recognize in themselves the potential to do the kind of work that COOPA-ROCA does.”

For its first five years, COOPA-ROCA concentrated on building the organization and the skills of the artisans. Once a production structure was in place, quality control workshops were set up to increase the quality of the products so they could compete better in the marketplace.

“Many social projects believe that money is the only resource required to begin their work. The COOPA-ROCA case proves that social organizations must use a more entrepreneurial vision to understand the concept of resources.”

The cooperative’s mission statement is to “provide conditions for its members, female residents of Rocinha, to work from home and thereby contribute to their family budget, without having to neglect their childcare and domestic duties.”

By doing this to a high standard, the profile and reputation of traditional crafts has been raised.

The COOPA-ROCA hopes the work shows others how they can increase income in poor communities. The cooperative has 150 members and has partners in the wider fashion and decorative design markets.

The women equally share responsibility for production, administration and publicity. While they work at home, they come to the office to drop off the completed pieces and pick up more fabric.

The success of the cooperative has led to donations of funds to build a new headquarters designed by architect Joao Mauricio Pegorim.

Despite the cooperative’s success, it is still not easy to work with partners. “There are many negative preconceptions about Rocinha and the people who live there, both within and outside of Brazil. COOPA-ROCA is consistently rejected when it applies for loans,” Leal said. “Furthermore, the cooperative’s commercial partners usually do not enter the favela themselves, and I must serve as a bridge between the two worlds.”

But Leal is still ambitious for bigger things: “I envision COOPA-ROCA expanding to include 400 women artisans, producing for commercial partners, selling their own brand in Brazil and abroad, and carrying out fashion and design projects in the new headquarters in Rocinha.”

Published: March 2010


1) The online service CafePress is a specially designed one-stop shop that lets entrepreneurs upload their designs, and then sell them via their online payment and worldwide shipping service. Website:

2) Tips on how to start your own t-shirt business. Website: And how to do it online: Website:

3) Once inspired to get into the global fashion business, check out this business website for all the latest news, jobs and events. Website:

4) iFashion: This web portal run from South Africa has all the latest business news on fashion in Africa and profiles of up-and-coming designers. Website:

5) Kiva: Kiva’s mission is to connect people, through lending, for the sake of alleviating poverty. Website:

6) Betterplace: Is another great way to solicit funds for NGOs or businesses in the developing world. Website:

7) Viva Favela: The first Internet portal in Brazil. Viva Favela has a team made up of journalists and “community correspondents” – favela residents qualified to act as reporters and photographers. Website:

8) Women in Poverty: A New Global Underclass by Mayra Buvinic (1998). Website:

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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Online Free Knowledge Sharing

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


UNESCO’s Kronberg Declaration on the Future of Knowledge Acquisition and Sharing is blunt: the future of learning will increasingly be mediated by technology, and traditional educational processes will be revolutionized. Acquiring factual knowledge will decrease and instead people will need to find their way around complex systems and be able to judge, organize and creatively use relevant information.

According to Abdul Waheed Khan, UNESCO’s Assistant Director General for Communications and Information, “Lack of access to knowledge increasingly accentuates marginalization and economic deprivation, and we need to join efforts to bridge these gaps”

More and more initiatives are stepping in to break down barriers in the exchange of information and knowledge, and break out from the gatekeepers. The advent of Web 2.0 and its user-contributed resources is making this happen.

Connexions sees itself as the partner to go with the free and low-cost laptops being distributed by the One Laptop Per Child Project to schoolchildren in the developing world. Connexions is a Web 2.0 website that allows teachers and educators to upload their learning materials by subject for sharing with anyone who wants them. All content is broken down into modules for easy access. The content can be mixed to build courses, and adapted to suit local conditions. It represents a cornucopia of knowledge, ranging from mathematics to engineering to music lessons.

The content’s adaptability is its charm – users can add additional media like video and photos and modify and add on-the-ground case studies to really bring the material to life for students. The ability to re-mix and re-contextualise into the local circumstances is critical to get take-up of these resources argues Connexions.

Open Educational Resources is a global teaching and learning sharing website. It is all about getting teachers to open up and share their knowledge with other teachers. It contains full courses, course modules, syllabi, lectures, homework assignments, quizzes, lab and classroom activities, pedagogical materials, games and simulations, It is run by ISKME,an independent, non-profit educational think tank whose mission is to understand and improve how schools, colleges, and universities, and the organizations and agencies that support them, build their capacity to systematically collect and share information

Another excellent way to share information is the online publishing tool Lulu. While it is free to publish – whether a book, photo book, brochure, artwork, digital media, DVD and e-books – it does cost the person who wants to download or order a printed and bound copy. The creator of the content gets to choose how much should be charged and what is a fair price. The beauty of this website is the ability for anyone to publish and to bypass the limitations of traditional publishing.

Once you have created your content, and taken the decision to share it with the world, you can also make sure it is copyright protected so that nobody accept you makes money from it. It is aimed at authors, scientists, artists and educators, and lets them protect their work for free. The Creative Commons initiative allows repeat use for free of the content as long as the user attributes its source to its original author. Any content you publish online will be given a logo clearly stating what rights it has.

Published: August 2007


  • Professor Richard Baraniuk explains his concept in a video: click here to view
  • The Creative Commons provides free tools that let authors, scientists, artists and educators to easily define what rights they will allow people to have who use their work. The website has all the tools (including logos) to get started licensing work:
  • Kronberg Declaration: Kronberg Declaration.pdf

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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Landmark Study Finds Simple Toys Key to Boosting Educational Development and Meeting MDGs

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


African youth need to play more according to a new landmark study published in the UK’s leading medical journal, The Lancet. The study tackles the high rates of illiteracy and educational under-achievement in Africa and finds that malnourishment and lack of stimulation are leaving millions unable to benefit from schooling. It found projects that encouraged learning through play led to children boosting their IQs and getting better reading skills. And it comes up with a very simple and low-cost solution – but excellent opportunity for entrepreneurs – toys and play.

“These are not high tech interventions,” said team leader for the study, Professor Sally McGregor of the Institute of Child Health of University College London. “Research over decades in Jamaica (and other countries) has shown that women with only primary school-level education and a few home made toys can be trained to make a significant difference in the education, intelligence and mental health of disadvantaged children. The Millennium Goal of universal primary education for all cannot be met unless these children’s poor development is tackled.”

The paper – Strategies to Avoid the Loss of Developmental Potential among Over 200 Million Children in the Developing World – is published in three parts in the journal.

Twenty projects around the world were evaluated for the benefits they produce for children under five who use toys. McGregor, who has set up several projects in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda designing and constructing toys using whatever materials are available, was appalled by the widespread neglect of play throughout these countries. With play, the study found children read better, have better mental health and better self-esteem. In Africa it is ‘desperate, really desperate’ she says.

African primary school enrolments and literacy rates are among the lowest in the world, with over 42 million school children in sub-Saharan Africa not enrolled in school, and many children not able to afford to go or stay in primary school. Today a little more than half of African adults are literate and some 60 per cent of children go to school, according to UNESCO. The agency has forecasted the need for an additional 1.6 million teachers in Sub-Saharan African classrooms by 2015 – an increase of 68 percent.

The materials used to construct the toys do not need to be expensive or sophisticated. Toys can be constructed from banana trees, mud, corn on the cob, old plastic bottles, or cloth and straw dolls. It is key that the toys are safe for children under five and that anyone building such toys for sale must follow existing manuals.

McGregor continues: ‘One mother in a village was doing marvellous things with tiny scraps of material to make a doll. She received no recognition in the village for the work she was doing yet it was so important. It doesn’t take much – dolls or simple wooden blocks – they are so versatile. You see schools with nothing – it is unforgivable. The problem is how poor these people are – food just takes priority over toys – it is that stark.”

Locally produced toys are key to resolving this crisis for several reasons. Cost is the most important, with those most adversely affected also the least able to pay for toys and who are already living a precarious existence where basic survival takes precedence over play. Another factor is Africa being home to the countries who import the least number of toys: Somalia, Liberia, Togo, Rwanda and Chad. But the situation for African toymakers is often desperate as well, with many craft workers living at the economic margins. Several initiatives have emerged in the last couple of years to address this problem and ensure African toys are local and toymakers earn a living.

Initiatives like the African Toyshop based in Johannesburg, South Africa – a fair trade business – work to ensure African toymakers can make a living and get their wares to as wide a market as possible. The toymakers featured all use natural resources or recycled materials. Most work at the village level and produce toys that are culturally relevant to Africa. The organization COFTA – Cooperation For Fair Trade in Africa – is a network of Fair Trade producer Organizations in Africa involved and working with disadvantaged grassroots producers to eliminate poverty through fair trade. It is an excellent resource for grassroots organizations wanting to work with African toymakers.

Published: January 2007


The UK charity TALC – Teaching-aids At Low Cost – is planning to make available toy making manuals on a CD. Tel: (0) 1727 853869

This website also has excellent resources for budding toy and play area makers in Africa.

Online exhibition of African toys: Click here

Book: Africa on the Move: Toys from West Africa Stefan Eisenhofer, Karin Guggeis, Jacques Froidevaux Stuttgart, Germany: Arnoldsche, 2004. 216 pp., 195 color, 28 b/w illustrations. $75.00, cloth.

SDG Resource Centre: The southern origins of sustainable development goals: Ideas, actors, aspirations.
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Innovation Villages Tackling MDGs

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


The global economic crisis that began to roll across the world in September 2008 is threatening gains made against poverty and hunger all over the South. As Kevin Watkins from UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report told the Financial Times, “With the slowdown in growth in 2009, we estimate that the average income of the 391 million Africans living on less than US $1.25 a day will take a 20 percent hit.”

How well millions of people survive the economic turmoil will depend on how local communities respond. And there are innovating communities across the South that show it is possible to succeed. By studying the microcosm of test villages, where quantifiable results are being tracked, lessons are being learned on how to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (

The challenge of matching improving living standards and quality of life with environmental sustainability has been taken up by one village in Colombia. The technologies it has developed over the past few decades have been adopted around the country.

In Las Gaviotas, Colombia a unique experiment was hatched at the end of the 1960s: to see if a village could survive – and even thrive – while eschewing fossil fuels and industrial agriculture. It found its first test in the oil crisis of the early 1970s. For Las Gaviotas’ survival, meeting energy needs became paramount.

One of the simple concepts the community applied is a take on the physical reality that energy is never created or destroyed, it just moves from one medium to another. Las Gaviotas believes in using all the sources for energy that can be found in a local area first, before seeking out others.

Founded by development specialist Paolo Lugari,Las Gaviotas( is located in a desert region of Colombia. The area covers a vast territory comprising three-fifths of the country but is home to just 10 percent of the population. To Lugari, the harsh environment is a challenge to be overcome. To begin to reverse the arid environment at Las Gaviotas, the villagers reversed the dry climate by planting trees.

This had the effect of increasing local rainfall by 10 percent, making it possible to do other economic activities.”The only deserts that exist in this world are deserts of the imagination,” Lugari told the New York Times.

The 200 people living in Las Gaviotas have been able to get by without guns, police, a mayor, cellphones, television or the Internet. Nobody uses a job title — instead the adults in the community rotate jobs.

While the villagers do not use many of the technological tools people associate with modern life and prosperity, they do have a culture of invention. The inventions they have come up with include a solar kettle for sterilizing water and a 8,012 hectare pine forest which is harvested for resin to make biofuel for trucks and motorcycles. The resin is also used to make varnishes and linseed oil.

For years Colombia’s ongoing civil war raged around the community. Violent drug traffickers and private armies destabilized the country for decades. But despite this mayhem, Las Gaviotas has attracted rural peasants seeking to double their wages (US $500 a month) and enjoy the quiet life away from the war.

“We try to live a quiet life, depending on nothing but our own labor and ingenuity,” said Teresa Valencia, a teacher who has lived in Las Gaviotas for three decades.

Other products developed by the village included a turbine powered by a small, one metre high dam that produced 10 kilowatts of electricity, a windmill that was able to spin despite light breezes, and a pump strong enough to draw water from the hard-to-reach savannah water table.

Pride of place was the village’s hospital. Despite hot temperatures and high humidity, the hospital used clever technologies like subsurface tunnels and double ventilation systems in the walls to cool its operating theatre. The roof slid off to allow ultraviolet sunlight to disinfect rooms. After healthcare reforms in Colombia, the hospital was closed. Undefeated, the village turned the hospital’s kitchen into a potable water bottling facility, and reduced the need for hospital visits by making sure everyone in the area had access to clean water.

The community’s approach inspired scientists and architects, who came to design homes, laboratories and factories for Las Gaviotas.

One significant success has been the windmill-driven water pumps developed by Las Gaviotas. Invented by Jorge Zapp, head of the mechanical engineering department of Bogota’s Universidad de Los Andes, it is a lightweight windmill unit weighing barely 45 kilograms. The blades use the airfoil found on airplane propellers to make the most of light breezes.

In the 1980s, UNDP hired the Gaviotas team to install water and windmill pumps in other places in Colombia. Thousands have now been installed in Colombia and the design has been copied throughout Latin America.

Other inventions include a solar-powered kitchen, a water pump powered by a children’s see-saw, and a zeppelin that floats above the savannah plains to detect forest fires.

While the community has been able to forge a success, it can’t avoid the ups and downs of the global economy entirely. Competition from cheap imports of pine resin have pushed down the price the community can charge.

But in a topsy-turvy world, and surrounded by a civil war, what Las Gaviotas has achieved still seems impressive. “We have survived,” said Andrea Beltran. “Maybe, at this time and place in Colombia, that is enough.”

More recently, a much-publicized experiment is also underway in the Millennium villages. The Millennium Villages ( is a joint project between Columbia University’s The Earth Institute and UNDP, and is a bold experiment working with villages in Africa to identify and test solutions to help in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (

Britain’s Guardian newspaper has also been sponsoring and tracking changes in the villages of Katine sub-county in Uganda ( Comprising 25,000 people, the project began in October 2007, and is conducted in partnership with the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) and Farm-Africa in Katine.

What is useful to people looking for solutions is the way the project is being tracked in detail on the newspaper’s website.

In India, the Model Village India ( concept pioneered by Rangeswamy Elango, a head of the village of Kuthampakkam near Chennai, has now expanded to 30 model villages. Its approach is about being positive, eschewing griping about problems and instead getting down to work to solve them. Its success is based on an ancient Indian self-organizing model, the Panchayat, and Elango has modernized it to become what he calls The “Network Growth Economy Model” – a direct challenge to the “special economic zones that benefit only capitalist owners,” he said.

Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World – 10th Anniversary Edition by Alan Weisman details further the achievements of the village (


1) Unleashing India’s Innovation: Toward Sustainable and Inclusive Growth, a report by the World Bank. Website:

2) Hosted by the World Resources Institute, it identifies sustainable business models that address the needs of the world’s poorest citizens. Website:

3) Model Village India: Drawing on self-organizing methods used in India since 1200 BC, the Model Village India is based around India’s democratic system of Panchayats: a village assembly of people stemming back to pre-colonial times. Website:

4) Maker Faire: The African Maker Faire has tapped into Africa’s well-entrenched do-it-yourself development culture. It went looking for more inventors like those celebrated on the website AfriGadget (, with its projects that solve “everyday problems with African ingenuity.” The Faire works with the participants to share their ideas and to find ways to make money from their ideas. Website:

5) eMachineShop: This remarkable service allows budding inventors to download free design software, design their invention, and then have it made in any quantity they wish and shipped to them: Amazing! Website:

6) The red dot logo stands for belonging to the best in design and business. The red dot is an internationally recognized quality label for excellent design that is aimed at all those who would like to improve their business activities with the help of design. Website:

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