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‘Last mile’ solution for Brazilian favela born from pandemic

Operators handle orders purchased via e-commerce, at the Favela Brasil Xpress distribution center located inside in the Paraisopolis favela of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Favela Brasil Xpress, a startup created six months ago, reached the milestone of 100,000 packages delivered in areas that are not properly served by the postal service or by traditional transport and delivery companies, while ensuring the arrival of food, medicine and home supplies to people in the community. (AP Photo/Marcelo Chello)

SAO PAULO (AP) — Workers in Brazil’s biggest city unloaded an air fryer, a gaming chair and a 40-inch television from a truck and carried them into a small distribution center where they’d soon be sent to nearby homes.

Their speedy dispatch would be nothing special in most of Sao Paulo. But these items were bound for homes in Paraisopolis, one of the sprawling, low-income neighborhoods known as favelas that have been largely left out of the global delivery revolution.

Packages have just started reaching doorsteps there, thanks to a bespectacled 21-year-old with a degree in information technology.

Inspired by community-led distribution of food kits and donations during the pandemic, Giva Pereira founded a logistics startup to handle what retailers call “the last mile” in his hardscrabble community, which delivery drivers have been loath to enter.

Like others across the world, Brazilians quarantining during the pandemic started buying more online — not just food and pharmaceuticals, but also electronics and household goods.

But favela residents who fill out order forms with their zip codes are often informed companies don’t deliver to their neighborhood.

Those who manage to place orders can receive excuses rather than products: notes with dubious claims they weren’t home when the delivery came, or that their address wasn’t located.

And indeed, identifying a specific house in the serpentine alleys is no small feat for an outsider, especially in favelas as densely populated as Paraisopolis, home to nearly 100,000 people. Mapping apps provide little help and, complicating matters further, some areas are dominated by heavily armed drug traffickers.

While Brazil’s postal service delivers letters and bills to some streets in Paraisopolis, it often leaves them at shops, bars or collective mailboxes for residents to pick up later — a system that doesn’t work for many e-commerce purchases.

Even brick-and-mortar stores charge more to deliver appliances or furniture to favelas, or leave shipments at waypoints like residents’ associations.

Enter 21-year-old Pereira, a Paraisopolis resident who graduated college last year and sensed opportunity. Favela Brasil XPress was born.

His fledging company got financing from a small, favela-focused lender, G10 Bank, and partnered with one of Brazil’s biggest retailers, Lojas Americanas. He hired locals familiar with Paraisopolis’s twists and turns. They started deliveries in April using compact trucks and bicycles, and have processed as many as 1,300 packages per day.

“It resolves the problem of mapping and this issue of breaking down the barrier of prejudice among people or logistics companies, who should deliver here inside, but don’t,” Pereira told The Associated Press. “Bringing companies from outside the favela into the favela totally breaks that paradigm that favelas only have bad things, and we show it is different.”

In Sao Paulo’s metropolitan region, more than 2 million people live in the crowded favelas. Paraisopolis has longstanding issues like water shortages and lack of basic sanitation, with open sewers in some isolated areas that have been recently populated. It’s home to waiters and house cleaners, builders and bus drivers.

There are young people like Pereira, too, whose family moved from the poor northeastern state of Paraiba when he was 12, hoping for a better life.

“We came because of difficulties we went through in Paraiba. We had difficulty here, too,” said Pereira. He began to think of ways to help the favela.

His project is reminiscent of another started several years ago in Rio de Janeiro’s biggest favela, Rocinha. Former census takers mapped the hillside neighborhood and established a base to receive mail from the postal service. For a monthly fee, the company distributes letters and bills to residents, though they still have to retrieve parcels.

While Pereira’s concept for deliveries isn’t groundbreaking, the level of organization, planning and logistical infrastructure is, said Theresa Williamson, executive director of a favela advocacy group, Catalytic Communities.

“Residents find creative ways to meet that need in many communities, but it’s never at the scale or quality that it needs to be, and it’s often informal,” Williamson said. Favela Brasil XPress “could pave the way for a model that can be followed around the country, creating small businesses around this.”

Or, she said, it could show the government how to step up and meet the community’s need.

At an event Tuesday to commemorate delivery of his company’s 100,000th package, Pereira looked jubilant, if somewhat surprised by the sudden success. He said the company has set up distribution bases at six other favelas, including Sao Paulo’s largest, Heliopolis. It has signed contracts to distribute for other retailers, too.

Gilson Rodrigues, Paraisopolis’ community leader and president of the bank whose loan got Pereira’s startup off the ground, said being able to receive a package at home after so many years of being boxed out provides a sense of freedom.

“They told us this wasn’t possible in a favela,” Rodrigues said. “This is an example, a slap in the face to society that excludes favelas, that wants to see favelas as needy, never as potent.”

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