The entrance to the Morro do Alemão favela is typically chaotic, with bicycles, pedestrians and vehicles vying for space on a grubby street teeming with small shops, beauty salons and rickety market stalls.
Most of the commerce here is small and local but that changed last month with the arrival of a branch of the Santander bank, the first multinational ever to risk opening in what is one of Rio’s most notoriously violent neighbourhoods.
Although the Spain-based Santander has more than 13,000 branches worldwide, it has never ventured into a favela or shantytown anywhere but if all goes to plan this branch will be the first of many.
“The low income segment is growing a lot in Brazil and this is a way for us to better understand it,” says Eduardo Campos, the bank’s regional superintendent. “The lower classes never had resources before but it is a class that is growing and will grow even more.”
Such thinking is more and more common in Brazil today as the gap between rich and poor narrows and the lower classes have money to spend. Government assistance programmes and an above average rise in the minimum wage, along with a growing economy that has remained resilient in the face of the world’s economic crisis, have helped lift as many as 20 million Brazilians into the consuming classes. Santander understands that as the poor earn more, they will need institutions like their own to help them manage their cash.
Communities such as the Morro de Alemão are benefiting from massive government investment in housing and health and locals say that the bank is another example of bringing favelas in line with what they call “the asphalt”, or developed city.
“We need to have here the same things they have in the asphalt,” says resident Jorge Luis Mendes. “If we have a supermarket, a pharmacy and a bank here then I never need to leave.”
The new bank looks like any other Santander but it is different from regular branches in many ways. Instead of being surrounded by other banks, mobile phone shops and restaurants, there is not a brand name in sight. The favela is controlled by one of Rio’s notoriously violent drug gangs and outsiders have to be escorted into the community by a member of the residents’ association. Underfoot, the road is roughly paved, with iron stakes in the ground to halt police cars, and thousands of cables pilfering light, phone and cable TV feeds running overhead.
Santander executives said they have no special measures to protect the bank from the area’s heavily armed drug factions but point out that much of their planning is done in conjunction with the local residents’ groups and Afroreggae, a well-respected NGO that helps youngsters avoid organised crime by offering music, art, dance and education programmes.
Perhaps the biggest difference is the noise. The building above the bank is owned by Afroreggae. Almost on the stroke of 10, right as the bank opens, the unmistakable sound of pounding samba drums rings out from overhead.
The residents take it all in their stride and the new bankers are getting used to it. As well they should. Sometimes there is cash in chaos.