How can the disadvantaged earn a living from their creativity? Why are nearly all the “base of the pyramid” micro-businesses supported by microcredit agencies based on manual labor, or super-local activities like driving a rickshaw or running a small shop? Since much of the music we love today, or design that we see in stores, has its roots in folk traditions, why don’t the rural and urban poor today earn much of a living through their creativity? This is the question Video Volunteers is asking with a new program we’ve launched in Brazil, called VCU.br. We’re exploring how video can be used by slum (“favela”) youth to earn a living.

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The project, funded primarily by the Art Action Foundation of Singapore, is taking place in Sao Paulo. Over a nine month period, we’re working with nine Brazilian youth from the favelas to help them learn to run their own video businesses. After conceiving of the project and getting the grant, we found an amazing arts organization in Sao Paulo called Casa Das Caldeiras. with whom we have partnered to execute the project locally. They run artist in residency programs for artists and are part of lots of interesting community programs with youth focused on graffiti-ing, hop hop and many others. They are based out of an incredibly beautiful space in Sao Paulo, a converted factory from the 1920s, and they use the revenue they generate from renting this space out for events (it’s one of the prime party venues in the city) to fund their community projects.

Our Entrepreneurship Curriculum
We’re giving them entrepreneurship training in things like how to make contacts in the TV industry, how to write a proposal for grants or for NGO films, and how to write a “pitch” to a TV station. They are learning about financial planning for themselves and for a small business, and how to work with clients. Most crucially, they are learning about the spaces that exist for people like them in the new world of “citizen journalism” and low cost technologies, and are thinking deeply about the kinds of unheard stories from their favelas that they may be uniquely poised, above even the “professionals,” to tell. We are trying to turn their background, which until now was a huge disadvantage for them, into an advantage, something unique and valuable. Over nine months, the Fellows are attending six hours a day of classes conducted at CDC, and are each producing three videos. The first video was a videojournalism-style piece through which they learned about producing for news. The second video, which they are making now, needs to be for a particular client who agrees to use the video. (So one boy is making a video on abandoned animals for a chain of pet stores to play in their shop, others are making videos for different NGOs to use in fundraising, etc.) The third video needs to be for a paying client.

Filling a Gap in Existing Youth Media/Journalism Programs
The nine Community Producers were selected in June, with the following criteria: they had to be from a needy social background, had to know the basics of video production already, and had to demonstrate that they had tried but failed to continue with their video work after their initial training. So, for instance, one young man had tried to enroll in a university course in media, but didn’t have the right high school qualifications. Another had applied for a job in a TV station and was told he needed a degree.
All of the Video Producers had been through some video course already, run by different NGOs, but had never been able to earn a living from it. When we had visited Brazil three years ago to see where VV could be most relevant, it was clear there was no need for more video training programs. There were a huge number of groups doing amazing video training in favelas to help kids find their voice and to make media that might change perceptions about the Favelas. But the problem was that their graduates were not finding jobs in video, and when they left they faced either unemployment or menial labor. The impact on the youth was therefore not very sustained. In addition, a huge pool of talent – kids with great computer and camera skills – was being totally under-utilized. And thirdly, it might be counter-productive. To raise people’s aspirations but then fail to meet them is often a mean thing to do. We’d learned this ourselves the hard way in some of our early VV projects. So, we decided that livelihood is what VV would work on in Brazil.

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Can Young People in Slums REALLY Earn a Living in Video?
But, you will surely ask, how can people from slums earn a living through video? News is in crisis and even many professionals cannot earn a living today! Well, the options we are exploring for these Video Producers include lots of non-news options such as starting a small production company that makes films for NGOs, local businesses and even wedding videos; getting a job as an NGO’s videographer; getting funding to create community video projects in the favelas with NGOs; and running “cine-clubs” in the favelas that show films. In time, citizen journalism on the web will become a way for communities to earn revenue. Even though they may end up producing more for corporates, we are still focusing the training to prepare them to produce TV news, as that also fulfills the Community Producers’ desire to increase the visibility of the favelas they come from.

The Economics of Video Production in the Favelas
Ultimately, the economics of this are quite interesting. Our Video Producers in Brazil say they need around $460 a month to live on, plus they need to get equipment. So is it possible for them to earn around $5500 a year (including equipment) through video? In India, one of our community producers would require half or a third of that. Does their lesser financial requirements make them financially competitive with professionals? Could TV producers from slums become part of the market, not just because they are low cost but also because they have access to great stories? It’s not guaranteed, but I think it’s likely.

I’d love to hear people’s advice on this, as it is a question VV is thinking about in all aspects of our work. We have a partnership with the Indian Institute of Management, the best business school in Asia, to explore revenue models in community video. And we are about to launch a new community journalism program focused on rural video producers being able to produce for TV markets. This is what it means to make a community-based social venture based on creativity, not manual labor. This is what we mean by one of the taglines we use a lot, which says our goal is to create “a media industry at the base of the pyramid.”

So where will this project in Brazil go? Well, we recently visited about 20 of the leading media NGOs in Brazil, and hope that this project will be useful for them. We’ll be writing up our experiences here into a kind of training manual that other organizations can use to build in a video entrepreneurship element into their work. We also see real opportunities for VV in Brazil in other areas: for instance, our experience in using video screenings in slums/villages to result in real impact is relevant here. We would like to offer Fellowships in our new Community Journalism program to students of the various media organizations we’ve met here. And if we could be really ambitious, it would be fascinating to work with the different media producers and activists here to create a TV channel. There is so much amazing community-produced content in Brazil, that it seems the perfect place to launch a TV station focused on social issue documentary and alternative voices. But that’s for the very long term!

But our future plans depend entirely on whether this current project is a success. So we are saying it here now: if, in a year or two, the nine Community Producers who will soon graduate from VCU.br are still making videos and earning from it, it was a success. If they are not, then it was a failure. So please hold us to account, and demand to know how many of these new favela video entrepreneurs succeed.