Fernando Assad

This description of Fernando Assad's work was prepared when Fernando Assad was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015 .


Fernando Assad is preventing major health risks and bringing dignity to those in Brazil who live in unsafe homes with his home improvement kit. In addition to the kit, his organization Vivenda creates incentives for volunteers, builders, the government, and companies from the housing construction supply chain to provide safer housing for the millions living in inadequate homes.

A nova ideia

The housing situation in Brazil is alarming; 5.5 million people have no home and 11 million live in houses which are considered unsafe and a health risk. Most of the measures taken by the government concern the creation of new houses instead of improving the houses that exist but not fit to live in. To address this, Fernando Assad created the Vivenda Program to deal with the “home pathologies” that most impact people’s health. His affordable kits include all of the components necessary for a successful home renovation: credit; technical assistance; labor; and construction materials.

In order to create a viable model in the face of a complex problem, Fernando’s renovation kits are remarkably simple. Vivenda sells affordable “bathroom”, “kitchen” and “bedroom” kits, marketing them under the premise of a more attractive home, but with the goal of resolving the main problems affecting the residents’ health: ventilation, lighting, humidity, insulation, and bathroom facilities. Vivenda targets those whose homes pose a major health risk -- commonly those earning minimum wage, who are able to pay for the service in installments. For those who are most vulnerable, Fernando has a subsidized model, where the beneficiary pays 30% of the total amount. Throughout, Fernando is careful to make change come from within the communities: Vivenda’s 14 employees are from the communities in which their work is focused.

In addition to improved health and safety, renovating homes benefits residents’ self-esteem, enabling them to take charge of change in their surroundings. Vivenda’s larger goal is to structure the home improvement market for the poor at a national level by showcasing a model that works and incentivizing other players to enter the market. As of 2015, Vivenda has completed 104 renovations, directly impacting about 500 people. The model is designed to be replicated by local entrepreneurs who want to open a Vivenda franchise in their own community, with the goal of having a unit of the Vivenda program in each ”favela” or peripheral community in Brazil in five years and have achieved global expansion in ten.

O problema

In 2030, around 40% of the expected 9 billion people on the planet will live in substandard housing. It is common knowledge in Brazil that the housing deficit is around 5.5 million houses; however, it is little known that 11 million houses are unsuitable for habitation. As a result, there are only a few initiatives attempting to address this deficiency.

Recently, policy promoting housing for low-income populations has made strides in the country, but the legislation focuses on construction of new housing units. Therefore, no actions are being taken to improve the quality of existing housing. Additionally, as communities go through the process of urbanization, the focus is on the development of public spaces, and yet most families continue to live in houses with poor structure, without insulation on the floor or walls, with high humidity, with no ventilation or lighting, and with inadequate bathrooms.

These house “pathologies” expose its inhabitants to serious health risks, such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases from accumulation of indoor pollutants and dampness; illness and even death from extreme temperature; communicable diseases spread because of poor sanitation conditions; and other risks of injury. Houses also have a symbolic role - they should be refuge where people rest, eat, bathe, and feel safe. Thus, bad housing conditions can cause psychological distress and impact on people’s sense of dignity and self-esteem.

There are many barriers preventing low income families from improving their homes. The lack of technical assistance, which is a premium service in Brazil, as well as the high cost of qualified labor, causes people to do renovations themselves. The lack of technical expertise and equipment leads to accidents and inadequate work, often accentuating previously existing problems or generating new ones. Construction materials are also expensive, further increasing the total cost of renovation. There are no credit options for this market -- microcredit in Brazil is focused on "production oriented" operations, and banks are not interested in financing housing renovations through this mechanism. Because of the need to save money, the renovations are carried out slowly over a very long period of time, which further increases costs and causes disruption in families’ lives.

Furthermore, the few players in the home improvement value chain are disconnected and do not show viable solutions to the problems of the low income population. As most barriers are financial, nonprofit organization models are unable to address them at a large scale. The industry, although interested in further accessing the base of the pyramid market, still needs a model that proves itself sustainable so that companies feel comfortable joining and investing in this market.

A estratégia

To address the lack of a home improvement solution that would benefit low income populations, Fernando created the Vivenda Program. Vivenda focuses on the “home pathologies” that most impact people’s health, providing a comprehensive solution to each of bottleneck components of renovation. In one affordable kit, Vivenda offers credit, technical assistance, labor, and construction materials.

After research with favela residents to identify the primary barriers to renovation, Fernando developed simple renovation kits to fix the issues that most impact health: Ventilation, lighting, humidity, insulation and bathroom facilities. The kits are pre-prepared, which allows a higher efficiency during the constructions. Instead of selling “ventilation kits”, which is not something people would spontaneously buy, Vivenda sells “bathroom”, “kitchen” and “bedroom” kits, marketed with the promise of a more beautiful house, which is something people buy with pride and dignity.

Fernando's model is focused on people earning zero to three times the minimum wage, and prioritizes women -- who are 85% of the clients -- and the most vulnerable -- those with health problems, handicapped, children, or elderly. With this in mind, Fernando has developed a partnership with workers of the Basic Health Units, community workers who identify the families most in need of home improvements. The construction costs can be paid in up to 12 installments of USD $100 maximum, and the price includes technical assistance, skilled labor, and construction materials. The resident makes decorative selections -- tiles, colors of walls, etc. -- and Vivenda takes care of the practical work. For people earning less than 1.5 times the minimum wage, Fernando has a subsidized model, where the home owner pays for 30% of the total amount in 10 installments, and the rest of the cost is taken care of by a sponsor, currently the Azzi Institute (founded by the Ashoka fellow Marcos Flavio Azzi). After Vivenda breaks even, its profit will be reinvested into the organization to ensure its financial sustainability, and especially into the subsidized model, so it is not dependent on external investment.

As the majority of barriers to home improvement are financial, the strategy for a sustainable model is key to ensuring efficiency and scale. The viability of the model is based on two proved premises: 1) completing the service in 5-6 days to ensure efficiency and 2) buying discounted materials. To make these two requirements possible, Fernando developed partnerships with material companies that sell a large amount of material at a discount to local merchants. They maintain a stock of materials, ensuring their availability, and receive training directly from the manufacturer, thus contributing to the qualification of the local workforce. The materials used are carefully selected, based on cost, efficiency, and environmental impact.

Vivenda works only in consolidated favelas that have been established for at least 30 years. The entry point of Vivenda inside the community is ensured by partnerships with local NGOs. The employees are local people, hired and trained by Vivenda’s staff partners, and they are paid at the market wage for construction work. Vivenda advertises in the neighborhood via flyers and word-of-mouth. When a home owner shows interest for the renovation, Vivenda’s architect performs a technical visit to understand the needs and analyze the viability of a renovation. During this visit, the architect takes all measurements and defines with the resident what are the renovation priorities. Vivenda then performs a socioeconomic evaluation of the household, develops the renovation project and budget, and, once the resident agrees, schedules the renovation. Although Vivenda has its prefabricated kits, it is not uncommon for "low complexity” problems to end up bumping into more complex structural problems. In these cases, Vivenda takes the risk and fixes the issue at no further cost to the resident than what was already agreed upon.

The process of discussing renovation priorities among residents and technicians is important. Residents have many inadequacies in their homes, and often tend to prioritize renovations based on esthetic, not health, criteria. Thus, Vivenda also has the role of creating, together with the residents, a culture of "living well" in which health is prioritized, so there is also an educational investment within each renovation. Commonly, renovations encourage residents to take better care of the house and its inhabitants. Often, after the renovation of a bathroom for example, residents worry more about buying cleaning products and toiletries, and make other improvements to the residence that had been neglected in the past. Fernando believes that change comes from within. Improving homes indirectly has a broader role than impacting health, but it changes people as well, improves their self-esteem and empowers them to change their surroundings. Ana, one of their beneficiaries, started cleaning the street so that people coming from it would not bring dirt inside her updated house. Another beneficiary, who had been ashamed to throw her son a birthday party at her house, was able to host the party after the renovation made her proud of her home. In the future, Fernando intends to hold actions with community dwellers regarding care of public areas, outside of the houses.

Vivenda’s macro objective is to create a framework for the market of home improvement for low income families at a national level, by showcasing a model that works. By first building partnerships with stakeholders in different sectors, Fernando is showing that the low income population is an important group of customers. With the construction materials industry, Fernando is establishing business partnerships and training the workforce. By showcasing a model that is economically viable, Fernando creates an example for banks and other entrepreneurs and investors to enter the market, reaching critical players to help solve this problem.

To date, the Vivenda Program has carried out 104 renovations, directly impacting over 500 people. Additionally, it has hired 14 local employees in the community. At this stage, Fernando is systematizing the most efficient model and the macro business relationships that are necessary for this social technology to be replicated throughout the country. The idea is that the model can be replicated by local entrepreneurs who want to open a Vivenda franchise in their communities, so that there will be a Vivenda unit in each “favela” or peripheral community in Brazil. The future perspective is that each community office will perform, on average, 40 reforms a month, reaching 1,000 reforms every 2 years.

A pessoa

Fernando has never had had a traditional job at an organization; instead he has always created his own jobs, undertaking endeavors focused on social impact. His mother, also a longtime entrepreneur, was the one who showed him the importance and the need of working for the public benefit. At the age of 10, together with her, Fernando developed food distribution activities for the homeless in São Paulo. When he was 15, Fernando reopened his school’s student guild, which had been shut down during the dictatorship. Later on, on his first day of the Business Administration course at University of São Paulo (USP), Fernando attended a lecture by the Minister of Education, who stated that if every Brazilian university student was to devote four hours a week to teach literacy, illiteracy could end in four years.

Fernando felt provoked by the information and discovered that there were over a hundred illiterate employees working at USP - mostly cleaning staff. Along with a group of colleagues, Fernando created the Alfa-USP, an organization dedicated to teach literacy to the university employees by its students. Although discouraged by the school community - why would Business students work on the education field? - Fernando did not give up, and continued to mobilize people from all across the university, until he finally managed to get classrooms and annual funding from the Academic Center for the project. Alfa-USP became an award-winning project that worked for six years involving more than 500 people from all the university courses, benefiting teachers and students, with 12 permanent classrooms throughout the campus. The success of the project showed Fernando that it is possible to bring together actors that did not normally interact for the sake of the common good.

Still at university, Fernando had the opportunity to go to the north of Brazil, to help structure an NGO, with a management-focused approach. From this experience, Fernando started to expand this work to other NGOs in the country with support from Avina and, in 2007, Fernando founded GIRAL, an organization that supports NGOs with strategic management advice. GIRAL’s model was innovative: strategic planning was done for free, and, if it worked, the NGO paid to further work together with GIRAL. Fernando's interest in joining different stakeholders to work together in pursuit of social impact led GIRAL to do projects that combined the citizen sector and companies in a joint effort for sustainable local development.

In 2009, Fernando launched an urbanization project for the "favelas" in East São Paulo with GIRAL and the Housing and Urban Development Company (CDHU). From this experience, Fernando discovered a major bottleneck in the urbanization process: while public improvements and the construction of new houses are the main agenda, the vast majority of people still live in the same unsafe houses. From the perception that both public policy and companies neglect the vital issues of housing improvement, Fernando decided to address this challenge. Thus, he invited two technicians from CDHU, who for years worked in favelas’ urbanization processes, to integrate the team and found Vivenda. They started out interviewing favela residents to discover the most impactful home improvement issues. In the meantime, one of these residents died from a respiratory disease caused by her home’s condition. Fernando and his team are committed not to lose another person “because of the lack of a window”.