Booming Black Businesses Fuel Brazil’s New Middle Class

Entrepreneurs who cater to the growing Afro-Brazilian consciousness are at the center of an economic resurgence.

People crowd the popular market Saara in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Dec. 27, 2011.  
People crowd the popular market Saara in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Dec. 27, 2011.   VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images

Just 12 years ago Adriana Barbosa was unemployed and selling clothes at tiny street bazaars. It was the 21st century, but Barbosa realized that much of the country’s Afro-Brazilian population was still unable to find products and services designed for them. So she created Feira Preta, a cultural fair where hundreds of black exhibitors showcase various products, from traditional hairstyles and beauty products to English courses focusing on black culture.

Today her business interests encompass a production company and promotional business, and she is branding Feira Preta throughout Brazil. Barbosa’s success is far from an isolated incident. Black Brazilian entrepreneurs, especially women, are pushing their way into the country’s rapidly growing middle class.

Fueled by a blossoming economy and a government program aimed at reducing income inequality, approximately 80 percent of Brazil’s new members of the middle class are black. Over the past decade, the middle class has grown by 38 percent, according to government reports from the Strategic Affairs Secretariat of the Presidency. Incomes of black Brazilians grew by 123 percent between 2000 and 2012—five times faster than the rest of the population, according to a report by Globo newspaper in 2012.

“It is a highly promising segment,” Barbosa says of Afro-Brazilian consumers. “Today people self-declare as black, and … there is entrepreneurial opportunity. The market needs to see this population. There are few companies developing products specifically for blacks.”

Before Barbosa started Feira Preta in 2002, many of the types of black businesses and institutions that are commonplace in the U.S. were practically or wholly nonexistent. The new millennium has brought the country’s first and only black university, first black magazine, first black cultural expo, first black business group, first black TV network and the first black actor to star in a prime-time television show.

Reighan Gillam, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, wrote her dissertation on the country’s first black TV network, TV da Gente. Despite its eventual demise, TV da Gente, which was launched in 2005, was a milestone in Brazil’s new commitment to black identity, Gillam said.

“Even in the midst of few resources and very little institutional support … people still persist and demand that black representation exist,” she says, “and they’re going to produce it whether it’s on national TV or not.”

The economic boom for blacks has come in concert with a newfound recognition of blackness. While many Brazilians of African ancestry still choose not to identify as black, the designation of preto or preta, which is translated as “black” or “Negro” and was once considered offensive, is beginning to pick up steam in the country. On the 2010 census, only 7.6 percent of Brazil’s 51 percent black population identified as preto, but that was the highest percentage ever.

This has been a catalyst for entrepreneurs like Michelle Fernandes, who started her business, Boutique de Krioula, about a year ago. She says that hers and other black businesses have been created as a direct result of the changing attitudes.

“This comes from the black consciousness that Brazilians have come to take lately,” she says of the success of Brazil’s new black businesses. “We see black men and black women increasingly proud of our roots. [We want] to know more about our culture and consume products that have to do with our identity and that are made by other blacks.”