New Business Off the Top of Their Heads
An Interview with Ronilson Valente Melo
Young Entrepreneur in Suruacá, Pará State, Brazil
By Nicholas Tichy
Development and empowerment in rural communities such as Suruacá requires a number of elements. One essential skill that needs to be promoted is entrepreneurship. Inroads have been made in helping the community develop business opportunities for themselves, but many obstacles still remain. However, one youth in Suruacá, Ronilson Valente Melo, is an excellent example of the spirit of empowerment and drive that CEN attempts to foster. Recently, CEN's founder and Director Bob Bortner had the opportunity to speak with this young man and find out a bit more about his experiences attempting to create his own business.
Ronilson, 23 years old, grew up in Suruacá with his five brothers and five sisters. Like so many other youths in Suruacá and elsewhere, there were few opportunities in the community. "I finished basic school, but they didn't have high school," says Ronilson. "I had to leave home to study in Santarém," the nearest large town. Though he spent three years living in Santarém, there was much about the place that made him long to return home. "Here [in Suruacá], we are able to walk around without fear. But in town, we had to be at home earlier, because if you don't it gets dangerous."
Dealing with the gangs, drug addicts, and alcoholics in the city was too much for Ronilson, and he soon found himself returning home. However, there remained the problem of a lack of opportunities, even for a motivated young man like Ronilson. The only option seemed to be to work the crops with his family.
"I used to work in the crops, which is our work here," remembers Ronilson. "Most people do it. They work in crops and help their parents. It's hard work, but there is nothing else, it is all we can do."
Despite this, Ronilson dreamed of big things. "What I really wanted was go to university and study Biology," he says. "We live among many plants and animals here. I want to understand them and see what people could do to help them. We don't know what to do ensure that our future generations see what we see nowadays."
"However, because I didn't have the means to, I had to pay a preparation course. It's due to financial means really. That was why I came back. I finished high school and I didn't have a job, so I came back. I didn't have a choice." Ronilson still pondered other options, however. "I always wanted to cut hair," he says. "So I started cutting my nephew's hair. I cut and cut, and I improved." In part because of the work of CEN, Ronilson's was able to use his skills to make his ambitions be realized. "Djalma saw me cutting hair with scissors, and once I was able to cut 'ok' with scissors, he had the business plan," says Ronilson. Djalma was one of the participants in CEN's Amazon Prototype Project, which completed earlier this year. This project, which was the precursor to our current cCLEAR project, helped Djalma take on a mentor and leadership role in the community. In this position, he was able to help Ronilson turn his skill into a business opportunity. He provided the push to set up the business, the space, and equipment.
Although the business is up and running, Ronilson is still receiving help. Djalma is taking care of the business aspects, such as buying supplies, for now. As time goes on and Ronilson and his partner Pedro get more experience, he plans on having them take over more responsibility.
Although the problem of getting the capital to start his business has been addressed by Djalma's assistance, attracting paying clients is a significant challenge Ronilson faces. Until around the 1950's, there were only a few families in Suruacá whom shared everything. This tradition continues to an extent to this day, and there is a strong resistance to charging their neighbors for things and especially collecting debts. Haircutting as a business in Suruacá is a new idea, and as such there is still a learning curve. "We are beginning slowly," notes Ronilson. "We started from almost nothing. I cut approximately five people's hair a week. People are not very used to the idea. Most of the community members are used to going out at night, because it is when we have energy. We can only work at night because it is when they turn on the power."
"Most of my clients are men. I can cut with scissors, but they prefer the machine. There are some clients that only use the electric trimmers," says Ronilson.
As for the women of the community, they normally travel to Santarém to get their hair cut. With travel fees, it costs 12 Brazilian Reals, or about US$7.27, for women to get their haircut. Ronilson, on the other hand, charges 2 Brazilian Reals.
Despite these obstacles, business was good the Saturday night Bob had his haircut. Bob could tell that Ronilson wanted to be elsewhere and take advantage of the electricity to hang out with his friends. Instead, he was dedicated and served four customers that night.
While many obstacles exist, Ronilson is learning to overcome them. CEN hopes to help change the mentality of "I can't do it" into "I can learn to do it." We believe when communities gain the confidence and skills to tackle their problems independently, and they will prosper. Ronilson is a great example of a young man who has the potential to set an example in his community by taking the step to learn to overcome obstacles and create opportunities for development.