Ismael Ferreira

Associação de Desenvolvimento Sustentável e Solidário da Região Sisaleira (APAEB)
Year founded: 


APAEB organizes and trains farmers in an impoverished region of Brazil, helping them forge links with international markets.

Focus: Education, Environment, Microfinance, Rural Development, Trade
Geographic Area of Impact: Brazil
Model: Social Business
Number of Direct Beneficiaries: 12,000 (2010)
Annual Budget: US$ 7.5 Million (2010)
Percentage Earned Revenue: 96%
Recognition: Social Entrepreneur of the Year, Brazil, 2001

In Brazil, the country with the highest income inequality in the world, the bottom 10% of the population control less than 1% of the country’s wealth. The hinterland population in northern and north-eastern Brazil has grown by 59% over the past two decades, putting an increased strain on water resources for the already drought prone region. In the middle of the hinterland in the state of Bahia lies Valente, a small town with 23,000 inhabitants considered among the poorest in the region. Most farms are 11 hectares or less and suffer from dry, infertile soil. The government considers them unsustainable and therefore has limited the water resources flowing to these small farmers, creating significant hardship for the farmers.

Innovation and Activities
APAEB is a cooperative of small sisal growers based in the interior of Bahia, demonstrating how agricultural workers can organize themselves to succeed in the global economy. APAEB began by helping farmers to collectively market their sisal crop (an agave plant whose fibres are used to make ropes, rugs and brushes). As it grew, APAEB fought for export rights, forged links with foreign markets and built processing plants and a factory, and now exports millions of dollars worth of quality, finished products. A winner of numerous awards, it has influenced similar practices across Brazil.

APAEB has built an international bridge linking small agricultural producers with international markets. This process entails organizing and training local farmers with little formal education to manage complex manufacturing processes, while increasing financing from banks and donor agencies, and developing lasting relationships with foreign buyers based on economic self-interest, quality workmanship and mutual respect. Since the construction of its multimillion dollar carpet factory in 1997 in the middle of the semi-arid region, APAEB's revenues have increased 400%, while prices for raw sisal have risen dramatically. With more than 800 employees and revenue of US$ 7 million, APAEB has brought a powerful economic multiplier effect to an impoverished region where half a million people are estimated to derive a portion of their livelihood from sisal.

The Entrepreneur
Ismael Ferreira is the youngest child of a sisal grower from Valente. During the 1970s, at the time of the military dictatorship in Brazil, two Italian priests organized community meetings in Valente and the surrounding areas to discuss the exploitation of workers and small farmers. At the age of only 12, he participated in these gatherings along with his parents and brothers. In 1980, 30 families participated in the formal creation of APAEB. Ferreira was one of the co-founders and became the General Manager. He overcame deep resistance to the cooperative idea and fought for four years with government officials and business interests to establish APAEB as an exporter, in order to capture profits that had traditionally gone to intermediaries.