The fact that I lived on a boat that traveled down the Amazon River for two weeks (this was back in 2001) comes in handy anytime I’m playing “two truths and a lie” (you’re right Timmy! I haven’t eaten human meat on the arctic tundra for my own survival!). But beyond that, my own fortnight of bedding down in a hammock, bathing with river dolphins, and interviewing anyone from loggers to school teachers to sex workers never yielded anything as bananas as this story (see below or click here for the crazy interactive map), but it helps me imagine what the daily life is like for Sra. Moraes, the savvy finance skipper who’s branch is literally buoyed by the Amazon River.
Ms. Moraes, a 43-year-old former housewife, is at the helm of a swashbuckling new venture in Brazil—as manager of the first floating bank branch on the Amazon river system. From a riverboat, she peddles banking services in a frontier where people don’t have much money—let alone experience with ATMs, savings accounts or personal loans.
besides supporting a bank branch and carrying passengers, the 125-foot, triple-decker Voyager III stocks 500 tons of beans, chicken, bleach and other goods that it sells over a 1,000-mile course and a dozen ports of call.
Every two weeks, along with some 200 other passengers, Ms. Moraes boards the diesel-powered riverboat for a nine-day voyage from the central Brazilian Amazon into muddy tributaries bordering Colombia and Peru. As passengers hang hammocks, she strings a red banner outside her branch—a cramped closet that until recently was a storeroom.
In a region where villagers travel days to get to a market or a hospital, the branch offers services including savings and checking accounts, personal loans and direct deposits from the government for public servants, pensioners and the poor. The office consists of Ms. Moraes, her laptop, a printer, and an automated teller.
“People don’t know what to think,” says Ms. Moraes, “but it’s not hard to explain that a bank can make things easier.”
Modest but steady growth in Latin America’s largest economy over the past decade has catapulted millions of poor Brazilians into the middle class. Launched in November by Banco Bradesco SA, operator of the country’s largest retail-banking network, the riverine effort shows how far into Brazil’s corners the changing economy will reach. The number of bank accounts in Brazil has tripled over the past decade, from just over 42 million in 1997 to nearly 126 million at the end of 2008, according to the Brazilian Banking Federation. Still, there are at least 50 million “unbanked” Brazilians out there.
In less than four months, more than 300 clients have opened accounts aboard the floating bank. Dozens of others have done so on day treks that Ms. Moraes, the branch manager, takes in canoes and rafts into villages beyond where the riverboat moors.
The Voyager III’s owners were robbed at gunpoint underway a few years ago. The bank lets them offload as much as 800,000 reais, about $460,000, in cash collected from sales during each voyage. The branch, linked via satellite to Bradesco servers, uses the boat’s own cash flow to fund withdrawals and loans and then wires reimbursement, plus a small commission per transaction, into the boat’s account.
“Before, I hid money all over the boat,” says André Araújo, the vessel’s 28-year-old manager.
Ms. Moraes was born and raised in Benjamin Constant, a boggy logging town across a tributary from Peru. She never had a bank account until she was 30. After dropping out of school at 16 and having three children, she decided in 1997 to leave her mechanic husband and start a career. Earning a high-school equivalency certificate, she landed a job as a town clerk, then worked her way up to bank clerk and teller jobs.
“This is a lot safer than it used to be,” Ms. Guedes says. She used to have to take her money on an 8-hour canoe trip to a town to buy goods. She recalls one 2008 voyage home amid a rainstorm, when the wake of a larger vessel toppled her canoe and washed away a month’s worth of provisions for her family. “I don’t really need that canoe anymore,” she says.
Now thats what I call a
sticky fishy situation!
(kinda makes me want to leave my husband for high-seas entrepreneurship!
bonus footage of Amazonian Surfers!!!!!!