Magali’s Struggle to Power Her Family Business
“I cannot sit still,” Magali says from behind her bar— the business she runs from the front of her house in the Vila Santo Andre neighborhood in Porto Alegre, Brazil. “I clean my bar, I take care of my children, and I sell the products, and wash the vegetables to sell in the bar. I also sell clothes in the village. I do a lot of things,” she says. “I work all day long up to the time I go to bed.”
Before her husband got sick, Magali’s life was very different. She used to be formally employed as a home cleaner. She preferred the stability of this job to the variability of being self-employed, but she had to quit her job to take care of her husband. Now she works until the bar closes at 2am, earning between US $10 and $13 each day. With welfare assistance through Brazil’s Bolsa Familia program, her son’s school scholarship and her own income, Magali supports her six children—between the ages of 10 and 16—and her husband on $277 a month.
Because Magali runs her business from home, having reliable access to electricity at home is essential. Her husband also relies on electricity for his nebulizer to treat his asthma. Although 99 percent of households in Porto Alegre are serviced by an electricity distribution company, energy access, along with many other city services, remains unreliable and unaffordable. Magali and other poor urban residents disproportionately bear these costs because they earn lower incomes and live in rapidly urbanizing areas of the city, which often lack adequate services.
Magali’s home is connected to the city grid serviced by CEEE (Companhia Estadual de Geração e Transmissão de Energia Elétrica), but she cannot pay her bills. At first, CEEE offered low-income communities like Magali’s a six month “educational account” at a minimum rate, totaling $50. After the period ended, CEEE drastically increased its rates, bringing Magali’s bill to $125 for the month.
Now, Magali’s total debt is close to $1,260 for electricity alone. She says that these conditions have forced her, and most others in Vila Santo Andre, to use an illegal energy connection galled a gato (“cat” in Portuguese). She worries that breaking the law will eventually force her to lose her adopted child. “I know that this illegal connection is wrong,” she says, “but I do not have the financial conditions to negotiate right now.” Magali’s roof was recently damaged by flooding, and she says that a CEEE employee helped install her illegal connection. “I do not condemn him for doing so. He was an angel, as we did not know how to do this illegal connection.”
If Magali wants to expand her business, she will need to purchase more freezers for the bar. She also must purchase natural gas for cooking fuel, which usually costs her $25 for two canisters for the month. “My concern is about the prices,” Magali says.
“Everything is rising.” She also is concerned about the safety of her illegal connection, and about her oven’s gas supply. These illegal connections and lack of safe cooking fuels create a number of health and safety concerns for her and her family. “Once, an oven’s hose dropped and the gas leaked. The next day the gas bottle was empty and the house was full of gas.”
Magali thinks the price of her energy utilities will continue to rise in the next two to three years. As prices increase—and Magali continues to rely on unsafe and inadequate electricity and fuel sources—so does the burden she faces to serve her family financially, and keep them healthy and safe.