Interview – Rodrigo Baggio

Since he was given his first computer, Rodrigo Baggio’s life has been dominated by two passions – technology and working with disadvantaged young people. In 1993, he had a dream that suggested a way to combine them. He started the first computer donation campaign in his native Brazil, and out of this came the first of his Information Technology and Citizens’ Rights Schools, which later became the Committee for the Democratization of Information Technology (CDI).

The dreamer has a hard head, too, and CDI is now a network spanning 891 schools across eight countries. Caroline Hartnell asked him about its beginnings and its subsequent, remarkable growth. In particular, how has he found the funding needed to achieve all this?

How did you get the idea for CDI?

When I was 12, my father gave me a PC and technology became the first passion of my life. At the same time, I began to work as a volunteer with street kids, which I also loved. However, when I created my own company, Baggio Information Technology, I didn’t have time to do voluntary work. Then in 1993, when I was 23, I had a dream in which I saw poor young people using computers and finding solutions to their problems through technology. I am not Martin Luther King but I decided to fulfil this dream. I started the first computer donation campaign in Brazil, collecting computers from companies and giving them to community-based organizations in Rio de Janeiro, where I lived. But I also realized that if we could teach people to use the technology, they could put these computers to better use. So I had the idea of starting an Information Technology and Citizens’ Rights Schools in Rio.

Most of the people I talked to were sceptical. At the time, Brazilians did not have free access to the internet and computers were few. However, I began teaching ten community members in one of the Rio favelas to be teachers, and when we started our school there, in March 1995, we had over 300 poor young people wanting to learn IT. One of my business clients at the time was a global TV company and they advertised the campaign. Following this, many people wanted to volunteer, far more than I needed to help me in one school, so I had the idea of creating a network of schools and that’s how CDI – the Committee for Democracy in Information Technology – came about, the first NGO about digital inclusion in Latin America.

How do CDI’s schools operate?

Through partnerships with community-based organizations in the favelas, like residents’ associations, community centres and church halls. They provide the room and we provide computers, software and training. Each school needs to be self-sustaining and self-managing. Our students have to pay a symbolic fee, about $5 a month. From this, the school pays the teachers, and the teachers live in the community. If a student cannot pay the symbolic fee, they work as a volunteer. So people from the community are the educators and coordinators and the community see the schools as theirs, which is very important.

But CDI trains the educators?

Yes. CDI trains the educators in information technology, citizens rights and pedagogical skills. It’s important to stress that our goal is not teaching technology but using technology to improve lives and to develop low-income communities. For example, in one of our schools in north-east Brazil, community residents were putting garbage in the river. When it rained, the water level rose and that produced disease. The students decided to tackle this issue. They used Word and Powerpoint to produce fliers, and then talked to residents about not putting garbage in the river. After four months, none of the people in that favela were doing it, and the students had learnt how to use Word and Powerpoint.

You start molecular revolutions and you show these young people that they can do something to change their reality. Another example: in one of our schools in Salvador Bahia, the students realized that young people from their community didn’t have access to books, so they ran a big campaign to collect used books. They received hundreds and created a public library in our school there.

What countries does CDI work in now?

In the last 11 years, we have started 891 schools in 19 Brazilian states and in seven other countries – Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Equador, Argentina and South Africa. We have more than 1,400 educators and over 1,000 volunteers working in our schools, and 7,654 computers installed.

We used to have an office in Japan too, but we’ve just closed this office after seven years. CDI used to promote computer donation campaigns in Japan because the technology garbage there used to be amazing. But bringing computers from Japan to Latin America required a very bureaucratic operation involving UNESCO, and when the volume of donations dropped, UNESCO could not continue the process.

We are now opening CDI International in New York. This office will be dedicated to networking, fundraising and receiving hardware donations for the CDI network and other digital inclusion programmes in Latin America.

So you built up from five schools, no staff and no outside money in 1995 to where you are now 11 years later. What got you from there to here?

I think we can divide our work into four phases: the start, the expansion, the structuring, and the focus on quality and results.

When we started in 1995, Brazil had no culture of seeing technology as a social tool. So we decided to work for two years without money, just with computer donations and volunteer work, to prove that it is possible and efficient. After this, we began to receive some support. For example, an NGO in Rio gave us money to hire one assistant secretary and space in their premises. So we had one table, one computer, one telephone and one assistant. That was our first investment. Then we started a partnership with Foundation for Children and Adolescents, which is linked with the Rio de Janeiro state government, which gave us grants to hire two computer maintenance people.

That time, the end of 1996, was crucial. My company was beginning to grow but so was CDI, and both needed more time. I had to choose between the two. Then I heard about Ashoka. I got in touch with them, and in December 1996 I became an Ashoka fellow. This enabled me to dedicate more time to CDI. Ashoka also gave me a new identity: I became a social entrepreneur.

We created 11 schools in 1996 and the media began to cover us internationally, which attracted more support. In 1998, President Bill Clinton visited one of our schools, so we had more visibility again. By 1999, we had 63 schools and we began our partnership with Microsoft and began to receive Microsoft software. We also work with Linux open source technology, and the community leaders choose what kind of software they will use.

Becoming an Ashoka fellow was obviously very important for you. Were there other partnerships that had a big influence on the development of CDI?

Well, in 1999-2000 we formed three great partnerships. One was with Global Partnerships in the US, which donated about $97,000. This was a huge donation for us, and we hired 12 more people to work with us. The second was with the Avina Foundation. Through their support, we began the process of professionalizing the CDI network. Up to that point, the entire CDI network was voluntary. The third very important partnership was with the national development bank in Brazil, BNDES. With their support, we did our first external impact evaluation, we consolidated our pedagogical proposal, we bought our headquarters, and we improved our schools.

At this stage I realized that social movements can lose their quality as they grow. To combat this, we developed our social franchising model. We were helped by the biggest franchising company in Brazil, which did the work for us at very low cost. For us, this is a way to replicate our work and maintain its quality.

Also in 2000, we started the Mega Help Computer Donation Campaign, Megajuda, with money from Microsoft. This brought together the most important business associations in Brazil, and created key partnerships for us like those with the American Chamber of Commerce, the São Paulo industry federations and the Ethos Institute.

At what stage would you say you moved from your expansion to your structuring phase?

There are three things here – the grant from BNDES, development of the social franchising model and the appointment of a new board of directors.

We appointed a new board in 2001. We already had a board, of course, a fun board, made up of actors, journalists and so on, but I managed everything and the board was more for promotion. I wanted peers to work with me. So we created a hands-on board with very successful business entrepreneurs, like the president of Philips in Latin America, and the former president of JP Morgan in Brazil, which began to meet twice a month. The previous board met more like every four months.

For me, the possibility of exchanging ideas with very successful businessmen was amazing, and they learned a lot with us too. Sometimes board meetings looked like gladiators’ meetings, but I had a vision and they helped me shape it. It was a great experience. Our focus was always working with the favelas but we began to adapt our methodology to other groups.

And did all this enable you to attract more support?

As we became more successful, we were able to attract support from more and more companies, sometimes pro bono help but also sometimes money – from Accenture, Ernst & Young, Esso, and one of the biggest law firms in Brazil.

In 2004, we created a completely participative strategic plan, working with the 200 leaders of our network and with Accenture and Kaiser Associates, on a pro bono basis. They told us at first that it couldn’t be done with that number of people, but we did it.

We also got some important help from Philips. In 2004, their quality action manager in Latin America worked with us for five months to develop our indicators, qualitative results and process indicators. We now have a management information system whereby we can take monthly photos of our entire CDI network, which is crucial to managing this transnational organization effectively.

All your schools are self-sustaining, but you need to support your network of 200 CDI staff. How do you do that?

The goal is for the regional CDIs to be self-sustaining, and they are starting to mobilize investment locally. Each regional CDI runs local fundraising campaigns and each one has partnerships with small to medium companies or foundations in their state or country. CDI headquarters supports these fundraising efforts, but it also fundraises for the entire CDI network. At the moment it still provides about 80 per cent of the investment in the entire network.

When is your New York office going to open, and what is it going to do?

We are now in the process of hiring someone in New York. When that’s done, we will open our office there. I expect it to be operational in the next two months.

Basically, they will help us with fundraising and networking. As well as starting relationships, they will prepare some roadshows. I learned this strategy with Ashoka. They put one person in Spain, one person in Germany, one in Paris and one in London. They mobilized contacts, and researched and prepared visits and promotions. It’s smart because it’s very low-cost and works very well.

At the Skoll World Forum in March, there was a lot of talk about forms of finance other than grants. Have you ever had loans or anything like that?

No, never. I believe it’s a risk. If you ask for money and you have to pay it back in two years, it’s not safe. I prefer to invest in fundraising.

For us it’s very important to be transparent, and to show how much we have raised and how we have spent the money. CDI accounts are audited by Ernst & Young annually.

Where do your grants come from?

Fifty-one per cent comes from private companies, 42 per cent from foundations. Support from international collaboration agencies like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank has reduced because last year we ended a big partnership with IDB and the World Bank. And there’s also the Brazilian government.

Was finance difficult at any time or did it always just come?

I think fundraising is always a challenge but we got funds. If we hadn’t, we’d have simply stopped growing. But as CDI is a social entrepreneurship organization, constantly growing and improving, we need to constantly run fundraising campaigns. I continue to spend 70 per cent of my time in fundraising and networking.

Do you feel that that’s too much?

I talk a lot with other social entrepreneurs, and that percentage is normal. I dream of one day establishing new, long-term partnerships that will allow me to reduce the time I spend on fundraising and networking to, say, 40 per cent, so I can spend more time on the internal quality of our work. I think this is a challenge for social entrepreneurs.

So are long-term partnerships the answer?

I think so. Another solution could be to generate and sell products or services, such as consultancy. Or having an endowment, though this is a more realistic possibility for NGOs and social entrepreneurs in Europe and the US.

We historically have some partnerships with state and federal government, for example to help manage projects in prisons and hospitals for mentally disabled people. These bring us in some money but only a small amount.

Might you be able to develop these partnerships with government further?

We have tried in the last two years, but we have found that it is very difficult to work with government. The logic of government is crazy. For example, in one of these partnerships we needed to hire 100 people to work with us in one week, and the secretary wanted to suggest their relatives, their friends, etc … We also realized that maybe it’s not good for CDI to execute government policy. But working in partnership as consultants, helping the government to do what it does better, might be an income-generating model for the future.

You’ve had support from Ashoka, Avina, Skoll and Schwab, four organizations that support social entrepreneurs. Do they all offer something distinct and different from each other?

Yes. Ashoka invests in us as social risk organizations. It discovers social entrepreneurs in the early stages, and this is very important. Avina, Skoll and Schwab all select successful social entrepreneurs. Avina now offers more on the consulting and support side, helping social entrepreneurs to do better through workshops, meetings, training sessions, etc, as well as giving grants. Schwab put us to work with top social entrepreneurs and put us in contact with CEOs at the Davos summit, and these kinds of connections are great.

Skoll is really the new one of these four, and gives us huge financial support. They are also very friendly, with a low level of bureaucracy – it’s a very hands-on relationship. And the Skoll Forum is good for networking and creates more awareness of social entrepreneurship.

Some people are critical of these organizations because they all tend to recognize and support the same small group of social entrepreneurs. Do you think the benefits should be spread more widely?

That’s a difficult question. On the one hand, it’s good for these few social entrepreneurs. But at many Avina and Schwab events I try to suggest some kind of give-back. For example, I do a lot of coaching and mentoring of smaller social entrepreneurs, and this is very important. If we could persuade these bigger organizations to provide support for top social entrepreneurs specifically to help them inspire and mentor smaller social entrepreneurs, I think we could spread support more widely.

The Committee for the Democratization of Information Technology (CDI)
CDI was created in 1994 by a young Brazilian entrepreneur, Rodrigo Baggio, out of a campaign to recycle computers for the use of community groups. Since then, more than 600,000 students have graduated from its informal schools in the low-income communities in which it operates. CDI provides initial donations to establish self-sustaining and self-administered schools that teach basic computer skills, including computer and hardware maintenance, and civic responsibility in intensive three-month modules. Now operating in eight countries in Latin America and beyond, CDI is on the eve of opening an office in New York.
For more information contact Rodrigo Baggio at

Comment John Kingston

I salute the extraordinary achievements of Rodrigo Baggio and CDI. Early stage work and rapid development should normally be funded by grants and fundraising income, as Rodrigo argues himself. And he’s also right on continuity of funding – grant partnerships over a period of years (perhaps from a venture philanthropy fund like Impetus in the UK) would reduce the stress and tension of living hand to mouth or year to year which characterizes most social projects. And reduce the time, costs and energy that continuous fundraising soaks out of an organization.

Borrowing to finance ongoing expenditure is dangerous – paying the food bills on credit cards is not a good idea. But Rodrigo might have found it helpful to have a standby loan facility to cover working capital or fundraising gaps. A safety net might have helped him sleep more easily when cash was very tight, especially during the expansion and structuring phases.

A remarkable story, which challenges funders to provide ongoing finance, and where back-up standby support from a social lender like Venturesome might have helped. But, as Rodrigo says, hard-nosed debt was not an option!

John Kingston is Director of Venturesome. Email

Comment Patrice Schneider

It seems that Rodrigo Baggio has shown an impressive creativity in harnessing funds and good will for a worthy cause. I’m impressed.

What I’ve learned from our organization, the Media Development Loan Fund, is that in some cases a social cause may also have a business logic. Independent media – which we support – are not just agents of social improvement. They are also a viable business. Finding the business side also makes loan funding possible – when you have a social cause that also fits into the market logic.

I am wondering whether Rodrigo, using his creative approaches, shouldn’t try to find the business side of what CDI does. He does talk about the possibility of offering consultancy as an income-generating model for the future. Presumably this would happen at the level of CDI headquarters and regional offices, but there might be possibilities at the local level too. For example, trained educators might offer simple services at a low price to people with no knowledge of or access to IT. This could give people access to public information on social services, their rights, etc. A bit like the old medieval model of écrivain public – a person who knew how to write who, for a small fee, would write for those who didn’t.

The main idea is not to convert the whole organizational logic to business and loans but to create a tranche, a slice of activity, that would create revenues at grassroots level. This might grow slowly as a revenue source but it would quickly send signals to social capital actors that the organization is embracing a viability path – for individual schools and for CDI as a whole, too. With the capacity to generate earned income, taking out loans at least becomes an option. Such signals also help for grant funding …

Patrice Schneider is Director of Development of the Media Development Loan Fund. Email

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