José Edimilson Canaes: Bridging Brazil’s Digital Divide

Brazilian engineer José Edimilson Canaes teaches people to turn the power of computers onto social problems

4 min read
Photo: Paulo Fridman
Photo: Paulo Fridman

Driving along the dirt roads of the Maré Complex, one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest shantytowns, José Edimilson Canaes takes a wrong turn. He finds himself suddenly surrounded by heavily armed members of a local drug-trafficking gang, not quite thrilled to see a man in a suit showing up uninvited.

“I almost became a statistic,” he says of the encounter back in October 2009. Two things saved him. First, word reached the gunmen that Canaes—known to everyone as Ed—was there to help set up a computer center in partnership with people from the community. The second is that Canaes, goateed and bespectacled, has the nonthreatening air of an affable professor. The men let him go.

The episode didn’t faze Canaes, a tireless optimist who has an unshaken belief in his work at the Center for Digital Inclusion, known as CDI, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Rio de Janeiro that establishes computer education programs in underprivileged and isolated parts of Brazil and 12 other countries. Its goal is to teach people not only basic computer skills but also how to use technology to solve problems in their own communities and make their lives better. It trained over 68000 people in 2010 alone.

As director of operations, Canaes makes sure that the CDI machine—a rapidly expanding global network of 821 affiliate organizations—runs smoothly. His frenetic 12-hour workdays are filled with meetings, calls, trips, and the occasional adventure, like the visit to the Maré Complex. And he still finds time to squeeze in work toward a Ph.D.—he’s studying electricity usage in undeveloped areas—which he’ll complete this year. It’s a lifestyle that would tax a twentysomething, but Canaes, who is 53, isn’t complaining.

“Is it stressful? Yes,” he says. “Do I like it? A lot.”

Canaes first learned of the Center for Digital Inclusion in Veja , a popular news magazine. An article described how in 1995 a college dropout named Rodrigo Baggio started the nonprofit to use computers to empower people. “I wished I’d had that idea,” Canaes recalls telling some friends. His friends agreed, and they all became volunteers at a local CDI branch in Campinas, a city of 1.1 million in southeastern Brazil.

José Edimilson Canaes


AGE 53

Uses computer education to empower people

Center for Digital Inclusion

Brazil and 12 other countries

Travels to isolated and exotic locales establishing computer centers; gets to meet educators and students who are changing their communities

It was the late 1990s, and Canaes, who has a degree in electrical engineering, was running his own thriving business in industrial automation. Being an inventor and entrepreneur had always been his dream, but he also had a passion for education. He’d grown up in a middle-class household, and as a child he immersed himself in science and history books. “We didn’t have enough money to travel, so I traveled with my eyes.”

Volunteering at CDI showed Canaes that with the right educational tools, even people living in impoverished conditions could better their lives. The possibility of really changing society captivated him—and soon the CDI work took over his life.

Canaes rose to become the coordinator of the Campinas branch, running it from 2002 to 2009. Later that year, CDI invited him to become a fulltime employee and manage the Rio de Janeiro branch, CDI’s largest. Last year, he took charge of overseeing all of CDI’s activities in Brazil and abroad.

When I contact him to say I want to learn about his work, he suggests we go see the most important part of the CDI operation: the classroom.

On a sunny September day, I meet Canaes in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and one of the world’s most unequal, with dire poverty abutting excessive wealth everywhere you turn. We’re visiting a CDI affiliate in a dilapidated neighborhood called Brasilândia, on the outskirts of the city.

Our host is Veronica Machado, an energetic entrepreneur who founded the affiliate in 1998. She tells us that because of drugs and violence, 6 out of every 10 kids in this region between the ages of 16 and 19 won’t reach 25.

“I lost my brother there when I was little,” she says, pointing to the street outside. “He was playing soccer when another boy shot him.”

Canaes, who can talk for hours on topics as varied as analog circuit design, regulation of toxic chemicals, and the economic impact of energy efficiency, says that although Brazil is growing at a fast clip and many people’s lives are improving, the poorest still have no opportunities. These are the individuals that CDI wants to help. “If I can change that a bit, I’m a happy man,” he says.

We enter a small room crammed with a dozen computers and as many kids. Canaes explains that CDI’s goal is not just to teach how to use Microsoft Word or how to surf the Web. The idea is also to show students how they can become better citizens by learning about problems in their neighborhoods and working to fix them. It’s a time-tested educational approach based on the ideas of renowned Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.

Canaes walks around the room, chatting with the group. “Let me see some photos,” he says to a 12-year-old with curly hair and brown eyes. The girl, thoughtful and articulate, shows him a series of PowerPoint slides, explaining that this morning’s class focused on problems the students found in their community: open sewage ditches, littered streets, graffiti-covered walls, broken traffic lights.

The students had previously gone out to take photos and talk with people. Today they’re creating PowerPoint presentations summarizing the problems. Later they will prepare pamphlets and letters addressed to local representatives demanding that the problems be addressed.

Over the next weeks, the class will advance to more complex computer skills, including editing videos, writing blog posts, and using social media. Again, the computer is just a tool that allows the students to investigate a problem, propose a solution, and take action.

“When people go through these steps, they suddenly have a huge realization,” Canaes says. “They realize that they can make a difference.”

His goal is to expand the CDI network by, among other things, setting up satellite offices in remote locales and partnering with big corporations interested in providing CDI courses in areas where they operate. Seeing classes like today’s, he says, is what keeps him going.

He mentions the 12 year-old-girl. “You can see the sparkle in her eyes,” he says. “She’s avid to learn, to grow. She’s a dreamer and she has the future laid out in front of her.” His voice catches. “All she needs is a little push, and then she’ll soar.”

This article originally appeared in print as “Social Engineer.”


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