Stephan Schmidheiny, the Bill Gates Of Switzerland

Roberto Laureano da Rocha lives on the outskirts of São Paulo, Brazil in the impoverished Calmon Viana neighborhood, where most residents make a living as waste pickers, scrounging for aluminum cans and cardboard.

But five years ago Da Rocha began working with the Avina Foundation, which he was introduced to through a waste cooperative. Now, at 35, he heads the co-op and has transformed his shack into a two-story home for his family of four.

Avina was founded 15 years ago by one of the world's least known and most foresighted philanthropists, Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, 61. He was early on the sustainable-development bandwagon; in the early 1980s his forestry company GrupoNueva planted fast-growing trees on abandoned farmland in Concepción, Chile. He was also ahead of most do-gooders in aiming to help the poor by boosting their entrepreneurial efforts rather than by handing them welfare.

In 2003 Schmidheiny placed $1 billion in business assets into a charitable trust, which uses up to $30 million of profits annually to help entrepreneurs across both Central and South America. He says he considered becoming a missionary but instead studied law and worked around the globe for his family's business. Schmidheiny's Latin American focus grew from his own business and environmental interests in the region.

Sean McKaughan, who now heads a staff of 120 at Avina, says that South America is a good laboratory for the entrepreneurial approach to reducing poverty. Nearly a third of Brazil's and almost two-thirds of tiny Honduras' populations live in poverty. But Latin America still has enough prosperity to give it a GDP per capita of $4,800, six times the number for sub-Saharan Africa. Says McKaughan. "Here we generate ideas that are applicable to Africa and Asia."


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