Willy Pessoa

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2003
This description of Willy Pessoa's work was prepared when Willy Pessoa was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003 .


Willy Pessoa Rodrigues has designed an integrated, holistic model combining technology, low cost and community involvement in planning for small-scale agricultural production. Already implemented in 170 communities in five states, the model contributes to economic and environmental sustainability and is helping to stem the abandonment of rural communities and migration to urban centers.

The New Idea

Willy has devised a new production system that integrates quality, productivity, and social and civic responsibility into a design for agricultural production. It takes the form of a "mandala" for properties of a minimum of two hectares. With it, Willy optimizes the use of natural resources, increases productivity, avoids waste through reuse of resources, and generates more income for the farmer.
Using this method, Willy teaches small farmers about building agricultural plots in the form of a mandala: the first three concentric circles are for growing subsistence crops; the next four for income generation; and the final one for environmental equilibrium and reforestation. At the center of the plot is a water reservoir, organically enriched through raising ducks and fish; it provides water for irrigation through a small, submersed pump. The cost of installation is low, and the system is able to irrigate all the outer circles through a drip system of microsprinklers made from Q-Tips and PET bottles.
With the first three circles, the families are able to supply their subsistence needs and a surplus for sale on the market, earning an income of some R$ 600 a month. The next four circles are for crop production for the market, and provide an increase in income of R$ 1,700 monthly. The last circle is devoted to planting native trees for environmental restoration. This entire process aims at contributing to the restoration of human dignity, through improving Quality of Life (QL), Economic Productivity (EP), and Environmental Equilibrium (EA) of Rural Family Production Units (UPFRs).
Willy completes the circle of production by working with the city around the concept of "fair trade," offering a higher quality organic product, reducing waste, and paying a higher value to the producer. He will work with companies both to mobilize their employees to be consumers of these products and to become corporate supporters of new mandalas by financing the implementation costs.
In the interests of replication of the project, Willy is engaging students in junior companies from various states, training them to be able both to replicate, implement, and provide follow-up for this new model of agriculture production and to disseminate it throughout Brazil. There are currently more than 600 junior companies operating in universities in all Brazilian states, representing 26,000 students. Disseminating this project through these youth committed to a new Brazil is an important challenge for Willy.

The Problem

There are 23 million people in the country living under miserable conditions. Paraíba is no different, with 49.7 percent of the state's population earning less than twice the Brazilian minimum wage (R$ 400 a month), and 26.8 percent of the population having no income at all. This means that 76.5 percent of the population live in a state of poverty. Total family income is barely enough to purchase basic food needs. Even with these desperate food needs, there is excessive waste. From each R$ 100 paid for agricultural products, only R$ 15 reaches the hands of the producer; the rest is diluted in waste and concentration of income. EMBRAPA (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation) has estimated the wastes in handling of fruits and vegetables at around 65 percent of the total of R$ 24 billion produced in Brazil each year.

In Brazil between 1985 and 1995, more than one million rural establishments disappeared–17 percent of the total. IBGE census data show that between 1991 and 1996, 2.5 million Brazilians migrated in search of better living conditions. The question of job creation has thus become an urgent problem. According to BNDES (Brazilian Development Bank), the average cost per job created in Brazil is R$ 150,000 in the urban automobile industry and R$ 7,100 per job in rural production. The capital investment required to create jobs in rural areas is 5 percent what it is in urban cities. Willy's mandala approach has a capital requirement of only 2 percent.

Disinformation, disorganization, and ignorance of production techniques and markets prevent rational forms of collection, storage, and better use of water resources, as well as achievement of full local productive potential. Of the total land area of the state, 77.33 percent lies within the "Drought Polygon." Nevertheless, scarcity of water is not the greatest problem but rather irrational utilization, along with inadequate collection and storage.

In the process of production and consumption, there are many intermediaries and considerable waste. In the face of this social context, Willy decided to create the Mandala Agency whose productive and agro-industrial processes for taking advantage of local opportunities and potentials–and of environmental reintegration–contribute to low-cost actions to eradicate the hunger and misery to which low-income Paraíba families are subject.

The Strategy

The strategy to replicate this methodology for agricultural production relies on identifying and engaging important groups of small rural producers: family farmers, the Landless Workers Movement, agricultural schools, and prison inmates. The project will train them and raise their awareness of local production opportunities by providing information, organizational support, and water-use techniques. Also it will link them with urban consumers committed to "fair trade," who will receive quality produce. To create more sustainable local development, he will work with groups of six UPFRs that will form productive subgroups. The subgroups combine their efforts to achieve the greater volume of production necessary to participate in urban consumer markets, with organic products produced with lower adverse social, economic, and environmental impacts.

After the area is completely utilized for garden plants, medical plants, production of humus, manure, organic pesticides and cultivation of forage palm, sisal, castor bean and ginger, the process expands to a phased occupation of the remaining area–for production on four more mandalas of the same size with a diversified production complemented by the installation of one more reservoir for a balanced monthly supply of fish.

This space also permits raising rabbits, goats, guinea hens, worms, and at least 250 fruit trees of various types, allowing rural families a diet of milk, eggs, fish, meat, fruit, and other products. These new production options also provide a margin for the development of crafts through the use of the products and preserves and hides of the animals.

In the short term, the goals of the Mandala Agency are to ensure the sustainability of these families with an increased income, the appreciation of their customs and traditions, and the use of alternate energy sources, low-cost technologies, and respect for the environment.

In five years, he intends to reach all settlements in the state of Paraíba (100,000 families), as well as various prisons. His plan is to provide inmates with quality food, income, and self-esteem. He wants to transfer part of the production to families in difficulties, multiply this technology to other UPFRs, and increase the number of agricultural schools reached so that students can multiply these mandalas in the future. He will involve more junior companies from universities to replicate this methodology in other states. Willy's vision includes having his model incorporated into public policies.

The Person

Willy was born in Rio Grande do Norte, but he has lived in different states of Brazil, accompanying his father who was a public employee linked to the Environment Ministry. He studied in a seminary and believes that the period spent among the priests, along with the Catholic education provided by his grandfather and aunt, provided the basis for his social activities. Convinced that the lack of planning was one of Brazil's greatest problems, he decided to study administration.

He moved to a rural area to work as a teacher and there had his first experience as a small farmer, raising chickens and crops. During this period, he taught himself about plants, livestock, and agriculture. He began some experiments that would later be incorporated into his life's project–the mandalas–like reuse of chicken manure for growing pigs and reutilization of resources.

Willy's great transformative moment occurred when he participated in the 1st Biogas Seminar in Brasilia. There he encountered like-minded peers and many innovative ideas, like biodigesters that he soon implemented on his land. His conception of small rural properties thus evolved, and he made advances in the design of his productive mandalas.

He gradually became more involved with associations of municipalities. He started to work on their development through ANAMCUBIA (an association of municipalities of Paraíba), the Superintendency for the Development of the Northeast (SUDENE), the Superintendency of the Planning Secretary of the State of Paraíba, and the United Nations–always with considerable creativity in the design and implementation of integrated sustainable development projects and in refining his vision of how to implement the mandalas.

He wrote 36 booklets about rural production and community development to disseminate his methodologies more widely. He taught seminars at the Universal Institute for Local Administration (The Hague, Netherlands), the Latin American Center for Local Development (CECADEL), in Quito, Ecuador, and the Program for Integrated and Sustainable Local Development (DLIS - SEBRAE).

Willy made the mandala methodology the defining work of his life. Over his career he has developed projects for small producers, working with and developing participatory methodologies and consulting support for the development of municipalities. He also provided support to SEBRAE with whom he implemented the mandalas in certain regions. He has begun working with 15 young people from junior companies in Paraíba who became committed to the mandala work and its dissemination. His plan is to expand the work in other states.