I’ve always liked going into favelas just because they are so different. (See my piece in yesterday’s Financial Times blog about the new Santander bank that just opened in a Rio favela.)

When I first came to Brazil back in 1999 it still wasn’t too dangerous to walk into most favelas unannounced. For years I gave weekly chess lessons to kids in the Cidade de Deus favela, made famous in the film City of God.

It was hairy at times – once we were forced to spend an hour flat out on the floor as a gun battle raged outside – but after a few months I became known and the locals (i.e. the traffickers who controlled the place) let me in with no hassles.

Today it would be madness to walk into a favela without a local friend or a member of the residents’ association. (One Spanish colleague who tried last year was beaten and narrowly survived getting executed, as he recounts here in this story in La Nacion.)

In Rio, slowly but surely, things are getting better with the UPPs and favelas are becoming more and more like regular communities.

One of the reasons is the overall rise in living standards. Companies are realising the people there have money and are opening businesses.

It’s easy to imagine that favelas are just poverty but most people there have televisions, CD players, fridges and even washing machines, according to recent data.

Now, companies like McDonalds, Bobs, Deplá, Casas Bahia and other multinationals are opening branches in favelas or poor communities to take advantage of that general rise in well-being.

Since President Lula took office in 2003, some 24 million Brazilians have been sprung from absolute poverty and 31 million have progressed into the middle class, according to the government’s own figures.

One of the latest is Santander, which opened a bank in the Complexo de Alemão favela in Rio recently, in partnership with Afroreggae. (I also wrote about it here last month in my Monocle story.)

The Spanish bank is one of several firms looking to the future. The Complexo de Alemão branch is small, but it is a seed.

The people I spoke with at Santander were quite clear. This is a test. If it goes well, more favelas will have their own banks.

“We can’t leave these people outside the market,” Eduardo Campos, Santander’s regional superintendent, told me. “I won’t say we don’t have plans for other areas, but we want to learn here first before expanding into other communities. We know the size, the national potential.”