With only a mobile phone and a promise of money from his uncle, David Obi did something the Nigerian government has been trying to do for decades: He figured out how to bring electricity to the masses in Africa's most populous country.
Photos from the trillion shadow economy
It wasn't a matter of technology. David is not an inventor or an engineer, and his insights into his country's electrical problems had nothing to do with fancy photovoltaics or turbines to harness the harmattan or any other alternative sources of energy. Instead, 7,000 miles from home, using a language he could hardly speak, he did what traders have always done: made a deal. He contracted with a Chinese firm near Guangzhou to produce small diesel-powered generators under his uncle's brand name, Aakoo, and shipped them home to Nigeria, where power is often scarce. David's deal, struck four years ago, was not massive -- but it made a solid profit and put him on a strong footing for success as a transnational merchant. Like almost all the transactions between Nigerian traders and Chinese manufacturers, it was also sub rosa: under the radar, outside of the view or control of government, part of the unheralded alternative economic universe of System D.
You probably have never heard of System D. Neither had I until I started visiting street markets and unlicensed bazaars around the globe.
System D is a slang phrase pirated from French-speaking Africa and the Caribbean. The French have a word that they often use to describe particularly effective and motivated people. They call them débrouillards. To say a man is a débrouillard is to tell people how resourceful and ingenious he is. The former French colonies have sculpted this word to their own social and economic reality. They say that inventive, self-starting, entrepreneurial merchants who are doing business on their own, without registering or being regulated by the bureaucracy and, for the most part, without paying taxes, are part of "l'economie de la débrouillardise." Or, sweetened for street use, "Systeme D." This essentially translates as the ingenuity economy, the economy of improvisation and self-reliance, the do-it-yourself, or DIY, economy. A number of well-known chefs have also appropriated the term to describe the skill and sheer joy necessary to improvise a gourmet meal using only the mismatched ingredients that happen to be at hand in a kitchen.
I like the phrase. It has a carefree lilt and some friendly resonances. At the same time, it asserts an important truth: What happens in all the unregistered markets and roadside kiosks of the world is not simply haphazard. It is a product of intelligence, resilience, self-organization, and group solidarity, and it follows a number of well-worn though unwritten rules. It is, in that sense, a system.
It used to be that System D was small -- a handful of market women selling a handful of shriveled carrots to earn a handful of pennies. It was the economy of desperation. But as trade has expanded and globalized, System D has scaled up too. Today, System D is the economy of aspiration. It is where the jobs are. In 2009, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a think tank sponsored by the governments of 30 of the most powerful capitalist countries and dedicated to promoting free-market institutions, concluded that half the workers of the world -- close to 1.8 billion people -- were working in System D: off the books, in jobs that were neither registered nor regulated, getting paid in cash, and, most often, avoiding income taxes.