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.
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….
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…
The total value of System D as a global phenomenon is close to $10 trillion. Which makes for another astonishing revelation. If System D were an independent nation, united in a single political structure — call it the United Street Sellers Republic (USSR) or, perhaps, Bazaaristan — it would be an economic superpower, the second-largest economy in the world (the United States, with a GDP of $14 trillion, is numero uno). The gap is narrowing, though, and if the United States doesn’t snap out of its current funk, the USSR/Bazaaristan could conceivably catch it sometime this century.
Best thing I’ve read all week.