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System Debrouillard: Transforming the Developing World, One Street Vendor at a Time

We've always seen them as the lower echelons of society. They sell the Louis Vuitton knock-offs, the Shanel perfumes, the five-dollar cell phone chargers. These self-made entreprenuers get up early, travel to their coveted high-traffic

Why African Cities are full of Street Vendors - System Debrouillard

We’ve always seen them as the lower echelons of society. They sell the Louis Vuitton knock-offs, the Shanel perfumes, the five-dollar cell phone chargers. These self-made entreprenuers get up early, travel to their coveted high-traffic urban locales and sell, sell, sell.

In every major urban center in the world are found these “Black Market” entreprenuers, or System D as Robert Neuwirth calls it in his new book. In Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy, Neuwirth outlines the natural occurences that have caused this System D to grow to its present state with a ten trillion dollar economy, employing half the world’s workers.

With the global economic meltdown, many workers learned how to create their own opportunities, so that those who did not previously work underground now do so. In addition, with more limited resources, many consumers in developed countries are spending more with their local street vendor than they did before.

However, the transformation that has taken place in the developing world over the last 10 years is most astonishing. Thanks in great part to these System D workers and the increasingly global market, citizens of developing countries now have incredible access to the global products they’d never heard of 10 years ago.

In Nigeria, where there was almost no cell phone market in 2001 when MTN came in, now even the rural villager has access to cell phone communication. Airtime vendors line the city streets as well as rural areas with their colorful umbrellas and the average Nigerian can afford a cellular phone, giving him instant access to global communication. This was made possible by the street vendors who made it easy for MTN to get refillable cell phones and airtime to the masses. So that wealthy villagers would have to visit their poorer neighbors—the System D merchants—in order to access cellular service. In fact, in such places, the entreprenuers are often women, as their husbands would be off working in the city. This is the case in many parts of Africa.

Pure Water baggies have been a primary source of clean drinking water throughout West Africa, in places with minimal or no municipal water systems. This is another need that System D workers assessed and filled. As plebeian as the Black Market is, however, global companies are very aware of its reach. Because so many millions of consumers rely on street vendors throughout the world, these global companies actually target street vendors to sell their products for them, often developing their own “knock-off” brand, or brands exclusively intended for street markets.

Indeed, the extent to which Africans on the content can access the global products previously accessible only to the wealthy is rapidly changing interactions between the social classes. The lower-income masses that were so little exposed in comparison to their wealthy counterparts are now global citizens, relying less and less on the elite to bring them access to the developed world.

The term System D comes from the French term, débrouillard, which refers to someone who is self- reliant or inventive. Indeed, these entreprenuers flying under the radar create large markets for products that would otherwise not reach the masses. By studying their consumers, they are also able to easily modify their offerings. Without the red tape of a conventional business, System D merchants simply go

to China—where visas are easy to get—and request the products that their consumers want. The dual SIM card capability that many cell phones have now was initially created for System D consumers, who needed access to multiple networks.

Africans on the Continent are accessing Western products—albeit their knockoffs—at an unprecedented rate. Products that were previously only accessible to the upper echelons of these societies are now readily available to any willing consumer. This is almost entirely credited to System D, Black Market entreprenuers. Neuwirth predicts that by 2020, two-thirds of the world’s workers will part of System D.

Lolade Siyonbola
Lolade is an author, techie and serial entrepreneur. She is an MA candidate at Yale University where she is pursuing research on immigration, cultural identity and social health.
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