Ged Carroll

Systeme D

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According to Foreign Policy, the D in Systeme D comes from the French word débrouillard which is used to describe people who are ingenious or resourceful. In the Francophone companies being resourceful means operating outside of proscribed government regulation and bootstrap entrepreneurship hence, systeme D. Back in France, this might have been applied to people smuggling in a new fangled personal computer into the workplace.

Foreign Policy writer Robert Neuwirth argues that this grey economy exists across the developing world and has been driving economic activity from Chinese factories to African bazaars. Back when I was first visiting Hong Kong, there was a stream of west African business people travelling to Hong Kong. They would go to Chungkung Mansion. Buy a suitcase full of electronics (predominantly cellphones)  and then get a flight home. 

There was then larger scale players based in Shenzhen and Guangzhou buying product. They then either supplied the merchants of Chungkung Mansions or shipped product home by the container load. Who knows what would happen with the customs in their destination country. Systeme D often relies on the kind of manufacturers relying on shanzhai style innovation. 

Whilst this black economy would be seen as detrimental in developed countries due to it undermining a system that broadly works (look at the Greek government’s problems with non-payment of taxes). In developing countries where governments are less likely to be looking out for their citizens interests – so the black economy can be considered to be having partly a positive impact.

The latest trend is that a lot of mainland Chinese people who have worked on infrastructure projects in Africa staying behind and becoming merchants, cutting African entrepreneurs out of the Systeme D model. There are well over a million of these Chinese entrepreneurs now doing business across sub Saharan Africa.

More information

The Shadow Superpower – By Robert Neuwirth | Foreign Policy