I learned to drive in Uganda in 1973 with a baby blue, stick shift Volkswagen Variant station wagon. It was my first car. I’d bought it from one of the British teachers at the secondary school in Fort Portal where we both taught. She was departing for Britain for good; I had just arrived and had had enough of the local mass transit. Volkswagen Beetles and station wagons were popular among the British in Uganda then, especially those who lived up-country. They were as sturdy as elephants, ran well on gas, required little water and needed no pampering. They were ideal for long distances and for traversing the rough rural terrain.
In Kampala, the capital, a Mercedes-Benz four-door sedan was the car of choice among the older members of the business elite and among senior government officials. Peugeots and Fiats were the rage among their younger counterparts. When I moved to what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1974, the Mercedes-Benz was king. Anybody who was anybody had one. Women who drove them were put into a special class called “Mama Benzi.” You had to have a lot of money and status to be a Mama Benzi. President Mobutu Sese Seko was driven around in the biggest Benz I had ever seen—a 600. Introduced to the world in 1963, the 600 was considered the pinnacle of automobile engineering.
To this day, Africa is one of the hottest markets for cars—new, used, luxury and standard—and for the parts they need to keep them running. The first Ford sold outside North America was sold to Africa (South Africa) in 1903. South Africans fondly call the ubiquitous BMW “Black Man’s Wheels.” Nigeria is the largest market for used car parts.
But Africa also is becoming a major automotive manufacturing center, producing high-quality products at competitive prices. Although the United States sells about a half a billion dollars worth of cars, buses and trucks to countries south of the Sahara each year ($489.2 million in 2004), it imports almost the same amount ($423.5 million worth in 2004) from the region. Volkswagen AG actually began producing Beetles on the continent in the 1950s. Eight of the world’s largest car manufacturers—BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Mercedes, Toyota and VW—have manufacturing, assembly, sales, after-sales and customer service operations in South Africa. In April, GM announced plans to build the midsize Hummer H3 there starting next year. This marks the first time a Hummer will be built outside the United States. Germany’s MAN AG, one of Europe’s top commercial-vehicle manufacturers, is talking about opening operations in Nigeria.
South Africa may be the hub of automotive manufacturing in Africa today, but other countries have made a name in the industry. In the 1970s, Nigeria had a booming car assembly sector that made more money exporting to neighboring countries than selling locally. The sector limps along these days, a victim of people’s penchant for imports. The import trend spawned a huge trade in spare parts, especially used parts. The trade literally exploded in the late 1990s. Nigeria now re-exports spare parts to other west and central African countries. Instead of waiting for buyers to travel to Nigeria, maverick Nigerians either operate wholesale shops in the buying countries, supply the dealers directly from Nigeria or do both.
Any eye witness can testify to the innate genius for auto mechanics in Africa. Operating out of corrugated zinc shacks, self-taught mechanics perform complex repair service on vehicles of all brands, models and sophistication. Their work keeps these vehicles on the road long after they would have been junked in developed nations. Consider, too, the ingenious toy vehicles African children make. Imagine national policies that harness this genius and provide it with the requisite tools and technology to forge a world-standard local industry. “Where do we stand in terms of the Nigerian car, the Nigerianized car and auto components development?” asked automotive writer Ukoha Kalu in an August 2004 article in The Sun News, a Nigerian tabloid, on the eve of Lagos AutoExpo 2004. The question may well be asked throughout the continent.
In all fairness, the Nigerian government has implemented a National Automotive Policy to ensure the survival, growth and development of the industry, using local human resources and materials. The government also set up an oversight body, the National Automotive Council, which aims to develop an auto test center to test locally produced and imported components, fund research and development in auto related projects, and train locals for the industry. The governments of Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon have followed suit. Others, and especially the local private sector, need to do the same. In the absence of adequate local incentives and, yes, vision, investment in Africa’s automotive sector will remain the preserve of foreign vehicle manufacturers. The emergence of a truly “Africanized” industry hinges on the extent to which technology, research and development, and human resources become part of the continent’s overall investment portfolio.
By Rosalind McLymont