Does the quintessential African exist?

If not, who will build it first?

Africa (and particularly South Africa) is at the forefront of the automotive manufacturing and export industry, contributing significantly to our GDP and employing scores of workers in plants for the likes of BMW, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen. But, as Sub-Saharan African rapidly expands at an annual growth rate of 5% we have to wonder why we aren’t seeing locally designed and produced vehicles competing with the world market.

“There are a few proudly African-made models entering the market,” says Jeff Osborne, Head of Gumtree Automotive. “But bear in mind it’s hard for any new motor manufacturer to crack the industry. With the continent’s middle classes swelling to a whopping 300 million people over the next few years, competition will be extremely fierce.”

Osborne says there has been a lot of excitement about the Kiira EV Smack from Uganda – although funding is still an issue. “The Kiira Motors Corporation has done a few things right in my opinion. For one, the car isn’t a carbon copy of what global manufacturers are offering. It was designed with Uganda’s unique environment in mind, while still remaining green. While this is a hybrid electric car, Uganda has many of the same problems with electricity as South Africa does, which is why so few buyers are keen on electric cars. However, the EV Smack’s engine is equipped with a generator take charges the batteries when you run out of electricity or gasoline.”

The trick will be drumming up the more than US$300-million to go into production, else the car will be relegated to the long list of African innovations that started with much promise and ended up being scrapped.

One such model that never made it to full-time production was produced for Muammar Gaddafi by Saroukh el-Jamahiriya in Libya, the so-called “Libyan rocket” in 1999. “It really was a loss for the market, with incredible safety features – including the ability to drive for miles on flat tires and being one of the first cars to have airbags for all four seats. It would have been perfect for desert driving.”

However, there are success stories – such as Innoson in Nigeria with last year’s release of their Fox Sedan and the well-known Uzo minibus taxi, which has drawn interest from global investors. “Their concept, pricing and design is spot on and could do well in emerging global markets,” says Osborne.

“A proudly South African manufacturer will have to consider all the factors at play. Pricing remains an issue, as we’ve clearly seen from dwindling new car sales. Then there are other factors – emissions will have to be low in anticipation of new carbon tax laws and public demand, but the current (and ever-climbing) cost of electricity does not make electric cars as attractive locally as it is in other countries. Then there are unique road and weather conditions – it’s not unheard of for a commuter to move from well-tarred roads to ones with potholes to a dirt road or no road whatsoever. Passenger vehicles such as minibuses and the workhorses of the day (such as trucks and bakkies) are perhaps good choices, but face fierce competition from imports from China and India that keep costs low and have improved the quality of their vehicles at the same time, without facing the same issues of an unstable labor force that has been an obstacle for South Africa for some time,” says Osborne.

However, Osborne believes that a proudly South African innovation may hit the market soon. “We definitely have the talent, with some of the best universities and mechanical engineers in the world lending their expertise to the country. We also have the resources, an experienced workforce and plenty of entrepreneurial nerve…which may be all it will take.”