Retired Detroit executives help bring transportation to Kenya’s masses

Sept. 18, 2017
Several retired American automotive industry executives are donating their accumulation of engineering and design skills to create a no-frills vehicle capable of traversing East Africa’s ultra-rough roads while remaining affordable for a population with limited incomes.

Several retired American automotive industry executives are donating their careers-long accumulation of engineering and design skills to create a no-frills vehicle capable of traversing East Africa’s ultra-rough roads while remaining affordable for a population with limited incomes.

“There are so many emerging markets around the world where transportation is also emerging,” says Greg Bellopatrick, a General Motors retiree serving on the advisory board of Kenya’s Mobius Motors, which is in the process of ramping up production of a stripped-down, lightweight SUV-like model specifically designed to be rugged, reliable and economical.

“Mobius is re-imagining the car for Africa’s mass market,” reports British entrepreneur Joel Jackson, the company’s founder and CEO, extolling confidence in “the social and commercial potential of our products across the continent.”

“It was the humanitarian portion of what Joel wanted to do,” says Bellopatrick when explaining his involvement with the project, “which is to bring transportation to the masses.”

“Joel reached out to me and other retired executives,” he notes. “There’s no financial reward out of this. It’s pretty much a freebie – it’s a feel-good thing.”

While still struggling with widespread income disparities, governmental disarray, civic unrest and other societal ills, historically impoverished East African nations such as Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya are seeing a rising middle class eager to get behind the wheel.

High tariffs have been a prevalent obstacle to widespread sales of new imports. A Toyota selling for a base price of $12,000 in the United States can cost $24,000 in Kenya, well beyond what most people can afford and thus pushing the populace toward previously owned models.

Kenya’s car parc stands at roughly 1.3 million units among a population of 44 million. Ownership amounts to just under 30 vehicles per 1,000 people, and about 80 percent of these are used vehicles of sometimes-questionable quality and condition brought in from abroad.

And the roads are rife with ruts and potholes that further drive demand for repairs.

A proliferation of shade tree mechanic-type shops and substandard, unsafe outcomes are a consistent problem despite efforts by the 100-plus members of the Kenya Motor Repairers Association (KEMRA) and other industry and governmental organizations to implement and enforce nationwide standards of performance and professionalism. A large presence of counterfeit parts additionally aggravates compliance difficulties.

Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia are posting the most regional parts-purchases amid a continental marketplace that is annually expanding by 11 percent, according to Max Lewis, sales director for the upcoming May 17-19 Autoexpo Kenya 2018 at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi. Exhibitors from more than 30 nations displayed their wares at the 2017 edition of the event.

“There is a huge growth potential for the African automotive aftermarket,” Lewis says. “With close to 25 million vehicles on the road in Africa today, there is a demand for over $8 billion worth of spares and accessories each year.” He anticipates that the continent’s aftermarket will reach a value of $15.3 billion by 2020.

The U.S. Commercial Service is available to assist American firms interested in selling auto parts to Kenya. The agency maintains a list of experienced Kenyan lawyers, strongly recommending that you retain such services before venturing into the country’s regulatory environment and its accompanying business and cultural idiosyncrasies.

A delicate balance

Equipped with a Renault powertrain and engineered to require reduced maintenance needs, the Mobius is produced at Thika-based Kenya Vehicle Manufacturers (KVM). Established in 1976, KVM’s other assembly contracts include Nissan trucks, Hino trucks and buses, Hyundai trucks and Ashok Leyland trucks along with a selection of car and big-rig truck trailers.

“There are a number of suppliers that we are purchasing parts from,” says Bellopatrick, the retired GM executive taking part in designing the Mobius, named for German mathematician August Ferdinand Mobius and his exploration of complex no-boundaries algebraic theories.

“It’s a very delicate balance – there’s a lot of concern associated with costs. We wanted to be able to come up with a vehicle with an $8,000 price point in U.S. dollars,” Bellopatrick says.

“We used existing components and incorporated them into the vehicle. We had to make revisions to the vehicle to accommodate the components’ designs rather than start with a blank sheet.”

Aimed to serve individuals and small-business owners traveling across vast territories throughout a severely degraded infrastructure, “It has significant road-clearance associated with it,” he says.

The resulting price tag of $9,500 is about the same as buying a seven-year-old sedan that lacks the crucial off-roading ability and other aspects of importance to Kenya’s motorists.

Devoid of an automatic transmission, power steering, air conditioning, interior enhancements and other comforts, a hefty load capacity anchored by a fuel-efficient 4-cylinder gasoline engine means the Mobius can carry the equivalent of nine bags of corn, six sacks of potatoes, 50 cooking-gas cylinders and several crates of beverages.

“Our design has really been focused on the body of the vehicle,” says Bellopatrick, referring to the aluminum and composite construction. “The road conditions that the vehicle will be operated in are very extreme. The body has to absorb those loads.”

The contingent of retired executives from GM, Ford and other OEMs contributing to the project worked mostly from their homes in cooperation with CEO Jackson and others on the ground in Kenya.

Online forums and video conferencing were employed during the engineering process. “It was being done in Kenya with support from Detroit. We’ve been staffing our own engineering staff,” Bellopatrick says, working with “large-bucket suppliers” able to economically ship the necessary numbers of components into Kenya.

Because precise infrastructural details were difficult to obtain, “We made some assumptions and made an accelerated road test,” he recounts.

“It is a very innovative solution to bringing transportation to Kenya,” Bellopatrick points out. “It will provide affordable transportation to the local market there.”

Promising Kenyan market

Mindful of East Africa’s expanding middle class and its purchasing potential, mainstream automakers have been setting up operations in Kenya as well. GM, Toyota, Peugeot and Daimler Trucks Asia have a presence, and Volkswagen, which had produced Beetles in Kenya during the 1960s, has returned with a new plant that began making Polo Vivo models this past December.

“We are taking the successful Polo Vivo from South Africa to Kenya to leverage the enormous growth potential of the African automobile market and participate in its positive development,” says Thomas Schäfer, managing director of Volkswagen South Africa.

“This compact model is the best-selling car in the Sub-Saharan region – so it is the ideal entry model for the promising Kenyan market,” he adds. “With this move, we are strengthening the brand’s overall position in Africa and taking an important step towards expanding our commitment in the region.”

VW is implementing a training center to ensure a qualified workforce. Additional plans include educational opportunities focused on imparting generalized industrial skills to augment job opportunities for Kenya’s large population of unemployed young people, according to CEO Dr. Herbert Diess.

“After over 60 years of Volkswagen vehicle production in South and North Africa, I am delighted to now have a further site in Kenya,” he says. “We will systematically continue to develop our position in the fast-growing African car market.”

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About the Author

James Guyette

James E. Guyette is a long-time contributing editor to Aftermarket Business World, ABRN and Motor Age magazines.

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