Waga Odongo reflects on the vision to create a Kenyan ‘car for the people’
In 1986 President Moi asked University of Nairobi students to manufacture a car, “however ugly or slow”. It promised to be a project that would showcase Kenya’s self-sufficiency and heavy industry potential.
The request was reminiscent of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler asking Ferdinand Porsche in 1933 to make a car for the people – a move that led to the creation of the Volkswagen Beetle. Strongmen clearly have a thing for cars.
Moi’s project brought together engineers from Kenya Railways, Kenya Polytechnic, the military and Nairobi University. Parts were produced in military bases or at the Kenya Railway central workshops. After four years of banging and clanging – and a quarter of a billion shillings of public funds – the Nyayo Pioneer car was ready for public display. It even came in five different prototypes, including a five-door sedan, a sport coupe, a pickup and a rally version.
The car had a 1200cc engine and was to have a top speed of 120kph. The cars were launched with much pomp and glamour at the Kasarani Sports Complex. The President even took a short drive in one of the vehicles. The televised launch was a comedy of sorts, though, as only two of the five prototypes could actually move – and even then they couldn’t make it around the 400m track. The President had got his wish: the car was both ugly and slow.
The Nyayo Pioneer was an engineering disaster. The headlights, bumpers and boot did not come together neatly, and the car lacked the finesse you would expect from a consumer product.
The components were made by hand in different factories. The car’s manufacture was done mainly at night as it was a state secret – and you got the feeling that a lot of the welding and panel beating was done by hand in bad light. The car’s body was heavy and the engine simply could not cope with the burden.
Also, despite the goal of self-sufficiency, only 60 per cent of the car was built from locally-available material.
Not discouraged by what was clearly a massive failure, the government decided to go ahead with the mass production of this largely stationary car. They formed the Nyayo Motor Corporation (NMC) and brought in machines to help with the manufacture (machines that could work only on the engine, not the body).
Furthermore, at the same time more and more technical schools were closing, and they found fewer graduates to operate the machines that made the cars. NMC ended up operating at only 10 per cent of its mandated capacity.
The government did not have enough money to push the project all the way through. The total outlay for mass production required was Ksh7.8 billion. After the cash crunch of the 1990s and the IMF bailouts, the car project was put on the blocks permanently.
The Nyayo Motor Corporation was dissolved and its assets taken over by another company which bears its initials: the Numerical Machining Complex.
The only good thing that resulted from the project was the General Machining Complex, which remains, a quarter of a century later, the largest such company on the continent. It is one of the rare firms in Africa – save a few in Egypt and South Africa – that can make lathe machines, gearboxes, spare parts for cars, sugar-milling equipment and various locomotive spare parts.
Recently the East African Community has been making purring noises towards the NMC and there’s a hint it may give it a new lease of life, meaning that eventually we could see the Nyayo car breaking down on a highway near you.
In 2010, NMC announced that it would set aside Ksh775 million to revive the Nyayo car project. However, in Uganda Makere students have already produced a Zeitgeist electric car. Kenya may yet be reviving a dinosaur for our eco-friendly age. The Nyayo car may not get a second coming after all.
Will the Mobius gain momentum?
Another effort to manufacture a wholly-Kenyan car is slowly but surely gathering pace, in the shape of the Mobius.
The dream at Mobius Motors is to produce a simple, cost-effective car that is relevant for the African market. It offers a solution to the problem that transport remains inaccessible across swathes of the continent, because cars are prohibitively expensive for most people and not appropriate for some of the continent’s harder terrain, where investment in a rural road network has, in most countries, been poor.
Mobius aims to produce a car that is stripped bare of costly technologies such as air conditioning, interior fixtures and even glass windows, but which ensures emphasis on suspension, handling, passenger capacity and storage. A durable tubular steel frame will then allow the car to be sold at a similar price to a three-wheel rickshaw.
The car will be aimed at the entrepreneurial middle market who provide services to the lower end of the market. With production looming, pre-orders are now being taken for the Mobius Two, which will have a total price of Ksh850,000 (excluding VAT). It will be interesting to see if Kenyans respond to the concept and help fulfil the vision.
What does your car say about you?
A person’s choice of automobile speaks volumes about their personality. You are what you drive. The car you spin provides a sneak peek into your aspirations. It defines you perhaps even more than your hairstyle or wardrobe. Here’s our tongue-in-cheek stab at stereotyping the owners of some of the vehicles seen on our roads, by William Magunga:
Subaru Imprezza The hallmark of youthful exuberance. Notorious for its noise and speed, thus preferred by guys who believe that velocity equals virility. Has “quickie” written all over it.
Toyota Vitz It says you just got a job. Preferred by single women who wear independence on their sleeves and take Oprah a little too literally. Would not say red if they could say scarlet.
Probox Says practical, average and enjoys being part of the crowd. Considers fuel economy the car’s strongest point.
BMW Says aspiring middle class card-holding member in need of validation. The kind that races between traffic lights and complains about the lack of autobahns in Kenya.
Toyota Hilux double cabin Reads a man who dreams about an outdoor life on a farm but couldn’t pitch a tent to save his life.
Range Rover Battling midlife crisis and eager to prove that life really does start at 40; maintaining image is key. It is a bitch to park but all the stares compensate for the inconvenience.
Land Cruiser / Land Rover Ragged older man; young at heart who chalks the discovery of some nondescript bar in the middle of nowhere, serving cold beer as a worthy bragging point.
Mercedes Benz An unapologetic collector of status symbols. Likely to make a fuss if the bar doesn’t stock his brand of single malt whisky.
Noah / Voxy Happily married, keeps an eight-to-five job and helps the kids with their homework. Owes his/her success to divine intervention.