The wheel deal

| August 21, 2013 - 8.16UTC

As a rapidly developing nation, our demand for road transport is a sure sign of our social and economic progress. So why does it often
feel like it’s holding us back? Reporting by  Waga Odongo.

Where would we be without the car? In every country road transport is a major driver of economic development. In Kenya, where the railway network is limited, air transport is expensive and there are no navigable waterways, it is no surprise that individuals and companies rely on road transport to keep them on track.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics believes that as much as 93 per cent of all cargo traffic in Kenya is carried by road. Indeed, we are so reliant on road transport that former finance minister Njeri Githae made the uncharacteristically blunt remark that withdrawing railways would not affect the Kenyan economy.

Of course that would not necessarily be fair – rail, like air, provides considerable support to Kenyan industry, and developments in both sectors show the great potential they offer for our nation’s ongoing growth.

But you only have to sit in traffic on the Mombasa highway, in Nairobi’s industrial heart, to realise that demand for motor use is higher than ever… and that the road network is struggling to cope.

It is 110 years since the first car was offloaded at Mombasa’s old port. We have come a long way from those early days, when there were no driving tests, no highway codes and no road tax. The car population in the country really picked up after 1918 when the assembly lines that were used to supply The Great War with reserves were converted to manufacturing plants for consumer products.

Today the Kenyan motor industry is worth Ksh160 billion and demand is pushing growth of 10 per cent per annum. Yet there are only 23 cars per 1000 people – although, when you focus purely on urban populations, that ratio does increase. Nonetheless, this shows that there remains considerable untapped demand. And that poses all sorts of questions about the future management of our roads.

How will our road system cope? Where will the cars come from? What needs to be done to develop a more reliable and extensive public transport system? Should more be done to accommodate cyclists?

And what about safety?  In Kenya there are 95 times more deaths per 100,000 vehicles than there are in the UK. 8484 people died on our roads in 2010. That’s a scary indictment of the standard of driving and the condition of the vehicles on our roads.

The public transport sector is highly regulated and the governance of matatus in particular is habitually challenging. The government has suggested ideas such as phasing out 14-seater matatus and instituting card-only payments.

Travellers are often left at the mercy of the caprices of the matatu owners associations, which regularly lock horns with the government whenever someone thinks up a way to make it easier, safer and more convenient for passengers.

As the economy has grown, it is no surprise that the number of vehicles on our roads has increased, although there has been a decline in the number of new vehicles sold in the last decade. The 1980s were a high point for local car manufacturing, when the majority of cars sold were assembled in Kenya. But the liberalisation of the market and a growing middle class has seen a shift, particularly in the demand for second-hand cars, as this is the only affordable way for many Kenyans to purchase a vehicle.

Today, approximately 70 per cent of car imports are second-hand vehicles from the United Arab Emirates or Japan. The Kenya Motor Industry Association (KMIA) has been lobbying for stricter rules on the importation of second-hand vehicles and is seeking more incentives for the local assembly of commercial vehicles.

Local assembly
In the period covering the first 10 months of 2012, just over 52 per cent of all new cars sold in Kenya were assembled locally.

Kenya has three established assembly plants: Kenya Vehicle Manufacturers (KVM), Associated Vehicle Assemblers (AVA) and General Motors East Africa (GMEA).

CMC builds its UD buses at KVM’s Thika plant, where Hyundai and Eicher Motors plan to assemble their trucks and buses. Mombasa-based AVA will produce for Tata and Hino.

Honda has set up a new assembly plant for motorcycles, and Osprea Logistics has indicated plans to set up shop for an armoured car assembly plant in Kenya to supply East and Central Africa. Toyota initiated a plant to assemble trucks in Mombasa, but has since moved the operation to South Africa, citing costs and quality concerns.

New vehicle supply
In recent years there has been considerable movement in the market, with the leading car manufacturers jostling for market share in the face of increasing demand.

A KMIA study shows that GM currently has 26 per cent of the new car market in Kenya, while Toyota has 19 per cent. Tata, Subaru and CICA Motors control 14 per cent, and smaller players are growing their market share.

Toyota has pursued the more lucrative demand for heavy commercial vehicles and pickups that are used for transport, haulage, construction, retail and agriculture. It currently has seven showrooms, including three in Nairobi and one in Lodwar.

CMC Holdings lost the Jaguar Land Rover franchise to RMA Kenya (a subsidiary of Thai-owned RMA Group) earlier this year. Although the Jaguar Land Rover group is owned by Tata Motors the brands are not distributed in Kenya by the company.

DT Dobie lost the Renault franchise because Toyota’s parent company bought 98 per cent of CFAO Motors, which owns DT Dobie. DT Dobie had acquired the Renault brand in 2011 after years of its absence from the Kenyan market, but after two years in the market, where it sold only about 30 vehicles, the French carmaker finds itself out in the cold yet again.

This leaves other brands like Mercedes and Nissan, both distributed by DT Dobie, in a perilous position as they find a key distribution chain under the control of their leading rival. Competing carmakers are usually not keen on sharing distributors as this could make sensitive marketing information available to their competitors.

Having been taken on by Urysia Ltd in 2010, Peugeot have built a new showroom in Bunyala Road and are aiming to spread out to Kisumu, Mombasa and Nakuru, while Honda announced their return to the Kenyan market this year in a franchise deal with Trans Africa Motors, marked with the opening of a Ksh30 million showroom on Mombasa Road.

Getting on track
Though the supply of vehicles appears able to match demand, the biggest question must surely be the ability of the road network to cope with increased traffic levels. In all our cities, but especially Nairobi, congestion is the bane of working life. Countless hours of productivity are lost, costing the economy billions of shillings each year.

Talk of implementing a congestion tax to raise revenue under the guise of environmental considerations – penalising owners of vehicles that are big polluters – won’t necessarily alleviate the pressure. Certainly, mass public transport solutions will need to be developed. Road construction in recent years has helped, but there has been so little development in the face of rapidly increasing pressure that even now it seems insufficient. Will the new roads cope with projected useage in 10, 20 or 30 years time?

But is there a problem with the responsibility for road management being shared by too many bodies? We have the Kenya Roads Board, Kenya Urban Roads Authority, Kenya Rural Roads Authority and The Kenya National Highway Association. Figuring who does what, when and where, can’t be easy (or efficient).

Some new roads, like the Westlands ring road recently built by the Japanese, feature thoughtful additions such as cycle lanes. These are bound to feature more and more in towns to cater for those on two wheels.

We’re bound to see more roads developed through public-private partnerships to work around government’s limited budgets. China and Japan are already established developers and we’ll no doubt see more schemes completed by them.

The question is, however, how long will it take? Our economic future depends on it.

From the archives
• The first car in Kenya was a De Dion Bouton, landed in Mombasa in 1903 by George Wilson. At the time there was only one (earth) road, linking Mombasa to Mumia.
• The Edward-Harris wedding of 1912 was the first Kenyan wedding where the bride was driven to church in a car. A century later most brides would find it more romantic for a chariot to pull them to church.
• The Automobile Association of East Africa formed on 30 September 1919.
• Tarmac was introduced in Nairobi in 1922.
• In the 1920s the Ford Model T was sold in Kenya as a tractor, an ambulance, a rescue vehicle and everything aside from a tank – though some versions could have a machine gun mounted on the roof. A few Model Ts are still wheeled out at car pageants.

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