By on July 28, 2011

In the auto industry, as in so many other areas, Africa is something of a forgotten continent. Without the new roads and emerging middle class of a China, the most underdeveloped part of the developing world tends to fly under the radar: for example, until I read a Financial Times piece on an airplane, I had no idea that South Africa’s auto industry was booming. And now, here’s another story that isn’t getting much play in the mainstream of the auto world: Mobius, a Mombasa, Kenya-based firm has built a prototype vehicle that it hopes will be the Model T of Africa, providing robust, low-cost transportation to a continent that is not taken seriously as a market by the global car business.

Based on a monocoque of 1.5 to two-inch steel tubes, an integrated roll cage and a motor one-liter Toyota engine mounted directly to the chassis, the Mobius Prototype One is designed to be a low-cost transportation solution for Africa’s rough roads and unpredictable weather. The body is made of aluminum, with glass and canvas making up the weather protection. The design was intended to have the key qualities of an SUV, while costing no more than the three-wheeled “tuk-tuk”-style rickshaws… about $5,000 US. The design is not final: Mobius is looking for designers to style its second and third prototypes, with an eye to starting production in 2012.

But even if the rough-and-ready look is retained, Mobius emphasizes rugged practicality over tantalizing consumers with a gotta-have-it look. After all, Mobius doesn’t just see itself as a car company, but an agent of change in Africa. They see their SUV-cum-Dirt Buggy-cum-Rickshaw as a tool of mobility for Africa’s poor, as well as a method for transporting people, goods, humanitarian supplies and fresh water to remote parts of the continent. Like the Model T, the Mobius One faces numerous challenges, but it also reconnects the industry to its most noble cause: providing practical, affordable mobility to the world’s poor. Here’s hoping they get the funding to at least attempt to realize this latter-day Fordian dream. [via Autobild]

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27 Comments on “Out Of Africa, A Car For Africa...”


  • avatar
    Zackman

    Gee whiz, here’s a real opportunity: Why doesn’t John Deere just put a roof and side glass on its Gators, make them with a back seat and build a million of them and ship them to Africa? Problem solved.

    Be that as it may, perhaps a large reason(s) no one invests in Africa is that there are too many tin-horn dictators that persecute their own people for either being of another religion, having a different political POV, or something just as insignificant, thus causing too much instability that is simply not good for business, hence, “NO DEAL”.

    • 0 avatar
      cdotson

      This vehicle looks way more useful than a Gator. Besides, new Gators easily cost more than double the stated price target, and that’s without any enclosure.

      It does look like they may have clearance problems with their rear suspension. From one view in the video it almost looks like they built slider rails into the undercarriage to deflect impacts to the rear A-arm pivots. I would suggest that they examine the rear suspension of a Ford Escape which is similarly spindly but has a much higher-mounted differential section. Alternatively they could add some cost and use hub-mounted final reduction gears with the axle above the tire centerline, possibly with bi-directional overrunning clutches at the reduction gears and no central differential to give an auto-locking rear.

    • 0 avatar
      charly

      The big problem with Africa is more that it is underpopulated so the network effect isn’t strong. And the only part that wasn’t underpopulated, aka as Nigeria, is cursed by oil.

      • 0 avatar
        M 1

        “cursed by oil”

        LOL. I suppose you also think the west coast is “cursed” by gold?

        The other big problem is the tribal system. We recently sent shiploads (almost literally) of Nissan Advans to Kenya because a few tribal chiefs there announced this was their new car of choice. Under this system, that means virtually every head of household must buy one, no matter what the cost or hardship. It’s the most ass-backwards system you’ve ever seen. I’m told the same thing happened recently in Somalia with the Probox.

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        I left this out on purpose, but I’ll include it here. I know better, but could it be perhaps that many still regard Africa as the domain of Tarzan with natives running around in loincloths, chasing him and the explorers with spears and arrows?

        I do know there is a place run by Nigerians near me that specializes in buying cars – Toyotas and Hondas primarily, for exporting to their country. There is a market, it just has to be figured out continent-wise and developed, whether sub-Saharan or North Africa.

      • 0 avatar
        Signal11

        @zackman,

        I think that’s a component, yes.

        Look at that thing. It looks like a high school shop project. You’d be embarrassed to be seen driving your kids to school in one. If we were talking about developing markets anywhere else in the world, we’d see this as pretty absurd. Yet there is this pervasive belief that Africans will gratefully accept every third rate product (that’s obviously not good enough for ourselves) that we dump on them. Like Africans with $5k of scratch doesn’t somehow aspire to a real car. I think it’s a little condescending and a little paternalistic.

        It’s not like there’s not already 100+ authorized Toyota dealerships all over Africa. In every capital or major city, it’s usually right next to the big expat friendly supermarket plaza.

  • avatar
    stuki

    Looks a bit like an extended wheelbase Samurai with a long travel kit and cart tires :) I always reckoned the easiest way to make an “extended mobility” type vehicle was to up tire size, but Africa probably have very specific supplier issues.

    I hope this, or similar ventures get off the ground. Many Africans’ needs are very different than the needs of those designing and building cars for the Big Globals. And there is simply no substitute for direct experience when it comes to product design. Some guy who never left Tokyo or SoCal is highly unlikely to know what an African needs in a car, regardless of how qualified a car designer he may otherwise be.

    Africa could also very much use the kind of high paying jobs automaking provides, plus the incentives to support a property rights regime, that more widespread ownership of something as expensive as a car should encourage.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    To use a hackneyed expression: why re-invent the wheel? Sitting on the shelves of various European manufacturers are some 50-60-70 year old designs that were appropriate to the conditions extant in Europe at the time, not all that much different from Africa today. These vehicles were simple to build, maintain and operate and were rugged . . . not particularly fast and didn’t use much fuel.

    I’m thinking, for example, the Citroen 2CV, which featured a 2 cylinder air-cooled engine producing around 20 (later 30)hp in a FWD setup. The car had very good ground clearance, independent swing arm suspension and was made mostly of bent sheet metal. It would carry 4 persons with some luggage; and delivery van variants were also made.

    Not to mention the VW Beetle-derived vehicles using the basic Beetle chassis and aircooled flat-4 rear engine drive train. A jeep-like military variant (sold in the U.S. as — I kid you not — the “Thing”) with extra ground clearance was among the versions produced.

    I wonder whether Citroen or VW would license someone to build these vehicles exclusively for third-world use. Rugged, cheap and simple would be their hallmarks — maybe they’d even bring back carburetors! Power steering? Who needs it! Air-conditioning? Are you kidding? A heater? Well, take some waste heat off the exhaust manifod.

    It’s worth remembering that 1950s era U.S. cars are still running in Cuba — without spare parts — because they were simple and rugged. Under similar circumstances, a 1990s US car would never survive 50 years – the electronic bits would fail and bring the car to a screeching halt.

    • 0 avatar
      charly

      Big difference between Africa now and Europe than is the absent of a big industrial iron industry. If you are importing the sheet metal than why not go for the better stuff.

      ps. Not true of South Africa but they can do much better than a 2CV rip-off

    • 0 avatar
      FleetofWheel

      The American cars in Cuba do not survive without spare parts.
      The spare parts they need are cleverly hand crafted in back alleys from odd pieces of metal and scrap.
      See the 2002 documentary ‘Yank Tanks’.

    • 0 avatar
      Flipper

      On that 2CV . . . I always thought the Chrysler CCV was such a good answer for emerging markets

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      Most African nations have fairly stringent rules about what you can and can’t import. One of the many deep problems with nearly the whole continent is that the governments want to play along with what the rest of the world is doing, which requires ignoring the reality of their situation. It isn’t as dire as trying to get a 959 through US Customs, but only relatively modern vehicles will past muster, even in Africa.

      I suppose if one was feeling generous, it could be observed that part of this is to avoid turning Africa into the world’s dumping ground. Various niche import/export categories like used tires are examples of where this has quickly become a problem. But the reality is just that the governments are applying first-world rules to a third-world continent.

  • avatar
    Jax Mike

    The Volkswagen Sedan (Beetle) was the best solution for Africa. We had one there in the 1960s and nothing stopped it.

  • avatar
    otter

    This reminds me of something…..oh yes, here:

    http://www.citroenet.org.uk/foreign/africar/africar.html

    • 0 avatar
      david42

      Agreed, this seems a lot like another Africar fiasco waiting to happen.

      Doesn’t look like it has much ground clearance for its width–a wider car (like this one) needs even more clearance so it doesn’t get trapped in deep ruts. A 2CV is probably better proportioned.

      It will be another matter entirely if they can make the car look normal. I seem to remember reading that in developing markets, even first-time car buyers want a status symbol, not the automotive equivalent of cargo shorts. These folks may not seem rich to first-world car designers, but in their own context, the ability to buy any car at all puts them in the same bracket (relatively speaking) as an American who might buy a 5-series.

  • avatar

    Mobius, btw, is hiring. They’re looking for an automotive designer. Here’s the proposed compensation (not a joke, you can check the pdf at the link):

    http://www.mobiusmotors.com/join-us/recruiting/openings/Automotive_Designer.pdf

    We will also provide a return flight to Kenya, 12 months accommodation in Mombasa, Global Care
    health insurance (up to $200 per month) and a modest stipend of $300 per month (enough for a
    comfortable standard of living in Kenya). Beyond these benefits, you will be responsible for the
    cost of any immunizations (up to $500), visas (~$100 per year) and any other living costs.

    Somehow I can’t see J. Mays leaving his digs in Mayfair for Mombasa.

    • 0 avatar
      FleetofWheel

      Surely there are many progressive engineers who would move there to help.
      If Mobius runs the ad in California, they should be get a good response.

      • 0 avatar
        aristurtle

        You’re being facetious, but outfits like Engineers Without Borders are a pretty big deal and I’m sure they’d love to have some spots for automotive engineers in addition to their usual fields.

        The way the ad is phrased (e.g. “stipend” rather than “salary”) makes it pretty clear that they understand this to be basically charity work.

  • avatar
    alex_rashev

    Ok, I’m gonna invoke the Godwin’s law here.

    Last time there was a successful car like this, it rolled all over muddy and snowy Russian terrain, and then just as easily over the sandy dunes of Sahara desert, without much trouble, at a minuscule cost, and could carry four people and their cargo in reasonable comfort. It also was one of the most important elements of the war machine that nearly ate up the whole western world.

    If this Mobius thing is gonna be anywhere close to being as good as the Kübelwagen, you’ll see it on TV alongside Toyota Helix trucks, heading for the next African hot spot, in no time. People who can afford to buy those trucks are usually the same people who can afford grenade launchers when shit hits the fan. They’ll love the ruggedness of Kübelw… I mean, Mobius One. Only thing missing now is a stone-reliable carburetor and an aircooled motor to resist those pesky stray bullets and grenade fragments.

    Sad, really. It’s a beautiful continent full of interesting people and cultures, but it’ll keep being consumed by poverty and conflict for years to come.

  • avatar
    probert

    Uh – It’s not like Africans (whatever that means – are we talking Egypt or Congo here?) have never seen a car and that having seen them, they won’t know this is a hideous patronizing piece of crap. Could it really be made for less than a second hand Peugeot?

    Maybe each customer can get a little NatGeo write up about his/her quaint customs thrown into the bargain.

  • avatar
    jpolicke

    Seems like the old time-tested, air-cooled Kubelwagon/Thing would be at least as practical. VW managed to teach just about every other place on earth how to produce them and there’s probably enough mothballed tooling around the world to make for a cheaper startup.

  • avatar
    Signal11

    I don’t know what this is, but it can’t be serious.

    In Mombassa, which is the port of entry for cars into the east African market, 5000 USD will buy you a used, direct import JDM 4WD diesel HiLux or HiAce in decent shape. Spare parts and shade tree mechanics with at least a passing familiarity at every wide spot on the road.

    2500 USD anywhere in more developed west Africa will buy you a decent Peugeot.

    What African in his right mind is going to take this risk of buying this?

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      I was just thinking along the same lines: last year we sent container loads of Jap kei trucks (7 or 8 per container) to Africa and those things were about $1800 on average… with 4WD.

      • 0 avatar
        Signal11

        Good point. I wasn’t even thinking about kei trucks. Though I’ve seen them around everywhere, I don’t have much experience with them. Is that what you’re putting down as market value when you ship? You end up paying a bit more after all the unlisted “taxes.”

        About 5-6 years ago, when I was buying a lot of cars in east Africa, one of the best ways to get in great used vehicles was to fly to Abu Dhabi and spend a day grabbing cars with good bones. The volume of used cars going through Abu Dhabi is amazing.

  • avatar
    obruni

    the peugeot 504 was produced under license in Nigeria and Kenya until a few years ago.

    why not try again with the Dacia Logan? or the Tata Nano?


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