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Used vehicles in Africa, blessing or curse?

Wednesday, 11 November 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
A car stuck in the mud needs a push/Africa. Image:Adam Vowles

For many decades, Africa has been the dumping ground for used light-duty vehicles; most of these used vehicles have failed or about to fail pollution tests in developed countries.

This trend of exporting used vehicles that run mainly on fossil fuel to Africa has increased inordinately as developed economies adopt vehicles that run on cleaner energy. For a continent that is considered to be more vulnerable to climate change than any other region, the excessive reliance on imported used vehicles is increasing the level of pollution in Africa.

Highlights of a recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), suggests that between 2015 and 2018, about 14 million used light-duty vehicles of poor quality were exported from the United States, European Union (EU) and Japan to low-income countries; the European Union, Japan and the United States exported the largest proportion of used vehicles, representing 54%, 27% and 18%, respectively.

Between 2015 and 2018, countries in Africa imported the largest number of used light-duty vehicles, representing 40%; other regions such as Eastern Europe, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Latin America also accounted for 24%, 15%, 12% and 9%, respectively. Unlike the United States, whose main destinations for exporting used vehicles are Central America and the Middle East, the major destinations for the EU are West Africa and North Africa and Japan’s key markets for exporting used vehicles are Asia, Eastern Africa and Southern Africa.

Prevalent poverty levels, low-income levels and extremely difficult to access auto loans in African countries has denied the largest proportion of the region’s population from purchasing brand new vehicles. This has lead to many people buying used vehicles which are comparatively cheaper than brand new vehicles.

The fast-growing fleet of used light-duty vehicles in Africa is increasing the level of air pollution on the continent; emissions from second-hand vehicles have relatively enormous percentage of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter than brand new vehicles emit. These constituents emitted by used vehicles are notable sources of air pollution in urban areas where these vehicles are predominant means of transportation.

Unfortunately, the importation of used vehicles is poorly regulated in most African countries; this condition has encouraged the use of these unsafe vehicles. With used vehicles accounting for more than 60% of vehicles registered per year in the region, only 9 out of 54 African countries have effective regulatory framework for the importation of used vehicles. Most of the used vehicles imported into Africa are old vehicles that do not have roadworthy certification at the time of export.

A new study conducted by the Netherlands confirms that most used vehicles exported to Africa are old and usually do not meet roadworthy standards at the time of export. The study reveals that at the time of export, most of the used light-duty vehicles were between 16 years and 20 years old. The used vehicles were also below the Euro 4/IV emission standard; about 20% of the used petrol vehicles did not meet the emission requirement.

In spite of all these deficiencies, these used vehicles were exported to Africa; whiles a quarter of the vehicles exported to Nigeria are close to 20 years old, the average age of used vehicles exported to the Gambia was about 19 years. These unsafe vehicles which are mostly not roadworthy have outrageous fatal outcomes for users in recipient countries.

With the influx of these poor quality used vehicles into the region, it is not surprising that Africa has the highest number of road accidents than any other region. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO), asserted that Africa had a road traffic death rate of 26.6 per 100,000 people; the highest in the world. Poorly developed road networks in Africa have compounded the challenges for relying on these used vehicles that are past their prime.

Across all the countries in Africa, only a small proportion of the entire population in the region own a vehicle. This has made public transport the ideal alternative for low income households who cannot afford vehicles for their personal use.

Most of the vehicles used for public transport services are second-hand vehicles that are managed by a driver and a bus conductor who serves as an assistant. With weak or no regulatory framework in many African countries to ensure that commercial vehicles are maintained frequently, these vehicles are left to the mercy of low quality roads and extreme weather conditions.

In some cases, poorly maintained vehicles have been attributed to the fact that the auto mechanics who work on these used vehicles are not qualified as they are not adequately trained. Most commercial vehicle owners rely on the services of auto mechanics that were trained from the apprenticeship system.

The training of auto mechanics, which usually takes a year or more to complete is carried out in dilapidated structures with outdated and inferior tools. This venue is a popular destination for almost all vehicle owners in Africa when it is time to maintain cars.

Comparatively, there are more of these local workshops, than the well-equipped garages that are similar to those in developed countries; a condition partly attributed to the fact that for several decades automobile manufacturing companies considered the African market to be risky, particularly because of the region’s high preference for used vehicles.

However in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), demand for new vehicles has increased from about 420,000 in 2017 to close to 4 million new cars in recent times; mainly as a result of the region’s growing middle class. Despite the potential of the African market, 10 year tax holidays and duty exemptions for automobile manufacturers that set up assembly plants in African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya, only a few vehicle manufacturers have shown interest in the region.

A clear indication that Governments in Africa should implement effective regulations to curb excessive importation of used light-duty vehicles. Implementation of evidence-based policies that prohibit the importation of unsafe used vehicles will mitigate the region’s high road traffic deaths and also increase the number of top-notch garages and automobile manufacturing companies in Africa.

Alexander Ayertey Odonkor