Friday, June 28, 2013

Expanding Car Dealerships in Africa

Bringing a new car brand into a country isn’t easy and there are many different factors to consider.  The primary factors involved are mechanics, spare parts, and market competition.  Other factors to be considered are the suitability of the vehicles to the environment, import taxes and other fees that raise the end price of the vehicle, and political incentives such as the ability to assemble the vehicle in the country.

Mechanics need to be trained on the nuances of different brands of vehicles as a Toyota mechanic may not be able to work on a Jeep or a Porsche.  Each brand is engineered a little differently and may use parts or technologies that aren’t used in other brands.  When cars were simpler it was easier for a mechanic to figure out the vehicle systems but in the new era of microchips and computer diagnostics a mechanic may need specialized software to communicate with the vehicle.  For example, a company recently acquired some new Mercedes trucks that came with a computer that is connected to the trucks during weekly maintenance.  The computer talks to the car, runs diagnostic tests, tells the mechanics to order parts, and can walk the mechanics through simple repairs.  However, for more sophisticated problems they will have to call Mercedes and wait for a team to fly in and bring parts with them.  A further problem is that the computer only came with german software and the mechanics don’t have a Chadian Arabic to German dictionary.

Establishing a spare parts chain of supply is critical because all vehicles will eventually break down and parts will wear out and need to be replaced.  A supply chain is more than being able to DHL parts into the country but to have a stock on-hand of commonly replaced items, like oil filters, but also headlights, fuses, and fan belts.  Its very expensive to DHL large, heavy items like engine blocks or transmissions so the in country dealer will need to arrange for shipping and customs arrangements.  The in country representative will need to be able to order the parts and receive them quickly and reliably as the longer a car sits waiting to be repaired the more attractive the competition appears.

The level of competition among car brands varies from country to country in sub-saharan Africa as does the variety of models offered.  Which brands are available may be a political decision, as in Senegal where the SenIran was a common brand of taxi.  The SenIran was a joint venture between Senegal and Iran and the vehicles were locally assembled outside of Dakar.  The variety of brands available may also be a result of the personal preferences of the individuals that control the car markets.  Monopoly of dealerships is not unique to Africa as in the US there are towns where there may be Peterson Toyota dealer next to a Peterson Ford dealer owned by the same guy.  It may be easier to control a dealership monopoly in a small country as once one has arranged import and customs procedures it may be possible to keep others out of the market.  At a minimum it will be easier to bring in other brands under the same organization once the system has been established and connections made with important officials.

In Chad there isn’t a wide variety of car dealership to chose from.  There is the Toyota dealer that also sells Renaults but you may be out of luck trying to arrange maintenance services for an imported Ford Explorer or Porsche Cayenne Turbo (both are singular examples seen on the streets of N’Djamena).  Most of the small taxi fleet are old Fiat 504s and they are repaired in crowded dirt lots scattered around town where self-taught mechanics and taxi drivers congregate.  A few places have tin shacks where they do the more delicate work out of the wind and sand, operations like grinding down an engine block or replacing pistons.  I have noticed a couple Nissan Patrols on the streets of N'Djamena but I have not found a Nissan dealer in the city.  Most likely they were driven across the border from Cameroon or Nigeria.

Nissan has made a goal to double sales in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2016 but that will be a challenge, especially in places where many people can barely afford to buy a bicycle or motorcycle.  The Nissan plan is to sell more small cars like the Micra, Almera, and Sentra but those cars require smooth paved roads.  Often good paved roads are hard to find or only go a short distance between the port and the refinery or the mines and the railhead.  I’ve only ridden a couple times in Nissans, usually in a Nissan Patrol and they were not  comfortable experiences.  For example, we drove from Monrovia to Buchanan, Liberia in a new, rugged looking Nissan Patrol and the jarring experience made me appreciate the basic Toyota Landcruiser.  We made the five-hour trip (each direction) during the rainy season on dirt roads and the vehicle barely survived.  A Nissan Micra would not have survived the potholed roads of Monrovia, let alone the mud covered rubber tree bridges in the forest.  

The Nissan goal doesn’t focus on sales in South Africa, where many Nissan vehicles are assembled, but targets increased sales in Ghana, Nigeria, Angola and eastern Africa.  Perhaps Nissan will have success in these regions, they are banking on it.  Roads aren’t that bad in Ghana and in the big cities in eastern Africa (although all have potholes, washouts, and sections with dirt roads).  I don’t know if Nigerian cities like Lagos can handle additional traffic.  Hopefully the maintenance and parts networks will be established to support this expansion of car sales.  Otherwise, as in many places along the sides of the roads in Africa, these new cars will become stripped rusting hulks of scrap metal.  


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