Wheels of fortune

A passer-by looks at a new Nissan SUV through the display window at DT Dobie in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

A new Nissan SUV on sale in a downtown Nairobi showroom

Mike Pflanz charts the rise of car ownership in Nairobi, and sees how what were once toys of the few are now available to the many.

INDUSTRIAL AREA, April 20, 2011 (Daily Dispatches) – It was once the ultimate symbol of power in Africa, a car which gave its name to the continent’s often crooked elite: the ‘WaBenzi’.

But the Mercedes Benz is losing its position as the only car to buy to boast of your success, as sales plateau, overtaken by Japanese SUVs and muscular 4x4s.

“You cannot overestimate the importance of cars as status symbols here,” said Gavin Bennett, director of the Kenya Motor Industry Association.

“And when you had made it, by fair means or foul, you had to have a Mercedes Benz to prove it. Today, that’s all changed, those guys are cruising around Nairobi in a big off-roader, none better than the Range Rover HSE.”

The WaBenzi, it seems, have become the WaFourWheeli.

In the Nissan showroom at DT Dobie, one of Kenya’s leading car dealers, the best sellers are all four-wheel drives or large pick-ups. Toyota’s biggest mover is still its standard saloon, the Corolla, but the mid-size RAV4 SUV and its premium LandCruiser models are close behind.

“It used to be that you’d need a 4×4 to make it upcountry on Kenya’s roads,” said Bennett. “But many of the main roads have been fixed. To be honest, people are buying these things mostly just to drive around Nairobi.”

Jeremiah Munyi cleans the cars in the showroom at DT Dobie, Nairobi's elite car dealership. DT Dobie sells new Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Jeep to high end customers. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

Jeremiah Munyi polishes a top-of-the-range Nissan 4×4 in a Nairobi showroom

Usha Nagpal, general sales manager at DT Dobie, agrees.

“Cars are now changing into a lifestyle choice,” she says. “You are someone who’s out and about, here on a Saturday night, there on a Sunday, you can’t be seen in something rattling around and falling apart.”

The people behind the wheels have changed as well. Luxury models and even mid-range saloons were once beyond the reach of all but the few at the top of the income pyramid.

But now a booming middle class with access to bank credit are flooding into the market, looking for wheels. And as often as not, it will be a woman driving, too, said Nagpal, who’s been with DT Dobie for 35 years.

“It’s changed a lot in the last decade or so, women have better jobs, they have more power to make their own decisions,” she said.

Outside city clubs and estate pubs on a Friday night, or in shopping centers on a Saturday morning, car parks are packed with BMWs, Audis and Jeeps, with Vitz hatchbacks and compact VW Jetta sedans.

The showroom window at DT Dobie in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

Only 20% of cars bought in Kenya are new – the rest are used imports mostly from Japan and Dubai

Almost 50,000 cars were registered in Kenya in 2010, an increase of 6% from the year before and part of an almost-continuous upwards trend going back a decade.

That figure is all the more striking when you consider that all new and used cars imported into Kenya attract tax and duty of between 55% and 61%. That means a Mercedes E-Class costing $42,000 new in the US will set you back in excess of $100,000 here.

More than 80% of newly registered cars are however, not new, but imported used cars, shipped in mostly from Japan and Dubai. New car dealers are struggling in a market crowded with these nearly-new vehicles.

And what of the venerable Mercedes Benz? It may no longer be the must-have motor, but DT Dobie still sells an average of 25 a month here. Many hundreds if not thousands are imported.

“I have been driving these for 40 years, as has my wife, and we’re wouldn’t buy anything else,” said Iqbal Ahmed, chairman of a property development firm, who was touring DT Dobie’s showroom looking for a new Mercedes E200 for his wife.

And the firm is still finding new buyers. One prominent businessman recently rolled off the forecourt in a new top-of-the-range, specially-tuned Mercedes AMG E63, the first to be sold in Africa.

The price? $297,620.


Related: Selling cars to Kenyans, Brendan’s full-size slideshow

© DAILY DISPATCHES: Nairobi 2011

9 Responses to “Wheels of fortune”

  1. Incredible images and exceptional journalism! My favorite posts – DAILY!

  2. John Bradshaw says:

    I’ve heard that the demand to join the ranks of the WaFourWheeli has led to a massive increase in importation of stolen cars from Europe and elsewhere into Kenya and broader East Africa. I wonder how much evidence there is for this assertion?

    Thanks again for these articles, they are very stimulating.

  3. admin says:

    Hi John – Thanks for posting your comment. There’re no specific statistics that I could find immediately regarding the number of cars stolen from the UK and Europe seized in Kenya. But Interpol conducts periodic sweeps – and always nets stolen vehicles which were sold to unsuspecting buyers here as clean. The last one, in August last year, found four suspicious containers at the Mombasa port, which had been shipped from the UK. It’s unclear how many stolen cars were in there – I’m trying to speak to Interpol and the police here to find out.

    An operation in 2006 found upwards of 50 stolen cars on the roads in Kenya – some of them having been bought by MPs, businesspeople and even an international athletics star. All said they bought them from dealers in Kenya, who in the newspapers here blamed dealers in Dubai from whom they in turn had bought the cars.

    And, as you say, the problem is not contained to Kenya. Interpol are quoted saying that the majority of cars stolen in Europe which are brought into East Africa at Mombasa are destined for Tanzania, Uganda and especially the Democratic Republic of Congo, where enforcement and surveillance are much weaker.

    Will let you know if I get anything of interest from the authorities.

    Thanks again for posting. Keep watching Dispatches..!


  4. Andrew Rippeon says:

    After reading the dispatch from 4/18, I can’t help but be struck by the contrasts between the story of Mary Cherop Maritim and her ground-up food-supply business, and today’s dispatch on conspicuous (conspicuous!) consumption of luxury cars.

    In this vein, Mr. Pflanz, your reporting is really even-handed–I’m sure it’s tempting to offer more pointed commentary than you do on the economic contrasts apparent here. But, I wonder, looking at Mr. Bannon’s images: all posted today are really wonderful studies in motion and light as reflected in or viewed through glass. It seems as though the images themselves are calling for a more ‘reflective’ stance on what they record.

    A barbed commentary on the economic disparities might be easily dismissed, but these images together with the measured, matter of fact reporting seem to make for a far more lasting statement. Thanks, as always, for these.

  5. Josiah says:

    Insightful article, and I must say reflective of the state of the economic disparities in Kenya.

  6. Joseph Deluca says:

    It is nice to see an African city portrayed in a different light. When people think of Africa, things such as poverty, starvation and genocide come to mind. I like how you have illustrated that Africa is much more than that.

    There are people with normal jobs who take part in normal activities in Africa just as there are in the western world.

  7. brandon kelly says:

    Reading this article specifically has changed my views a little bit about the Daily Dispatches project. I can see now what your guys intent is as far as your project goes. I respect the fact that you two are exposing Nairobi for the pure hearted community it is and not just some third world country; which im sure alot of people would consider it to be due to ignorance. These people are hard working and faithful, that some day, their children or even their grandchildren will grow up with more opportunity then they had. You guys so far have done an excellent job on this project, keep it up.

  8. Fred says:

    Finally I see a glimpse of the metropolitan area I was familiar with. I’ve been talking about this issue for the past ten years. I was sick and tired of the way the western media portray African people and African cities in such a negative way. I remember when I first came to the USA, I had to explain to my college friends that I didn’t grow up in a wasteland but in an African metropolis with a diverse population: poor folks, middle-class people and the ultra rich folks who own jets and yachts. I just want to thank Daily Dispatches for its objective reporting of an African city.

  9. admin says:

    Thanks everyone. Fred, Joseph – if we’re trying to do anything, that’s it: to show the reality of the lives people live in Nairobi, and the diversity of their experiences here. Not just the one-dimensional presentation too often reported elsewhere.

    All, thanks for your support. Keep watching – two more Dispatches to come.