With yesterday’s announcement of that his SUVs are now available for commercial sale, Apostle Dr. Kwadwo Safo joins an elite clique of African automobile manufacturers and designers on the continent. Only a handful of car manufacturing companies sport the “made in Africa” brand on their vehicles:
Kiira Motors Company (Uganda)
Innonson Vehicle Manufacturing Company (Nigeria).
Mobius Motos (Kenya)
Kantanka Automobile Company (Ghana)
The transportation market in Africa is one of many new frontiers waiting to be tapped into by local talent. While fashion and mobile communications have seen large injections of investment and a boost in sales over the past fifteen years, automobile manufacturing has pretty much lagged behind. A number of questions have always gnawed away at both consumers and car manufacturers: Can it be done in Africa? Would Africans be confident enough in the final product to purchase these vehicles? Can it be done in Africa?
Yes, the same question has been asked twice…because doubt. We have been taught to doubt our capabilities until someone else takes the leap and proves that a venture can be successful, at which point the sheepish African will mimic that success… or wait to import low quality good from China. But as I always say, while you are sitting somewhere thinking about it, a Nigerian is busy doing it. (However – and I’m happy to say – in this case Ugandan and Kenya joined the fray fairly early.) This mindset is what I fear may plague the sales of Kantanka Cars in its early days.
Before we get into the gloomy aspects of this story, let’s take a moment to celebrate this achievement. Taking a car from concept to roadworthiness is no small feat. Ghanaian boys are tinkerers because poverty necessitates that they must be. Mommy and Daddy won’t be bringing home the latest Tonka or Hotwheels set for Christmas, and so it is down to the enterprising kubolor to grab a stack of Ideal Milk or Blue Band Butter tins and literally hammer out his own birthday gift. This gives a kid the latitude to dream, conceptualize and execute the car of his dreams. It’s what little boys (and the few girls whose parents gave them the freedom to) have done for over a century and eventually gave rise to the global automotive industry – an industry from which Africa was largely excluded from save to exploit its raw materials. Kwadwo Safo is to be commended for assembling teams of those once young dreamers and giving them the tools to make their boyhood wishes a reality.
If Ghana – and indeed the Continent in general – plays its cards right, this could be the beginning of a much needed automobile/transportation boom. It is the nature of innovation that one must lead to another, and we could be looking at the genesis of conceived/designed/made in Africa light railway, aviation and machinery production. A lot of that will depend on how much present and future governments help or hurt that initiative.
In the auto industry’s early days, there were over 1800 independent car manufacturers in the country. They operated all over the country and were mainly small scale tinkerers hoping to make it big. Very few of those manufacturers survive today, either becoming defunct due to a total loss in capital, being absorbed into a larger operation, or choosing to innovate in other areas. World Wars I & II also contributed to the decline in the number, as all of the country’s human and natural resources had to be diverted to support the war effort. Nevertheless, the existence of 1800 independent, functioning manufacturers contributed to what we now call the American “Can Do” spirit.
As much as we laud these pioneers of the automotive industry for their efforts, we can’t ignore a major component that made their successes (or failures) possible, i.e. consumers. If no one purchases your product, it is purely ornamental. Innovation is important, but consumer participation is vital for any industry to survive. The question in Kantanka’s case is who is going to take the risk to adopt their cars at this point in the production cycle?
Even established brands like Microsoft and Apple have to grapple with this question. Every time there is a new release, there is a cadre of risk takers who look forward to being part of that early adopter phase. I’ve heard it described as an adrenaline rush. The knowledge and satisfaction of being a pioneer adopter in a particular release comes with its own merits for this fearless lot. Sometimes that risk pays off with huge dividends, sometimes all your files are corrupted and lost by the new software you installed.
Early adopters are essential for any new venture. Without them, Ford would have never been as successful at creating the Model T – or the assembly line method that made it a success – as he has been celebrated for. Someone had to bet on the car, make an investment and report back with their likes and dislikes. The feedback gives creators the opportunity to meet, even anticipate customer demands. It’s why our cars come in a color other than black. Ford, Chrysler and GM listen to their market base and design accordingly. It’s a give and take scenario. Most (if not all) of the cars driven in Africa were created with the American consumer in mind. From the placement of the steering wheel, to the number of cup holders, to the shock absorption in the suspension, all of our vehicles were designed and tested for Western roadworthiness and driver proclivities…not for red clay paths, narrow streets riddled with potholes and crazy okada riders and taxi drivers who dart in and out of traffic.
So who is going to take that first step in joining the Kantanka release cycle in the early phase? The government can certainly help by taking the bold step to scrap all of its imported vehicles and use Kantanka for state functions, car rental companies can add Kantanka to their fleet for consumer choice, and first-time buyers can look forward to the nostalgia of saying a Kantanka was their first car. But are any of these the company’s target market? I don’t think anyone knows.
For one, there is no focused marketing effort, other than to say “Hey! Look what we did!” Secondly, no one knows how much a Kantanka costs. For now, it’s a closely guarded secret. There has been little in the way of demonstration in its advertising for real world applications. Is this a luxury vehicle? Is it for the middle class? How do we rate its performance and according to whose scale? This all circles back to the need for early adopters.
So who’s it gonna be? I for one am looking forward to making Kantanka my vehicle of choice when I visit home. In the meantime, I hope they sell faster than Pattie Pies on an autumn day…or fresh Hausa koko during the rainy season.Warreva makes you happiest.
Welcome to the consumer market, Kantanka!