In car design the western world has become accustomed to looking to the east for new markets with demanding customers who hunger for the latest and most advanced designs. But how long might China remain the most interesting market? Might not other BRIC territories rightly demand our attention as they grow in commercial significance and as their people assert new requirements of the car? And could Africa, with South Africa now the “S” in BRICS, be at the forefront of this new focus — a region that in other product sectors, such as telecommunications and energy, has already ‘leap-frogged’ incumbent ways of doing things as it develops so fast and with so little inertia? We think that Africa is one of the most overlooked and most interesting car markets, and the one with the most scope to change fast and even leapfrog today’s leaders in developed countries .
In 2001 Goldman Sachs’ Jim O’Neill forecast a four-nation cluster as the economic growth hub of the future: Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC). By 2010 China and India had joined the proverbial ‘high-table’ of technological innovation of the BRIC territories, the consortium of nations now makes for a healthy share of the global GDP. But whilst O’Neill’s economic forecast was accurate, he had not envisaged South Africa joining BRIC in 2010, forming a 5-nation economic development pentagon with an African state in its midst. BRIC had become BRICS.
South Africa’s economic milestone was not a solo fete from the African continent, but rather a culmination of the necessity-driven leapfrog progression culture that teems within the entire territory of Africa. M-Pesa, a mobile-based payment and banking services platform, was invented by mobile carrier Safaricom as a result of the poor reach of banks and modern POS payment systems in rural areas of Kenya. This platform now serves as the blueprint for a large number of modern utilities used by developed countries’ mobile service providers and banks. Another notable example of Africa leapfrogging the conventional evolutionary stages of development and innovation comes from the renewable energy sector — or in Africa, simply, the energy sector. Energy start-up M-Kopa devised a solar-based system which provided off-grid electricity to numerous East African homes in remote areas not serviced by the traditional power grid networks. And M-Kopa energy bills are paid using the M-Pesa service…
Yet, whilst all this innovation is stemming from Africa, one entity vital to many lives lies in limbo: the car.
Africa currently imports most of its cars second-hand, owing to exorbitant tax levies on brand new cars and little local production. So whilst Africans have communications, banking, energy and other services that have leapfrogged their western equivalents, their cars literally sit several steps behind. Yet premium car sales in Africa are soaring, and there is a latent hunger from the wider market for cars that leapfrog forwards to offer truly advanced car designs. And this sits with little of the infrastructure and embedded user behaviours of developed car markets that stymie potential developments such as autonomous and electric cars. Perhaps cars — and car design — are the next product sector where Africa might leapfrog the rest of the world?!
By Ian Mbote