Mobius Motors: Africa's Own Car Company

Matthew Jancer
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Africa needs wheels. Mobius Motors, a four-year-old start-up based in Nairobi, Kenya, thinks it has a homegrown solution. It's working on the Mobius Two, a utility vehicle set to go on sale in Kenya for about $11,500. Eventually, the company hopes to sell cars all over Africa.

Mobius is the brainchild of twenty-eight-year-old British expat Joel Jackson, whose management-consulting background brought him to rural Kenya to work with the forestry industry.

"In that role, I witnessed and experienced a lot of the types of challenges the people face every day here without appropriate transport," he says.

There are indeed many challenges. Government policies conspire to keep prices of foreign transport high -- figure duties of about 75 percent depending on the specific vehicle and its condition.

A new auto rickshaw (a.k.a. tuk-tuk)will run some $4500. A clapped-out minivan previously used somewhere in the Middle East will cost twice as much. Meanwhile, the roads across much of Kenya, which is about twice the size of Nevada, would rip apart cheap new cars like the Tata Nano. No wonder there were only 720,000 light vehicles registered in Kenya as of 2009, the most recent year for which data is available.

The key to Mobius's plans is the fact that Kenyan import duties don't apply to individual components. It plans to source running gear and suspension parts from global automakers and assemble them in Kenya. Jackson is hesitant to name suppliers (think Eastern Europe), but the parts are standard cheap-car fare: A 1.6-liter gasoline four-cylinder, a five-speed manual, and front-wheel drive. Brakes are discs in front and drums in back.

"There was a reliance [on] picking known components that had a proven track record," says Greg Bellopatrick, a retired General Motors engineer who advises Mobius. The challenge for Mobius, he says, was integrating those components and protecting them over rough terrain.

The Mobius Two has a tubular frame, a front skid plate, and nine inches of ground clearance. Mobius tested an independent, coil-sprung rear suspension from a Toyota Corolla but ditched it in favor of a proprietary tubular axle and leaf springs when prospective customers fretted about load-carrying capability and the cost of replacement parts. Four-wheel drive was never an option -- Mobius will leave serious bush crawling to far more expensive Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers.

The vehicle is, no surprise, rather basic: no door handles, no air-conditioning, no power steering, no glass other than the windshield (drop-down canvas side panels take the place of windows). The few "features" are meant to appeal to the rural entrepreneurs who constitute the target audience. The load floor is flat -- a must for those who will run businesses out of the back of the car. Slam latches stand in for locks and door handles, but the hood does lock, and an interior lock box will keep owners' favorite small items out of the hands of strangers. The car seats eight -- two in front buckets and six in a pair of side-facing benches in the cargo area that can be flipped up or removed. The vehicle has a catalytic converter and purports to meet European offset-frontal crash standards, although Kenya requires neither.

For all the economizing, the Mobius Two is far from a cheap item in a country where per capita income hovers around $865 per year. (Mobius hopes to lower the price over time.) Still, Deepesh Rathore, director of India-based consulting firm Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors, sees potential.

"I would rather look at what is the per capita income of the top ten percent of that population, because that is where the automotive market is," he says. Mobius expects that some owners will be co-ops whose members pool their money.

A bigger challenge will simply be getting the car into production. Mobius has repeatedly pushed back its on-sale date. The latest plans call for a run of about fifty vehicles in late 2014.

"It's very worrying," says Garel Rhys, director for Automotive Industry Research at the University of Cambridge. Rhys wonders about the company's financial backing. "A slippage of this nature also suggests that they are finding it very, very difficult to get the product right in the first place," he adds.

The company recognizes the business challenges and has thus sought investors and advisors interested in the Mobius Two's potential to be a force for good in Kenya. "For me, the broader interest is in serving a business opportunity while making a social impact," says Jackson.

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