Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Why are secondhand Japanese cars so popular in Africa?

Secondhand Japanese cars are seen lined up at a parking lot in a shopping mall in Zambia's capital Lusaka on June 1, 2021. (Mainichi/Mitsuyoshi Hirano)

LUSAKA, Zambia (Mainichi) -- Japanese classic cars remain enduringly popular in Africa. As the continent has developed economically, imports of vintage Japanese vehicles have also risen. In the last 10 years, the market has almost doubled in size, with around 280,000 cars brought over in 2020. But in the shadow of all this success lie unexpected pitfalls.

    This reporter was in Zambia, an inland country in southern Africa, some 12,000 kilometers from Japan, when I suddenly heard my mother tongue: "No card has been inserted," it said. It was the end of May and I had bundled into a car that came to pick me up from the airport in the capital, Lusaka. When the driver put the keys in the ignition, an automated Japanese voice had echoed in the car. It was the onboard warning sound for Japan's electronic toll system (ETC), which automatically processes payments at toll booths across the country.

    Japanese vehicle inspection certification is seen still affixed to a secondhand car for sale in Zambia's capital Lusaka on June 2, 2021. (Mainichi/Mitsuyoshi Hirano)

    We were in a Toyota sedan. On the windshield there was still a car inspection certification sticker from a parts shop in Hiroshima Prefecture. The driver didn't understand the ETC announcement or the sticker, and told me they'd been using the car without much concern for either of them.

    Vitz, Fit, Murano, Ractis, Allion. I watched the cars zipping up and down the road as we went -- most of them were Japanese. I tried counting how many I saw at a shopping mall parking lot. Of the 74 I noted, about 70% -- 53 vehicles -- looked like secondhand Japanese vehicles. Another seven looked like new Japanese cars, leaving the other 14 from other countries' carmakers.

    With the turn of the 21st century, China has made economic advances into Africa. I had come to Zambia to interview primarily Chinese sources, which made the presence of Japan's secondhand cars all the more unexpected.

    Sotaro Nishikawa, head of the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO)'s Nairobi office, is seen in an online interview on June 25, 2021. (Mainichi)

    Why did they become so popular? A 45-year-old dealer at a seller in Lusaka with about 100 secondhand cars on show told me the biggest reason is that they're cheap. And they are -- among the cars on offer were a Toyota Ist with 53,000 kilometers on the odometer, for sale at 150,000 Kwacha (about 730,000 yen, or some $6,600). Another was a Toyota Premio going for 125,000 Kwacha (about 610,000 yen, or around $5,500) with 90,000 kilometers on it.

    Apparently the 150,000 Kwacha level or lower is the best price for them. I was told anything over 200,000 Kwacha makes them hard to sell. According to the World Bank, Zambia's GDP in 2020 was about $1,050 (some 117,000 yen). While an expensive new car might be too much to ask, a secondhand one is in reach for many consumers.

    Used Japanese vehicles tend to be in good condition and of high quality. Plus, they're easy to maintain. I was told there are many possible repair parts for them, including Chinese-made nongenuine ones, making them easy to obtain. The country's mechanics are also apparently experienced handling the cars, making them quick to fix.

    A notice printed in major Kenyan newspapers from the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) that urges car exporters to "Kindly talk to JETRO first" to avoid falling victim to fraudsters in Japan is seen in this image provided by JETRO's Nairobi office.

    Because Zambia is a former colony of the British Empire, people drive on the left and use right-hand drive vehicles -- ideal conditions for Japanese cars. The dealer I spoke to told me he had also bought cars at auction via a Japanese businessperson.

    But issues have been arising across Africa in recent years. According to Sotaro Nishikawa, head of the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO)'s Nairobi office, fraud cases involving local importers being swindled out of money by malicious businesses in Japan have reportedly taken place.

    In such cases, importers suddenly hear nothing from the businesses they've been in touch with after they send them the cash for relatively cheap cars they're advertising online. The Japanese firms tend to turn out to be shell firms, making it effectively impossible to recover the funds.

    In March, JETRO's Nairobi office began urging vigilance against secondhand car fraud, and issued an English language ad encouraging traders to "kindly talk to JETRO first" in one of the region's major newspapers. It also explained that JETRO can introduce people to legitimate businesses, among other information. Nishikawa said with a sense of urgency, "If the damage from it increases, it could lead to a negative effect on Japan's image."

    A secondhand van with Japanese still on it is seen in central Ndola, Zambia, on May 29, 2021. (Mainichi/Mitsuyoshi Hirano)

    At the same time, the popularity of reasonably priced imported used cars means new vehicles aren't selling. Of the 105,000 cars registered in Kenya in 2019, around 90% -- some 92,000 automobiles -- were secondhand. Kenya is also home to manufacturing bases for Japanese car firms Toyota Motor Corp. and Isuzu Motors. There's some irony in the fact that Japanese carmakers' main competition in the region is now Japanese cars.

    The coronavirus pandemic has also affected the situation. In 2019, about 320,000 secondhand cars were exported from Japan to Africa, but in 2020 it had fallen to some 280,000. Delays in supply chains including shipping by sea amid the international economic downturn appear to be the cause.

    But long term, there is a high level of confidence that economic development will continue across Africa, and individuals connected to the industry are united in the view that demand will continue to rise. The dealer I spoke to in Lusaka told me that private cars are no longer a luxury, but a daily necessity.

    (Japanese original by Mitsuyoshi Hirano, Johannesburg Bureau)

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media