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Dream to change Africa with a stripped-down car

BUSINESS
By By Parmy Olson | September 17th 2012

By Parmy Olson

Boosting the African economy comes with a load of challenges. Among them: you need to support entrepreneurs, which means you need to help them get places, which means you need to help them do so cheaply. But cars that are imported to Africa are ridiculously expensive.

This is where Joel Jackson comes in. His company, Mobius Motors, is locally creating cars that are durable enough to drive over Kenya’s degraded, dirt roads, but so basic in their construction that they’re cheap enough for Kenyans to buy.

The result is a car that looks like a cross between a jeep and a dune buggy and costs $6,000. That number is important. It’s a big drop from the average cost of a Nissan Minivan (about $15,000) or Toyota Sedan ($9,000) for Kenyans. Cheaper alternatives are the three-wheeled Tuk-Tuk by Piaggio or the Haojin motorbike — but Mobius wants the sweet spot in the middle, with a price comparable to the auto rickshaw.

Durable cars

Cars like the minivan and Toyota Sedan miss what people in Africa really need. Many Kenyans would rather go for air conditioning, leather seats and automatic windows for all-terrain performance, reliability and cost, according to a survey Jackson ran of 1,500 potential car buyers in Kenya.

“Vehicles on the local market aren’t designed for local consumers,” says Jackson in a phone interview from his office in Nairobi. “They’re made in Japan or the U.S... but roads here are horrendously bad. People often carry heavy loads in vehicles so they need to be durable. They’re underserved.” To that end, Jackson sees a compelling business opportunity.

While the Mobius cars aren’t for everyone (a Kenyan’s annual household income is under $3,000), Jackson is targeting small business owners and entrepreneurs. The transport network in rural Kenya is practically non-existent, and cheap, durable cars that can carry several people can act as both a small transport business for a budding entrepreneur, or a method of carrying their stock.

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Jackson is closing a Series A round of funding over the next few months from investors in London, New York and Nairobi, criss-crossing the globe to meet VCs, or hitting New York for the Clinton Global Initiative or TED, followed by meetings in Zurich and Paris.Mobius hasn’t hit batch production yet, and so far he’s only made two prototypes. But he plans to produce 50 cars in 2013, starting production at a new outsourcing facility in Kenya in January 2013. His biggest investment — a $70,000 grant — came from social enterprise incubator Echoing Green in New York.

Jackson, the biggest shareholder, has been running Mobius for two and a half years. He incorporated it in the United Kingdom as a company that owns a Kenyan subsidiary. The Sheffield-U.K. born IT graduate got into the business of making cars after taking a job at a management consultancy in London, and deciding to get more experience in the field. He joined an organisation doing forestry work in Kenya, and while there had the idea to build a stripped down version of a car, to solve the problem of getting around the difficult terrain.

He built his first prototype in a modest workshop in a small fishing village called Kilifi, on the coast of Kenya.  After getting to know some of the local mechanics in town, and eventually asking them to help organise a dinner with other local mechanics and welders, he proposed building a rugged, off-road vehicle with their help. To Jackson’s surprise, they were enthusiastic in the face of obvious engineering challenges.

Crack team

A week later, he followed up on his contacts and put together a small team of three mechanics and two welders who were willing to work on the project part time. Eventually, Jackson and his crack team had put whether a vehicle with a simple, robust frame built from off-the shelf components, from the engine, to the brakes to the suspension. Since then he has gained 15 full-time employees, including local designers and specialized operations staff, working out of an office in Nairobi and cultivating relationships with cushion suppliers and pipe makers. He lives in a house with other international staff in an affluent suburb of Nairobi and works out of an office complex on the busy Mombasa Road, working from 7am to 4pm to beat the gruelling rush hour traffic.  He plans to hire five more employees this month and another five next month, all based in the Kenyan capital.

              —Forbes.com

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