Prof Francis Gichaga, the former Vice Chancellor of The University of Nairobi was involved in the development of the Nyayo Pioneer Car when Nicholas Biwott happened into his office with instructions that changed original plans of the project.
The Nyayo car project was spearheaded by retired President Daniel arap Moi who was inspired by Singapore which had built its homespun car, the Proton in 1985.
The only cars in the market were mostly products of either the Japanese or the Brits and this also "angered Moi so much, he wanted something with Kenyan roots. So he sent for us and asked us to design the very first ever fully functional Kenyan cars," says Prof Gichaga who was then a Civil Engineering lecturer at the University of Nairobi before his ascent to Vice Chancellor.
The project's intention was thus to build a Kenyan car industry without the help of foreigners and their giant auto industries. And it was that the head of state challenged the University of Nairobi to create a car "however ugly or slow." Designing a low-cost local car with the help of Kenya Railways, which had the best manufacturing facilities and the state-owned Nyayo Car Corporation, today the Numerical Machining Complex Ltd, began in 1986.
Others in the team were experts from Kenya Polytechnic, the Department of Defense and the National Council of Science and Technology,
"Efforts were made to obtain information about car manufacturing from foreign companies and 'the Project Team were placed in very sensitive and strategic places all over the world, where the technology and information could be learned," Charles Hornsby writes.
The initial project was to produce two prototype saloon cars, but Biwott had other ideas.
Prof Gichaga and his team from the Department of Engineering began designing the Nyayo Pioneer Car but halfway through the project Biwott got pissed off as he was not consulted. "So he sent for us and demanded that, besides Moi's cars, we make him a Pick-up as well," recalls Prof Gichaga, adding that "because, he wanted the Pick up to be launched on the same day as the cars – which were by now halfway through – he rushed us so much and we worked under intense pressure and threats."
Prof Gichaga says that due to the pressure under which Nicholas Biwott put them, they designed a Pick-Up that couldn't even go a kilometre and ended up breaking down on the way to the launch, and this made Biwott so angry that he shut down the whole project.
"What most Kenyans have been fed is that all the vehicles we designed, the Pick-Up as well as the cars, broke down. This is, however, not true. The cars were fully functional, it was only Biwott's Pick-Up that broke down. But since he was probably the most powerful man in Kenya by then, he shut the whole project down and Moi didn't do a thing to stop him," laments Prof Gichaga of that February day in 1990.
Hornsby adds that even after the formation of the Nyayo Motor Corporation to oversee vehicle production and "no foreign investors would touch the project and there were no domestic funds available."
Of the 11 plants required for the ambitious undertaking, the government only managed to form the General Machining Complex, starring advanced computerised equipment, lathe machines, and a ductile iron foundry that, 25 years on, remains the largest of its kind on the continent.
Hornsby concludes that "Worse, the railways could not manufacture components sufficiently accurately to build a car. The government drip fed funds to the project through the 1990s but by 2001 it had collapsed."