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Prestige, status aside: Can you buy a tiny car?

A small car on a street in Hamburg, Germany. [XN Iraki]

Would you buy this car (picture)? I asked the same question to my undergraduate and postgraduate students.

The answer was consistent for both groups, no. They said it’s too small, even those unmarried agreed too.

When I told them, the photo was taken somewhere in Germany, many shook their heads. More of that later.

I got about three other photos taken randomly around Hamburg, where I spotted this car or its variant, a two-seater. Its marque is Smart, a joint venture between Mercedes Benz and China’s firm Geely.

The car has good mileage and is friendly to the planet. How often are you alone in the car? 

With the high fuel prices, I would have expected Kenyans to welcome this car with open arms. But they did not. As a social observer and a pragmatist, I was not surprised. 

To most Kenyans, a car is not just a means of transport, it’s a status symbol. One student asked me what his friends would say if they found him driving such a car. There is even a popular joke that if you buy certain small cars in Kenya, you get a receipt, not a logbook.  

Jokes aside. Why should small cars be more popular in Germany, famous for car brands like Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Porsche and Volkswagen than in Kenya where we make no cars? Never mind the Nyayo Pioneer Car was on display at the University of Nairobi (UoN) this week.

Why haven’t we improved on it for 40 years? Kenya now should be exporting cars, the technology to make cars is so basic and has not changed much for more than a century. Can Nyayo Car leapfrog into electric cars, just as we skipped credit cards into M-Pesa? 

May I open my eyes hard enough? I found few big cars in Germany as compared with Kenya and other African countries. Could it be that car manufacturers in developed countries make big cars for us and make their profits; they know cars are our status symbols.

We love big cars in Africa. One explanation is that we have few alternative status or power symbols. We have houses, but we leave them at home!

Two, technology is still a mystery to us, it still mesmerises us, 137 years since the car was invented.

Three, we feel inadequate and must “intimidate” others with big machines. 

Does this microcar explain why economic growth in Africa is so elusive? We are focused on status not practicality and pragmatism. A car is a means of transport, and it always will be. And rarely, do we have the big cars parked with passengers. In Dubai, they use big cars to make money through desert rides.  

The thinking that cars signify status and power is deeply entrenched in the African public sector. You have seen government entourages in both county and national governments.

Could it be that we have no better power and status symbols? What was Mahatma Gandhi’s status symbol? What of our traditional societies when we never had cars? Seen a GK (Government of Kenya) Vitz? A county Vitz or Demio?   

Let’s turn the page. ‘Annoyed” by the small car, few observers noted the company whose name is in the background of the photo; Kuehne +Nagel. It has a branch in Kenya. It made a gross profit of 11.1 billion Swiss francs in 2022 - equivalent to Sh1.92 trillion. About half our budget. And we are still bothered by small cars?  

Let’s look at a few German firms. Siemens gross profit was $28 billion in 2022 (Sh4.2 trillion). One more? BMW made $25.885 billion in the same year (Sh3.89 trillion). Still annoyed by the small car? 

Germans might drive small cars, but they think big going by the size of their firms and their economy in general. That is the fundamental shift in our thinking that is needed, more so among the younger generation. 

We think big but forget the easiest way to bigness is frugality. You will not build Siemens or Kuehne + Nagel overnight. You have to sacrifice, and be small today so that you can be big tomorrow.

But we let prestige and status blind us. No wonder we have few multinational corporations in Africa. Yet there is lots of money in our no longer dark continent. 

Multinationals or transnationals make profits in Africa. We invite, persuade, beg and at times bribe people to come and make money in Africa! Which country in Africa is not looking for foreign investors?

Why can’t we make that money ourselves? We have a big market for goods and services, but we leave it to others, transfixed on prestige and status. Let me ask you one more time. Would you drive that car?

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