I recently read an article on The Colourful Times about used Volkswagens in Ethiopia. Since traveling to Africa, I have often pondered the lot of vintage whips in both Ghana and Morocco. Matt Gibbs’ post on The Colourful Times didn’t talk about the influx of used western cars in Africa. Rather, he compared the tenacity of the Ethiopian people to that of a Volkswagen. Yes the Volkswagen is a great car and so is the Mercedes, but how did so many of them get into Africa?
Thankfully, I stumbled upon Jeroen van Bergeijk‘s work, My Mercedes is not For Sale. This book answered my questions about this phenomena and more. Jeroen takes the reader on a journey as he drives from Europe to Africa, in his Mercedes, in order to sell his car. During the journey, he survives sandstorms, encounters dodgy characters, and describes the used car trade in Africa.
Jeroen’s journey was different in that he is not in the business of selling used cars. Additionally, he could have sold his car in Europe. So why did he choose to sell his car in Africa? Jeroen, like many, have capitalized on the demand for these cars from the African population. The Mercedes is a luxury car and highly valued – regardless of its condition. Even in America, a used Mercedes carries a weight far greater than a used Nisan. I recall driving my step-father’s used Mercedes on occasion and hearing the comments from friends and family. I barely wanted to drive or ride in the car, but from outsiders I was riding in luxury.
Although demand for these used cars is high in Africa, I question the morality and ethics of it. It’s simple supply and demand right? Well, not exactly. In America, there are strict regulations on what cars can and cannot be on the roads. If you fail your emissions test (depending on the state), your car will not pass inspection. Therefore, the car is rendered unsafe and undrivable. I’m not certain the same checks exist in many African nations. As a result, death traps or junk is dumped into Africa and is passed-off as “help”. Jeroen indicated several times in his book that he was doing some good deed by selling his car in Africa.
While there are the capabilities to repair the cars in Africa and the cost would be much less than buying a car brand new, at what point are we going to stop letting others dump crap onto the African people. I recall riding in several Mercedes taxis in Morocco and thinking “this will be my last ride in a car ever”. In Ghana, the taxis carry fire extinguishers as the cars often overheat and catch on fire. One afternoon, my ride was interrupted as my taxi driver stopped, jumped out the car, and took his extinguisher to help a fellow taxi driver put out a fire under the hood of the car. I felt sorry for the taxi driver as his source of income diminished in a matter of minutes.
A car can bring income and open up doors for many, but at what point can we balance supply and demand in a more ethical/sustainable way? Would love to hear your thoughts!