Africa loves our used cars

  • More than 500,000 used cars were exported from Belgium in 2012.
  • The most highly valued destinations: Benin and Libya.

What happens to your car once you’ve sold it? Usually we don’t care after we’ve given the keys to a buyer or a car dealer because we’re so impatient to discover our new car. You might be surprised at the exotic destinations to which our cars travel. According to official statistics from the National Bank of Belgium based on export declarations and figures from Belgian customs offices, half a million used cars went to foreign countries in 2012. Some went no further than France or Germany, but the vast majority left on a ship from Antwerp headed to Africa.


Last year, 57% or 293,000 cars ended up on West African roads. The main port of entry was Cotonou in Benin, which now specializes in used cars. Local authorities have invested in gigantic parking lots with 25,000 parking places. Thousands of people work in the industry. This little country alone attracts one third of all cars exported from Belgium. Obviously, this isn’t to satisfy its own appetite. “All the cars sent to Cotonou are destined directly or indirectly for Nigeria, the largest market in Africa with 160 million inhabitants,” explains Pierre Hajjar, one of Africa’s used car export pioneers and head of the Socar company. Ports in Ghana, Cameroon and Guinea are also major entry points.


Another significant destination for cars exported from Antwerp is Libya. With 45,000 vehicles exported in 2012, it was second only to Benin. Here, the phenomenon is linked to the Arab Spring. Exports to Libya have increased fivefold in one year. Why? The fall of the Gaddafi regime, which severely restricted imports of used cars. “The new regime wants to give more freedom to the people, telling them that they can buy as many cars as they want,” Pierre Hajjar explains. “In Africa used cars are the opiate of the people. The governments understand this.” According to him, the opening of the Libyan market also explains the strong growth in used car exports to Tunisia (+138%). “Libyan ports were overwhelmed to the point that they had to bring cars in through their neighboring country.”


According to the official statistics, Belgian used car exports have never been so good. They grew by 74% in 2012, reaching over 500,000. These figures need some explanation, however. First, the figures include Belgian cars and cars from other European countries that pass through Antwerp on their way to Africa. There are a lot of them because Brussels has become the European hub for the used car trade with Africa. In addition many exports made through this route are not declared.


On the ground Pierre Hajjar did not see a boom in 2012, although he runs one of the primary Belgium to Africa export companies. On the contrary, activity slowed down in 2012. Why? Because of the dollar’s weakness, which let American used cars appear in Africa and compete with the Europeans.


In reality nothing seems to be slowing the flood of used cars, which are sometimes real clunkers, into Africa despite restrictive measures implemented by some countries in the name of respect for the environment and road safety. Under popular pressure, most governments have had to give up or soften laws setting a maximum age beyond which cars cannot be imported. This was the case recently in Gabon, which in September tried to forbid the import of cars over 3 years old. After a week of protests, they suspended their decision. Last year, Senegal raised the maximum age from 5 to 8 years. Nigeria did the same thing in 2010.


“These restrictive measures have no impact and are quickly bypassed,” Pierre Hajjar explains. “A matabiche (editor’s note: a small bribe) is all it takes to get a car into a country. It’s also not in the interests of these states. Used cars create jobs and for some people cars are their largest source of income (payment of import fees). As long as there are no local assembly plants, which is complicated by political instability, Africans will remain at the mercy of used cars.”



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