The deadly, hidden cost of Africa’s billion-dollar business importing used cars from US and Europe

Image: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde
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Between 2015 and 2018, around 80% of the 14 million used cars exported from the European Union (EU), Japan, and the US, went to low and middle-income countries.

The EU—which accounts for over half of global exports—sent a majority of its used cars to countries across west and north Africa. It’s the latest indicator of a long-running trend which sees African countries dependent on importing used cars mainly from Europe and North America to keep up with growing middle-class demand, especially given the gaps in local production.

But without regulatory standards to benchmark the safety and quality of imported cars, buyers across the continent unwittingly purchase cars that fall below European safety and emissions requirements, a new report by the UN Environment Program shows.

Take the example of the Netherlands. While the EU member nation exported 35,000 vehicles to West Africa between 2017 and 2018, most of the vehicles were between 16 and 20 years old, did not have a valid roadworthiness certificate at the time of export and fell below Euro 4 vehicles emission standard which were set as far back as 2005.

With Africa accounting for the highest number of annual global imports of used cars, the continent is particularly at risk of worsening a pervasive air pollution problem. Recent research estimates fossil fuel emissions from power plants and vehicles alone will result in nearly 50,000 deaths per year by 2030 with annual emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides projected to double by 2030, compared to 2012 levels.

Air pollution poses a major health risk when there are high concentration levels of particulate matter with aerodynamic diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers. At that size, particulate matter can get past lung barriers and enter into a human’s blood stream, possibly resulting in respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and, ultimately, premature death. Vehicle emissions are a key source of particulate matter in several of Africa’s largest cities.

Despite the clear dangers of worsening emissions, used, imported cars remain in high demand across the continent as the high cost of brand vehicles puts them out of reach for millions, especially given the broad lack of credit-based vehicle financing options.

In Nigeria, for instance, imports of used cars (known locally as “Tokunbo”) are still booming despite existing import duties of up to 70%. In 2015, when the hike came into effect, Nigerians imported nearly four times more used cars than new cars. And, between the fourth quarter of 2018 and third quarter of 2019 alone, Nigerians spent $1.7 billion on importing used cars, data from the country’s statistics bureau show

Raising standards

Given sharp and sustained levels of demand for used cars across the continent, the need to adopt higher standards for imported vehicles is crucial. Indeed, 68% of the 146 countries studied in UNEP’s report have no vehicles emissions standards for used car imports.

Three neighboring East African countries illustrate how much impact regulatory standards on car imports can have on local air pollution levels. While Uganda has a 15-year limit on the age of car imports and Rwanda has no age limit, in Kenya there’s an age limit of a maximum of eight years. Hence, with cars in Uganda and Rwanda typically much older, fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emission levels in Kenya are 25% lower on average, compared to its two neighbors.

In search of a successful model for regulation, African countries can look to Mauritius where only used vehicles which are not older than three years can be imported. The island nation has also set up “fiscal incentives” for residents who drive vehicles with low or no emissions and the tactic is yielding results: the country is recording a “major increase” in imports of used hybrid, electric vehicles, UNEP reports.

Several African countries have set up automotive policies to boost or reinvigorate local car production and reduce vehicle imports, however the timeline before these policies fully take effect and impact import levels suggest any possible benefits remain far off.

But to their credit, some African countries are taking an alternate route to cutting emission levels. In 2016, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Ivory Coast moved to raise the quality standards of imported fuel  after samples taken from gas stations across eight African countries showed sulfur levels 150 times higher than the permitted European limit.

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