The First Kenyan Car Had The Greatest And Worst Mission Statement Ever

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Ever heard of the Nyayo Pioneer? Me neither. The Pioneer was to be Africa's first independently developed car, and the project was started with this amazing quote from Kenya's then president: he asked for the development of a car, "no matter how ugly or slow it may be." Wow.

There's something really refreshing about hearing this sort of brutal honesty when it comes to cars. Everything that any car company says about their cars or the origin of their company is almost invariably a string of overwrought hyperbole that proclaims their cars to be the finest, noblest, wheeled saviors of humanity. So hearing one exasperated leader plead with a university to develop any ugly, slow car they could is remarkable.

The president was Daniel arap Moi and the university was the University of Nairobi, and the goal was to develop some sort of car that could be built in Kenya and sold, affordably, to their population. This was in 1986, and while other car companies had been manufacturing cars in Africa for a while — Volkswagen, for example, was making Beetles in Nigeria and South Africa — those cars weren't actually developed in Africa by Africans. The Nyayo would be.


"Nyayo" actually means "footsteps" in Swahili, and was also a nickname of President Moi. So the car was sort of named after him.

The University managed, after four years and a bunch of money, to develop five prototypes: a five-door sedan, a sedan with a trunk, a pickup, a sports coupe, and even a rally version. The cars look pretty conventional for the time, and seem to be transverse, FWD cars in keeping with many economy cars of the era.

They used a 1200cc engine (possibly designed locally? I'm not really certain) and the Pioneer could make about 75 MPH with it. So, not really all that slow, and it wasn't even particularly ugly, either.


It was, however, doomed. When the cars' big public unveiling happened, in Kenya's Kasarini Sports Complex, in front of a huge crowd, only two of the five cars would run. And, when the president came to drive one of the running cars around the track, it couldn't quite make the whole 400m. Not a great start.

Here's the more of this sad story, from the Kenya Yetu site:

The Nyayo Pioneer was an engineering disaster. The headlights, bumpers and boot did not come together neatly, and the car lacked the finesse you would expect from a consumer product.

The components were made by hand in different factories. The car's manufacture was done mainly at night as it was a state secret – and you got the feeling that a lot of the welding and panel beating was done by hand in bad light. The car's body was heavy and the engine simply could not cope with the burden.

Also, despite the goal of self-sufficiency, only 60 per cent of the car was built from locally-available material.

Not discouraged by what was clearly a massive failure, the government decided to go ahead with the mass production of this largely stationary car. They formed the Nyayo Motor Corporation (NMC) and brought in machines to help with the manufacture (machines that could work only on the engine, not the body).

Furthermore, at the same time more and more technical schools were closing, and they found fewer graduates to operate the machines that made the cars. NMC ended up operating at only 10 per cent of its mandated capacity.

The government did not have enough money to push the project all the way through. The total outlay for mass production required was Ksh7.8 billion. After the cash crunch of the 1990s and the IMF bailouts, the car project was put on the blocks permanently.


So, yeah, that didn't pan out so hot. Eventually, the factory built for the cars was sold to another firm, and in some ways that did become successful, becoming one of Africa's first and comparatively few plants capable of producing automotive and locomotive parts, lathe equipment, and other machinery.


It's easy to only look at the failure here, but in many ways those five prototypes designed by a University and built in secrecy among many different facilities are sort of impressive. The cars have a very rational, considered-seeming sort of design, and even if they're not really exciting, you can imagine that, hypothetically, such a car, if cheap enough, could have done well in Kenya and Africa.

Oh well. Maybe at least now that "However Ugly and Slow" tagline can be used by some other car company. Some marketing guys should be jumping all over this.