Motor city

I associate auto shows (based, at least, on their television advertisements) with huge convention centers, American-style marketing excess, and blonde models — all of which are rather hard to find in Bamako. So I never would have predicted that I’d attend my first auto show here, of all places, in the Malian capital. And yet that’s precisely what happened. It is also, as it turns out, Bamako’s first auto show.

The event is pretty modest — fewer than ten displays by auto retailers, plus a few peripheral displays by banks (marketing auto loans), an insurance company (marketing auto policies), and a soft-drink bottler (marketing, um, soft drinks). There is even a kids’ fun area featuring a moon bounce and some kind of mini-golf putting green. Everything is housed in the courtyard of the Bamako International Conference Center, formerly known as the Palais des Congrès.

After getting past the games area, I head straight to the Volkswagen display tent, since I know one of the guys there, our daughters being classmates in school. Volkswagen of course makes the SUV known as the Touareg, which happens to be named after a group of  nomads who inhabit northern Mali. I ask the VW rep if Touaregs are big sellers among the Touareg; he avows that they are. He also shows me the Phaeton, an entirely hand-made luxury sedan that boasts a leather interior and on-board mini-fridge. It sells here for something like 60 million CFA francs, well over US$100,000. And the Phaeton has available kevlar panels and ballistic glass. VW is hoping to sell some to the Malian government for driving its VIPs around.

The VW Phaeton

I am ambivalent about seeing such an expensive car in Bamako. On the one hand, who am I to say Malians shouldn’t drive Phaetons? But the fact that it costs 157 times Mali’s  annual per capita income gives me pause. (By comparison, an automobile costing 157 times the U.S. annual per capita income would sell for $7.2 million.) Perhaps I should hail the Phaeton’s arrival in Bamako as another positive development of globalization, a sign that Mali is growing economically and finding its place in the world. Yet the benefits of growth have been concentrated in the hands of a few, while most Malians have seen their living conditions stagnate over the last 15 years.

The Bamako auto-moto show only has a few motorcycles on display, all of them Yamahas. Just a decade ago, Yamaha had a near-total monopoly on motorbikes in Mali. If you wanted something on two wheels bigger than a moped, you pretty much had to get a Yamaha. They still sell their Japanese-made motorbikes, like this Crypton model, which sells locally for about 1 million CFA francs including tax (approx. US$2000).

The Yamaha Crypton. I must say, the spokesmodels at this auto expo aren't what I expected....

Nowadays, however, Malians aren’t buying very many Yamahas; they prefer a motorcycle officially known as the Cub, but called the “Jakarta” in local parlance. Even if it isn’t quite as sturdy as a Yamaha, it costs about 60 percent less than Yamaha’s cheapest model. This motorcycle’s manufacturer, Guangzhou Tian Ma Group Tian Ma Motorcycle Co., Ltd. (say that ten times fast!), is not represented at the Bamako auto/moto show. But why would they come? Without any advertising, their product has achieved complete market dominance. Since about 2002, Bamako’s streets have been flooded with “Jakartas.” I am not sure how to explain the local success of this bike, which is on a scale one doesn’t see in other West African countries. How can it cost so much less than other bikes? Some Bamakois have told me the Malian government exempted Jakartas from import duties, but I have yet to confirm this. For whatever reason, Jakartas now make up about 90 percent of all motorcycles on the road here.

A typical Bamako parking lot. Can you spot the non-Jakartas in this picture?

For whatever it’s worth, the Yamaha Crypton is also being copied by Chinese manufacturers, which is only fair, since Yamaha’s “cub”-type motorcycles were based on earlier Honda models. Perhaps turnabout is fair play, but the Chinese go so far as to put the name “Yamaha” on these bikes. Is Yamaha aware of this fact?

If you’re looking for a symbol of globalization in Mali, forget the Volkswagen Phaeton. Go with the humble Tian Ma Cub, which has altered Bamako’s social landscape. Precisely how it has done so will be the subject of another post….

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