[By Jean Bourdache]


When Japanese motorcycles began their conquest of the Western world in the 1960s and 70s, they did so by developing revolutionary technology (after a phase of copying Western designs).  The Japanese industry built machines with staggering performance, with engines revving to previously unknown heights,  plus ‘traffic conveniences’ such as turn signals, electric starters, tachometers, double-cam brakes, and no leaks, all at affordable prices.  In the past two decades a comparable revolution has occurred at this scale on another continent: Africa.

The motorcycle is not a total novelty for Africans, but until the 1960s it was mostly an object of curiosity. For centuries the continent was the playground of Westerners in search of thrills in ‘unknown’ lands.  Such adventuring was also a way of discovering exploitable raw materials. Someone said “nothing changes”? (On the shores of Lake Victoria, this Harley-Davidson keeps a two-legged fuel supply). [Bourdache]
The difference today is; it’s Chinese manufacturers who have maneuvered a takeover, with an economic strategy adapted to Africa.  They’ve built ‘assembly’ factories in African countries to avoid import duties, at times providing direct financial aid (in the form of grants) within these countries, and used technology ‘borrowed’ from the Japanese that allows them to market motorcycles at extremely low prices – close to ‘dumping,’ as economists are fond of saying.  Prices for cheap, small-capacity Chinese motorcycles range from 4-600,000 CFA francs ($600-$800) for a 125cc machine, and less for scooters of 50- 80cc that have medium-sized wheels to withstand the local roads.

Malick Sidibé – “The Eye of Bamako” [as featured in our previous article] – observed the evolution of his native Congo, welcoming the first Japanese bikes, including this Honda C110. However, it is unlikely that, on the road, the African male (like many others) would have agreed to leave the driving to his lover …[Malick Sidibé]
For whatever reason, Togo is the hub for incoming Chinese motorcycles that are then shipped to West and Central Africa. In the small northern Togo town of Cinkassé, with 11,000 inhabitants, Chinese Dayang motorcycles arrive in disassembled large lumps, that are then reassembled by a local workforce, and assisted by Chinese technicians.   The bikes are then fed to neighboring countries like Benin, Burkina-Faso, Nigeria and beyond. In 2016, Dayang invested 8.5 billion CFA francs ($15.5M)in an assembly plant in the Togo town of Notse, in the south of the country, about sixty kilometers from the capital city of  Lome. The goal is ambitious; to produce 2-3000 motorcycles per month!

On February 13, 2018 China made a donation to Togo of 8.5 billion CFA francs. This led the Minister of Economy to declare: “I have the firm conviction that this cooperation will continue to strengthen and will increase the portfolio of intervention projects of China in favor of Togo.”

Only 15% of these machines remain in Togo, according to Giorgio Blundo (director at the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences – EHSS), who states that “Togo imported from China motorcycles worth $250Million in 2016…with 320 factories and nearly 125 brands included.”  The list of brands is enormous, ranging from Apsonic to Zongshen, and  passing through Bli, Boxer, Chunlan, Dayang, Haojin, Haojue, ZF-KY (or Huawin), Jialing, Lifan, Lingken, Pantera, Qinqi , Rato, Royal, Sonlink, Senke, Volex, and dozens and dozens of other brands that might be named for particular retail outlets.

In Nigeria, this 125cc Haojiang is probably a moto-taxi, as the rider is helmeted – as the law requires without much respect. This machine may well be a local version of the Honda CG of the 70s, a utility that has a reputation for being indestructible. [Bourdache]
Thus the choice of brands in Africa is immense.  And according to Giorgio Blundo, the production of Chinese motorcycles currently totals 23 Million/year, of which 9 million are exported to Africa, Europe, and even the USA.  In France, Chunlan and Zongshen are common, as well as Jialing, a virtually unknown brand (to the West anyway) that has an annual output of 2 Million two-wheelers.  To put this in perspective, the annual output of Harley-Davidson, Triumph, BMW, Ducati, and Moto Guzzi COMBINED is less than 1 Million motorcycles.

A street in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, one of the largest cities in the world with legendary traffic jams that are literally never-ending. Taxis and minibuses are yellow in color, and one motorcycle taxi is indicated, lane-splitting. [Bourdache]
In most African cities, ‘public’ urban transport is either non-existent or so decrepit as to repel the locals. To get around, the citizens rely on taxis (cars whose tariffs are variable/negotiable) or mini-buses, which are in the process of extinction because they’ve reached their mechanical limits in the godawful traffic of the continent. The void in public transport has been filled by moto-taxis, which are far better adapted to managing the wild or nonexistent traffic rules in cities with populations in the Millions: Lagos (Nigeria) has 22.9Million inhabitants, Luanda (Angola) has 9.1Million, Bamako (Mali) has 4.3Million…plus the 45 other African cities that exceed 2Million people!  And more than 40% of Africans live in urban areas, a figure that’s bound to increase over time as the world becomes more urbanized.

The multiplication of traffic accidents has led governments in several countries to launch prevention campaigns that are echoed by unambiguous signals. [Bourdache]
Motorcycles are set to become the Number 1 transport option for all of Africa, and Asian companies are leading the charge.  In 2016, the Big 3 top sellers in Africa were Baja (India), TVR (India), and Honda (Japan – and still the world’s largest motorcycle mf’r with around 15Million bikes produced around the world/year).  But, Chinese manufacturers control about 30% of the global motorcycle market (with $6.1Billion in sales in 2016), with Japan occupying 12% ($2.5Billion), and India has 10% ($2Billion), according to the East African.  In 2014, Chinese motorcycles outsold Japanese bikes in the UK for the first time, a trend likely to continue around the world, with Africa the first test case for global competition to supply the country with desperately needed personal transport.

Simple and straightforward, advertising doesn’t bother with the laws in force. But the exponential proliferation of motorcycle taxis in all African states has put them in the crosshairs of the forces of repression and retaliation is often exercised in a simple way, too! [Bourdache]
Four people seems to be the maximum a light motorcycle can handle, but there are excesses everywhere, regardless restrictive regulations.  Endemic corruption means an exchange of cash solves small daily problems.[Bourdache]
At peak times, traffic resembles that of all major metropolises in the world with the same problems of congestion and pollution, even though the majority of Chinese motorcycles are four-strokes.  Ironically, China has solved its moto-pollution problem by banning small internal-combustion engines, period, which means they’re #1 in the world for electric vehicles!


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