2011-07-18

Co.Exist

The New Stripped-Down SUV That Will Change Transportation In Africa

Mobius has created an SUV that's strong enough to brave Africa's deteriorating roads, but frills free, to make it more affordable.

Imagine a place where 2 million kilometers of roads have become virtually non-functional after decades  of poor maintenance and neglect. Fixing them will cost more than the entire region spends each year on its roads and, as a result, people pay 75 percent more for their daily goods. That's what it's like trying to get around and move products in Sub-Saharan Africa.

And that's also the environment for which Mobius One was born. The bare-bones SUV designed by Mobius Motors is the first of a new series of mass-market vehicles—rugged, safe and affordable for more rural Africans—that the Kenya-based company believes will serve as a vehicle for "local entrepreneurs to mobilize the developing world." Now on its second prototype, Mobius Motors is trying to create a viable alternative to the imported vehicles that rarely leave the cities for Africa's hinterlands where rugged transport is desperately needed.

The problem is that vehicles in Africa tend to fall on one of two extremes: extremely expensive luxury SUVs or smaller and cheaper vehicles that can't traverse rugged terrain. At the same time, Africa does not have an indigenous industry to produce its own cars. In 2009, only about 416,000 vehicles, or 0.6% of global production, were built in Africa, according to the company. With initial cost estimates at about $10,000, Mobius hopes it will be able to serve that missing middle. The company's strategy: replace an emphasis on comfort and extras with pure functionality.

The car is the brainchild of Joel Jackson, a former management consultant who had spent his fair share of time waiting for treacherous and unreliable minivans or motorcycle rickshaws plying Africa's back roads. His idea was to "re-imagine" a vehicle for the African market: simple, cheap, and incredibly rugged. In essence, Mobius decided to reengineer the (now) luxury Land Rover by eliminating air conditioning, power steering, ABS, and even glass windows, while focusing investment on springs, shocks and wheels. Off-the-shelf systems such as engines, brakes, and steering are built around a a tubular steel frame to further reduce cost and maintenance. 

And the car has a second off-road purpose, says Jackson. "Mobius aims to empower transport entrepreneurs across Africa not just with more appropriate vehicles, but with the financing and business advice needed to operate a sustainable transport centric business," writes Jackson by email. For entrepreneurs, it's more than just a car, but a business on wheels. It could be used as a school bus, mobile medical center, or public transport. "Beyond selling more vehicles into an undeserved market, Mobius aims to empower latent entrepreneurial talent across Africa. We support entrepreneurial buyers with business advice and financing to use their Mobius cars to operate myriad transport services in their communities," he writes. "Our vision is a more connected, more mobile Africa."

While it won't be showing up on American roads anytime soon—something about the Western ambivalence for the utilitarian value proposition of such utilitarian vehicles —you will be available to pick one up in Kenya soon. It is scheduled to come in all the most popular colors of East Africa: white, silver, black, blue, red, and green.

[Images: Mobius]

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.

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