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Chinese autos in Africa 2013

Author: Date:2013/6/14 10:15:15
 Automakers take steps to adapt to market



Although Chinese automakers have been losing ground to foreign auto brands over the past two years, the African continent has been a much-needed lifeline.

Last year, the Chinese auto market experienced a slowdown, while foreign brands such as General Motors and Volkswagen slowly took an increasing share of the Chinese market. In July, Chinese companies producing passenger cars saw their market share drop to an all-time low of 24 percent.

But Chinese brands, such as Chery, Geely and Changan, switched focus to the overseas market, most notably Africa.

Major Chinese brands have made a splash in the past year. Great Wall Motors reported about 25,000 deliveries to 200 dealerships on the continent.

Beiqi Foton Motor Co, the biggest commercial vehicle manufacturer in China in terms of sales volume, delivered more than 10,000 vehicles in Africa. Revenue from Africa topped out at more than $220 million.

In March, Foton established a sales division in Kenya to distribute vehicles in East Africa.

One of the reasons why Chinese companies have flourished thus far is the free-trade zone in East Africa. The five country members in East Africa, or the East African Community, waive taxes in inter-bloc trades and that in turn has facilitated the expansion of Chinese auto companies in the region.

Foton invested $50 million to establish a knock-down part factory in Kenya in 2011, with a projected production capacity of 10,000 units every year. The factory will start with popular models, such as the light truck Aumark, before introducing more models into the market.

Beginning from November of last year, the company began to deliver orders for 500 heavy-duty trucks to Nigerian company Dangote Group to transport cement and grains.

Passenger car manufacturer Geely Holding Group also had success in Africa. Last year, it shipped 30,897 cars to the continent, which more than tripled their sales volume in 2011 (The company considers Iraq part of its African region).

Geely is currently selling autos to seven countries in Africa, including Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria.

Another reason why success has been fast and furious in Africa are the lower emission and safety requirements in African countries. Chinese auto brands, which offer low cost cars, have been quick to seize on the opportunities in the continent.

With these low requirements, many companies are eyeing the market, though analysts warn that the maintaining profit is not that easy on the continent.

Statistics for how many Chinese auto brands have made their debuts on the continent are not available, but many major Chinese brands have exported to the continent or have established African factories.

Although the African market is for the most part untapped, the buying power of its consumers is growing.

Martyn Davies, CEO of Frontier Advisory, a research, strategy and investment advisory firm, says that at an auto conference held in Chengdu, Sichuan province, that infrastructures for autos have greatly improved.

In most African countries, the auto parts market is controlled by German, Korean and Japanese companies. Multinationals such as Toyota have been doing business on the continent for decades.

But African governments are constraining the influx of foreign vehicles. Simply by exporting products to Africa is no longer sustainable. In relatively mature markets such as Egypt, the government requires foreign auto brands to purchase at least 45 percent of component parts locally to qualify for a tax cut.

Changan Automobile Group Co quickly reacted. Since 2012, it no longer made exporting vehicles to Africa a top priority. Instead, it is focusing on factories in Africa. Established late last year in Nigeria, the company began operations of a factory with a projected capacity of 5,000 units every year.

Like other emerging markets, there is a glaring imbalance on the continent. In terms of auto markets, Kenya, South Africa and Egypt are more mature than other countries.

John Zeng, an executive at LMC Automotive, a UK-based forecaster for the auto industry, says major export companies in Africa, including Geely, Chery, and Great Wall, tend to target similar markets and end up in competing for consumers.

"The result is that Chinese vehicles leave a stereotype to African customers that they are cheap and inferior in quality," he says.

This also has something to do with the Chinese export policy, Zeng says.

"There are export rebates when Chinese companies export products, so they don't need to rely on products and services to earn a profit," he explains.

These rebates (around 15 percent) can often offset the low margin of vehicles, he says.

Another flaw in the business models of Chinese auto companies doing business in Africa are the dealership networks, Zeng says.

"The common practice is that they outsource the distributing and services to (African) dealers, who don't really care about building the (Chinese) brands," he says.

Analysts say that the biggest advantage for Chinese brands is the cheap price.

Compared with European, American, Japanese and Korean brands, Chinese brands still lag behind in marketing and customer services.

"Previously, Korean cars were equivalent to cheap cars, but now they seem to have broken that image, leaving room for Chinese vehicles," Zeng says.

Some Chinese companies are attempting to fix these problems, starting from customizing products for the African market.

Foton, for instance, has equipped bigger engines and larger oil tanks for vehicles sold in the Kenya market because most consumers need trucks for long-distance traveling.

Great Wall is also designing products for the continent. It designed a model particularly for South African women because they apparently prefer right-sided, automatic transmission cars. The model has been well-received after it was put into the market in 2011