'Madiba' dream car faces bumpy ride
Plans by a South African-US consortium to build electric cars in the Eastern Cape, including a $1.5m (about R22m) "hypercar" bearing Nelson Mandela's signature, must overcome formidable obstacles to succeed. The Mandrolli Auto consortium, which includes Mandela's granddaughter Ndileka Mandela, says it had been promised $9bn by the African Diaspora Central Bank to develop and manufacture electric cars. Its plans were announced last week. In an interview this week, Mandrolli CEO Tami Mase says the partners are scouting out potential manufacturing sites in East London and Gqeberha and exploring development of a harbour near Coffee Bay on the Wild Coast. She says actual manufacture is about five years away. The first product, the hypercar, is in the early stages of development. "At the moment, all we have is the design," she says. US co-founder B Taylor says he has secured global partners to develop, engineer and manufacture the prototype. Mase says Mandrolli had held talks with automotive engineering specialists Magna International and Larsen & Toubro.None of Mandrolli's partners has an automotive pedigree. Mandela is known primarily as a social activist. Mase is an entrepreneur with a background in women's empowerment. Taylor describes himself as a "multi-award-winning hip-hop artist, producer, speaker, best-selling author and philanthropist". He says he studied engineering at college and, during his time in the US Navy, aviation electronics.The African Diaspora Central Bank is also a novice. Founded this year, it says it is the "monetary authority of Eco-6". Africa has five economic communities (north, south, west, east and central). Eco-6 was created as an external community to enable trade and investment with the estimated 350-million people of African descent living outside Africa. It uses the lumi, a currency created to simplify trade between Africa and countries with large diaspora populations. This week, the lumi was worth $0.0000082 - just under one hundred-thousandth of a dollar.Bank president Timothy McPherson says Mandrolli is an opportunity for Africans not living on the continent, who remit an estimated $45bn to the continent each year, to offer further support. McPherson, a Jamaican who also goes by the title Chief Semako the First, says: "It is extremely thrilling to see this dream unfolding. Mandrolli has become more than just an automotive innovation but also a golden bridge that unites continental Africa and her diaspora." Mandrolli was founded in 2018. Then, the hypercar was to have been built by a Croatian sports car specialist, Rimac Automobili, but the deal fell through. Mase says the African Diaspora Bank investment will pay for the design, development and manufacture of all Mandrolli products. She says once the hypercar is in production, the company will follow up with sedans, then SUVs. The latter will be aimed primarily at the pan-African market. Outside of SA, Morocco and Egypt, however, it's an almost nonexistent market. Those three countries contributed 733,236 to total 2020 African new-vehicle sales of 912,863. Everywhere else sales are dominated by cheap, used vehicles dumped from developed markets. The African Association of Automotive Manufacturers hopes the market will grow to 5-million by 2035 but it will be a long, slow struggle. Electric vehicles have an even bigger hill to climb. Mandrolli says it will "drive electric mobility in Africa" by "defying the laws of physics". Cars will be powered by rechargeable electric motors, supplemented by solar power from roof panels. Mase says there is also potential to convert wind power into electricity. However, only 92 all-electric vehicles were sold in SA last year and almost none on the rest of the continent. Mase says she hopes her cars will cost as little as R550,000 - R100,000 less than the current cheapest electric models on the market but that's still well beyond the reach of most local buyers.The South African government recently committed itself to encouraging local EV (electric vehicle) manufacture and sales but it is not known when this will happen. For most multinational motor companies, it's not been worth the effort to import them. When and if they do, they will have the advantage of established sales and service networks to support them.Mandrolli is not the first home-grown electric car company to consider the South African market. A few years ago, the Joule car project collapsed when it became clear there was no market and funds dried up. Some people in the local industry say Mandrolli will have its work cut out to survive. "Mandela's name alone won't sustain it," says one. Mase thinks otherwise. If the African Diaspora Bank does come up with the promised cash, funds won't be an issue. That $9bn is equivalent to about R130bn - more than the total investment in nearly 100 years of South African vehicle manufacturing. The biggest single investment so far is the R16bn announced this year by Ford which, coincidentally, opened SA's first assembly plant, in Gqeberha, in 1924.Mase says potential manufacturing sites include East London's industrial development zone and a former Volkswagen SA plant in Gqeberha. Both cities have well-established motor industries and ports.Volkswagen, which is negotiating to sell the plant to a local developer, says it has no knowledge of Mandrolli. Nor do some vehicle and components companies contacted this week. Mikel Mabasa, CEO of the Automotive Business Council (formerly the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of SA), says: "I have no information on them. If they are serious I'm sure they will reach out to us for support."Officials at the department of trade, industry & competition, which manages automotive policy, say they know nothing of the company beyond what they have read. Mase says Mandrolli may contact the department in the near future to ask about incentives and investment support.