In one of the numerous graduation ceremonies officiated by Daniel Arap Moi, the second president of Kenya, at the University of Nairobi a typical thing happened, he made a public declaration. Unlike his many declarations mostly political, this time the move was visionary, or so it seemed. Like many great declarations in the 80s this too set in motion a series of tragic outcomes, most affecting the manufacturing sector and academia, some still unraveling. He asked the learned engineers not to be content just pouring over theories on internal combustion and manufacturing processes but to put theory to practice. As the Chancellor and leader of this great institution he must have seen the need to inspire and challenge his followers. He encouraged them to put to use some of their theories to use in building up an automotive industry for Kenya. In a typical and expected fashion those who were present did as expected, they clapped for and lauded the president, then they went home. This was 1983.

I bet this lot present did not think much of it at the time. They did not know that they were now a footnote in an unfolding tragedy filled with lost opportunities that has come to embody the Kenyan manufacturing sector and by large Kenya’s engineering. What they achieved or not is forever etched in the public psyche. To encourage the engineers on their quest the president was bold and brutal. It is said that he said the task should be completed “however ugly or slow” the product was.  His only hope was that the project would showcase Kenya’s self-sufficiency and heavy industry potential. The naysayers insist that the resulting cars were “slow and ugly”; I say that the German automotive giant, Volkswagen was built upon an uglier and slower car than anything these engineers could conjure up.

It is said that works began in 1986. Teaming up with engineers from the Kenya Railways, the Department of Defense, the National Council of Science and Technology and the Kenya Polytechnic, engineers from the University of Nairobi started work on the prototypes. It was all to be achieved with local materials, brain and muscle.  A five-door sedan, a sedan with a trunk, a pickup, a sports coupe, and even a rally version of the car were made. They used a 1200cc engine designed locally and several sources indicate that the cars would reach up to 75 MPH. Parts were produced in military bases or at the Kenya Railway central workshops. Some say the cars were made at night and with bad light. The cars experienced a difficult birth no doubt. However up to 60 per cent of the car was made from spare parts sourced from local manufacturers.

According to a local daily, “The Nyayo Pioneer was an engineering disaster. The headlights, bumpers and boot did not come together neatly, and the car lacked the finesse you would expect from a consumer product. The engineers did not get the proper casting for the engine. The body was too heavy. The transmission system kept breaking because the engineers did not get the right metallurgy for gears.” 

Well, this is the first time such a thing was done in Kenya. And prototypes are always supposed to be improved; they are never the final product. The effort put forth under these conditions can hardly be termed as a disaster. The scathing attack meted out to this band of engineers for their prototype is hardly warranted.   The project had very limited funding and save the presidents support there was very little policy on paper to support the project.  In the turbulent 1990s, major donors and the International capital owners instructed the Kenyan government to get rid of state initiatives and organizations that were not viable in their eyes. This car manufacturing initiative was one such initiative. Moi already professor of politics did not just roll over, he pulled a trick off his bag of unlimited maneuvers. They tricked the donors by going underground and working at night it is said. Decades later parliament would be told how even the terms of its employee, the operations of the company, the accounts of its operations and the destination of its products became hidden matters for donors to be hoodwinked.

1991, the stage at Kasarani Sports Complex was set for a public relations disaster. The main cast; President Moi supported by a cast of the engineers who had been secretly working on the presidential project.  The audience was made of the Kenyans who made it to the stadium and invited dignitaries. The main event was to witness the birth of kenyas manufacturing industry through the launch of the three new Nyayo cars. It was ill-fated like most things launched in this manner in Kenya. The cars overheated and when they managed to get one of the cars started and going they put the president inside it to do the historical mile, he could not make the 400 meters desired for the ‘maiden drive’. The public was deflated and slowly the wasting away of this dream started taking hold with it the aspirations of a country. The kind of self-belief needed for these kinds of endeavors was gone. 

Working away quietly some individuals retained the grit to continue and strive to achieve the president’s ambition. National Machining Complex (NMC) Ltd was created curiously retaining the initials of the Nyayo Motor Corporation that was meant to mass produce the Nyayo car for Kenyan households.  The new company was to study what had gone wrong and put together facilities and equipment that would make it possible for Kenya to achieve its dream of manufacturing its own car. A report has never been given on what went wrong.

Perhaps they encountered insurmountable difficulties or their spirits were broken, with the passage of time, the idea of manufacturing a Kenyan car was abandoned and the president’s call forgotten. The individuals charged with continuing with the dream resorted to embrace mediocrity and adopt “Jua Kali” like operations. They resorted to a modicum of design here, some excuses yonder and a little fabrication there. Even after a state of the art foundry and a computer numerical machine complex was installed, the main product it could produce was break shoes for the railway wagons and locomotives.

The NARC government, Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi  would say was keen to restructure the 1,000 acre rich NMC together with strategic partners with the aim of “commercializing its activities” and making it the “nucleus of a capital manufacturing industry”.

Recorded in the Hansard on April 2004 as question No.103 on expenditure on Nyayo car project. Prof. Ayiecho Olweny asked the Minister for Trade and Industry Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi two questions: first, how much money was spent in the Nyayo car project and what its achievements were; and, second what the Government is intending to do with the products and results of this project.

The Minister for trade and Industry said “The Nyayo car project cost the Kenyan government and tax payers KES 668,939,609. The achievements realized through this project include: the revamping of the old foundry of Kenya Railways Corporation into a state of the art foundry, the installation of a computer numerical control and computer aided design and manufacturing machines. In addition the company has developed a small air compressor; an eight horse power diesel engine. Several local automotive industries such as auto springs and all parts casting have been put in place in anticipation of production or sub-contracting of parts. The basis for capital goods manufacturing enterprise has been set in place. The company has been a keen supplier of parts to Kenya Railways Corporation, Uganda Railways Corporation and Magadi railways among others” He further said  “The numerical machining complex owns a substantial real estate; more than 1,000 acres of land along Mombasa Road. We are trying to make it a nucleus of a capital manufacturing industry. We are looking for strategic partners, already we have very advanced plans starting by the assembly and potential manufacture of a small hand held tractor made in China. All the assets that cannot be moved to the new compound along Mombasa road will be surrendered to Kenya Railways Corporation.”

Dr Kituyi thought the idea was ill conceived and not justified.

He added that they had in 2004 two routes which they could take at the policy level. The route recommended by the Association of Car Manufacturers and Assemblers in Kenya was to take the prototype of a comparatively priced saloon car and start as much local production of the components as possible. The leading candidate in that was Opel Corsa which is made in Brazil. The other route was to buy a closed down factory like the Peugeot 404 factory in France which is now decommissioned, build on its efficiency and competency and go the Indian route and develop a state of the art car. None of these has materialized.

Like a cancer that refuses to go away the issue was again visited in 2010 and 2011. Industrialization PS Karanja Kibicho and Assistant Minister Nderitu Muriithi respectively said the government planned to revive the car project. Nothing worth reporting has come of these efforts. Moi is no longer the president and engineers haven’t given the old man his car yet. Conditions are different now and engineers no longer have to work secretively away from the thumb of the donors. Most of the stakeholders know the value of a robust local manufacturing yet the data shows a declining manufacturing base.

Was it not President J F Kennedy of United States of America who  championed the moon mission which resulted in a plethora of innovations in its wake, don’t we all see that as one of his greater achievements? The address set at Rice University, was on their Nation’s Space Effort.  This speech designed to rally the country around a common great purpose and muster all their manufacturing and innovation capacity was delivered in front of a large crowd gathered at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1962. That country claimed its stake as a super power obliterating any challenge or doubt by landing Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the Moon, on 20 July 1969. 

I can’t help but think; when that car refused to make that 400m circuit a little bit of engineering died in this country and to get it back, engineers need to give Moi his Nyayo Pioneer car.


Kenya National Assembly Official Record (Hansard) 21 Apr 2004


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