The automobile and transport journey since independence


The independence story of Ghana cannot be discussed without the automobile and transport sector. The colonial Governors and other officials were travelling the country’s length and breadth in automobiles of old; and today cars remain the main means of transport.

According to research, the first car to arrive in Ghana – then Gold Coast, was in 1902. The brittle and fastidious vehicle, a paraffin-fuelled and steam-driven French Gardner-Serpollet car, was intended for the Governor of the time.

Since independence, Ghana’s automobile assembling industry has come to have good support from the national government – which has enabled it to become one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy.

The transport and automobile industry currently accounts for a quarter of GDP, and this year, 2021, it is expected to account for at least 32% of GDP despite the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Also, the automotive industry – which is a chief sector that can drive economic forces – has a lively economy that becomes particularly attractive to importers of used vehicles; but unfortunately there is a ban on the import of some vehicles.

The ‘Bone-Shaker’ days and ‘Tro-Tro’ moments

Old Bedford trucks with locally-made wooden seats were often used for intra-city travel. ‘Tro-Tro’ is a local term for any mini-bus transport system in Ghana that runs trips from one short destination to another, and runs between specific destinations with passengers alighting at some designated bus stops, while others get on board and alight.

The ‘Bone-Shaker’ and ‘Tro-Tro’ transport business has come a long way, even before Ghana’s independence from the former British colonial masters. This business is unique for its cheaper transport fares and possible interactions, at least with the conductor who is locally known as the ‘Mate’.

This inimitable local transport business service fosters a collective life force between driver, conductor (Mate) and passengers. The ‘Tro-Tro’ transport industry and concept have come to stay, and needs to be given the needed advocacy and consideration.

Vehicle owners and drivers continued to adapt as social, political, and economic conditions changed. By the 1960s, drivers were using the wooden-sided vehicles (the Bone-Shaker) to transport passengers in the capital city, Accra. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, persistent economic crises meant that drivers and vehicle owners had to employ creative methods to keep their vehicles on the road – even as they faced increasing governmental and public criticism.

Many a times, ‘Tro-Tro’ stations are situated at very busy avenues. They are often surrounded by markets or commercial buildings. It is very easy to bump into petty traders who sell items ranging from food to hi-tech resources like mobile phones among others.

In additional developments to expand and improve its public transport sector, the country pursued certain policies – and this path of development saw the establishment of many state-owned transport enterprises.

Prominent among such state-owned public transport set-ups were Intercity STC Coaches Limited, formerly known as STC (State Transport Corporation) and Vanef STC, a Ghanaian joint state and privately-owned transport company that operates transport services, courier services, driver-training as well as vehicle valuation, vehicle-testing and maintenance, among others like Omnibus Service Authority (OSA), City Express Service (CES) and latterly Metro Mass Transit (MMT) Limited.

The idea of setting up a national bus carrier goes as far back as 1909. The Government Transport Department was a governmental entity set up and tasked to look transportation solutions for the then central government, which was the British colonial administration.

On March 9, 1965, a legislative instrument was enacted, and this body was mandated to manage commercial transportation services in Ghana. A haulage division was set up somewhere in 1968 and handed over to the STC to manage, in addition to the passenger segment they were already handling. In the year 1995, Intercity STC – then State Transport – became fully incorporated in Ghana to manage the state’s transportation. In the year 2000, Intercity STC was taken over by a private company Vanef after it had acquired majority shares in Intercity STC.

Presently, Intercity STC is owned by the Social Security and National Insurance Trust (SSNIT) that has majority shares after taking over from VANEF and the government of Ghana, which is the minority shareholder.

Refitting the automobile industry

To provide opportunities for higher value addition and highly skilled employment, the Ministry of Trade and Industry has developed a comprehensive package of incentives and policy measures to support the establishment of an automotive assembly and component manufacturing industry, as a strategic anchor of industrialisation and a new pillar of growth in Ghana.

The government of Ghana, in August 2019, launched the Ghana Automotive Manufacturing Development Programme (GAMDP) to promote the manufacture of automobiles for both the domestic market and West Africa sub-region – as it has allowed auto-manufacturers like VW, Toyota and Nissan to establish their make in the country.

As a result of this positive signal, Ghana is attracting investment in vehicle assembly from leading Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and investment partners, with positive projections of spill-overs into local manufacturing.

Volkswagen started its operation in the first quarter of 2020 and launched a few vehicles. Toyota in 2020 also launched two vehicles for the local market. Sinotruk, Suzuki and Nissan are set to hit the local market with brands for the Ghanaian and sub-Saharan market, while discussions pertaining to the operations of Renault, Kia and Hyundai are ongoing.

The Customs (Amendment) bill, 2020, seeks to amend the Customs Act, 2015 (Act 891) to provide incentives for automotive manufacturers and assemblers registered under the Ghana Automotive Manufacturing Development Programme (GAMDP).

It is expected to prohibit the importation of salvaged motor vehicles comprising wrecked, destroyed, or those physically damaged by collision, fire, water or other occurrences, as well as specified motor vehicles over 10 years of age into the country.

Just as Nigeria had Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing Company Limited, an automobile and bus manufacturing company that was founded by a son of their land, Innocent Chukwuma Nwala, and runs a plant in Anambra State, and Uganda has Kiera motors cooperation, Ghana is also proud to have the Apostle Safo Suaye Technology Research Centre at Gomoa-Mpota in the Central Region.

The company started researching into automotive components and combinations with other parts outsourced from component suppliers to form a complete built unit in 2004. By 2006, the first SUV (ONANTEFO) was manufactured.

However, Ghanaians still purchase cars produced from other parts of the world. To solve this, the Ghanaian government signed agreements with about four various automobile companies to establish vehicle assembly plants in Ghana.

According to Apostle Safo, one major reason why Africans continue to lag behind developed countries is the lack of confidence in made-in-Africa products. He said since many Africans, particularly Ghanaians, place more confidence in foreign goods than locally manufactured products, local investors “are not motivated and encouraged to expand their businesses, especially in the automobile sector”.

Bob Roco ROMEO

>>>The writer is a Motoring Reporter and Production Lead at the Business & Financial Times (B&FT)

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