Adjacent to the main Kenya Railways station in Nairobi, in the midst of dozens of factories stretching from Workshop Road to Industrial Area, sits the Numerical Machining Complex (NMC), a State corporation whose vision is rotting away with the passage of time.
An old and dusty facility sitting on the heels of a footbridge crossing over multitudes of old and rusty train containers, NMC lacks the pomp and colour associated with State corporations and, to a normal passerby, this could be anywhere but the place where the evidence of Kenya’s best shot at automotive engineering- the Nyayo Pioneer Cars- have been kept over the past 30 years.
NMC’s main production facility is a massive hall rising more than 10 meters high and covering a space of roughly 70 by 30 meters. At the corner straight from the factory’s main entrance sits the ‘Nyayo Pioneer 1’, the first car Kenya ever attempted to manufacture between 1986 and 1990.
The cream-coloured Sedan car still appears well-kept.
The wooden parts of its interior; steering wheel, seat belts, seats and gears are intact and on the outside all the parts still hold in their positions. The car could easily camouflage with the other old models plying city roads if it left this facility.
Save for the plate shouting ‘Nyayo Pioneer 1’, no one would ever notice it if it entered Mombasa Road about 400 meters from where it rests.
Then walk outside through a door on the left, turn right and enter a dustier, smaller facility where another team of the corporation’s workforce does menial work involving cutting and welding of metals and where brick-making machines are manufactured.
Dumped in a secluded, heavily-padlocked, dusty room of wire mesh are some three pickups and a saloon car whose bodies have been disfigured. Their flat tyres, naked rims, failed doors and mini-escarpments of dust have altered the vehicles’ original colours. They are the other lot completing the fleet of five Nyayo Pioneer Cars.
Perhaps cautious not to display them openly with their apparent debilities and unable to maintain them to withstand the wear of time, NMC decided to lock them in here, an area where your everyday VIP will not visit when they pay that courtesy call.
“It is the Nyayo Pioneer 1 that we usually get out when important guests such as Cabinet Secretaries visit and want to do some driving or viewing,” Mr Evans Ocharo, NMC’s marketing officer says.
When he famously urged a team of the country’s best engineering professionals to lead Kenya in manufacturing its own, “however slow, however ugly” car in 1986, the late President Daniel Moi’s intention may have simply been to underscore his desire to see Kenya grow into an automotive manufacturing giant.
But 35 years later, custodians of the Nyayo Pioneer Cars appear to have followed Moi’s advice quite literally. Of the five prototypes made, four are immobile. It’s certainly not the ugliness that Moi meant.
Today, NMC- a firm created in 1994 to actualise Kenya’s dream of manufacturing its own car- after the Nyayo Motor Corporation which initiated the process was folded has been reduced to making spare parts for some few companies, operating at a capacity of about Sh22 million per month.
By 2016, the latest auditor general reports on the corporation that are publicly available, NMC was making losses of more than Sh130 million, culminating to a cumulative deficit in revenue reserves of Sh1.5 billion. This was despite having assets worth over Sh930 million. The then Auditor General, Edward Ouko, had the previous year warned that the corporation was heading to insolvency.
“Consequently, if the downward trend in financial performance is not checked, could lead the company to insolvency state,” Dr Ouko warned in 2015.
When we visited the facility last week, NMC’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) David Modali- a calm, soft spoken engineer- had few things to say. He admitted that the corporation hasn’t concentrated on working on the purpose it was initially created- to make Kenyan cars- and, according to him, not due to its fault.
“First the place where we sit here is not our land, this is Kenya Railways’ land. Our land is in Mavoko, Machakos County and in order to expand our production, we need to move there where there is enough space to establish production facilities,” Modali said.
The government had allocated NMC 1,700 acres of land in 1994, 500 acres of which the company sold in 2001 to settle debts and salary arrears. Of the remaining 1,200 acres, most of the land has been encroached by squatters and land grabbers and the corporation has not managed to recover it to date.
Mr Modali says unless there is proper intervention from the State after a current court case is concluded to evict the encroachers, a move he argues can only be made by officials of a higher rank than him, NMC moving to its land will remain a tall order.
And so, the company has preferred to rather deal in spare parts business, manufacturing brick-making machines and spares for vehicles, water pumps, energy sector-related products and other manufacturing equipment, as the car idea rests for the moment.
With 120 staff out of the 200 approved by the board, NMC is also understaffed and cannot undertake any task to actualise Kenya’s dream of making its own car.
“If we have to make a car we have to relocate from here because we are limited in space. We have to move to Mavoko and occupy our 1,200 acres land. It is that movement that will begin the journey of having a Kenyan car and we also need about 80 more workers,” Mr Modali says.
Initially, the government had envisioned it would establish 11 semi-autonomous factories that would manufacture different parts of a car. Only two were established, leaving a big gap in the initiative.
With the current events, it is highly unlikely that Kenya can actualise a dream it set out to achieve close to four decades ago without, perhaps, swallowing pride and agreeing to partner with established motor companies, as well as investing heavily towards the course.
“The proper way of going about it is through partnership with major industry players that are already in the market. If we partner with Toyota, Mitsubishi, Mercedes Benz or BMW for instance, that will inform the government on how to set up the industry rather than starting from inventing the wheel, which can be very complex,” Mr Modali argues.
He says that would be the fastest way to establish a car industry that will be accepted by the public, and then the State may slowly assume control of such an industry as Kenyans gain experience and expertise in production of motor vehicles.
But such decisions have to come from higher authorities and with heavy budgets.
In 2010, Kenyans’ hopes were falsely awoken when then Industrialisation PS, Engineer Karanja Kibicho (Now Interior PS), said the government had made several moves to revive the project as the State once again displayed the Nyayo Pioneer 1, encouraging local companies to participate in actualising the initiative.
“We will go out there and encourage local companies to participate in this project, while the government will ensure the products are of high quality,” Dr Kibicho said then. Eleven years later, nothing has materialised.
NMC now laments that excessive exportation of scrap metals has hurt the industry in favour of manufacturers outside the country, urging the State to place measures to curb the exportation to make local production cheaper.
“There is a lot of exportation of scrap, once you block that you will have enough scrap, which we have. That is the biggest product in the development of a car,” Mr Modali said.
NMC is currently in the process of procuring a machine that will make brake pads to add onto its other heavy investments that make various other parts of a vehicle. However, until there comes a government ready to support the realisation of its dream, it will continue making spares for other companies, or, as per the Auditor General warnings, die in its sleep.