Used vehicles in Accra’s streets, Ghana
Photo courtesy of Yinka Ibukun, Bloomberg News (2016).
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that more than 60% of the vehicles added to Africa’s fleet annually are used vehicles. These vehicles serve real needs. They support mobility and generate ecosystems of livelihood sources for millions of people including mechanics, sprayers, and other garage operators. The problem, however, is that the vehicles also contribute to public health and environmental problems in the continent through crashes and pollution. This is mainly because many of the used vehicles exported to Africa tend to be over-aged, highly polluting and prone to malfunctioning.
These socio-environmental harms have stimulated calls for Africa to adopt and enforce strong regulations, including complete bans and age restrictions to reduce its used vehicle dependency. While many countries welcome the call for action, Ghana’s experience suggests that used vehicle bans and other similar restrictions seldom yield any meaningful, sustained public health gains. This raises the need for more holistic policies for shifting towards cleaner, safer and affordable transport in the continent.
Import reductions without public health gains
In June 1998, Ghana introduced the Customs, Excise and Preventive Service (Management) (Amendment) Act (Act 552) to ban import of all vehicles older than 10 years. The Act was replaced four years later with the Customs, Excise and Preventive Service (Management) (Amendment) Act, 57 2002 (ACT 614) that imposed penalties on over-aged vehicles more than 10 years old.
The measures resulted in a sharp reduction in used vehicle imports from 15.35% in 1998 to 5% in 2003. Strikingly, however, the reductions did not translate into public health gains in terms of meaningful, sustained reduction in road injuries or vehicular pollution. For instance, in 1998, Ghana’s road traffic crash injury per 100, 000 people was 28.54. It reduced slightly to 28.18 in 1999 and then rose to 35.72 in the year 2000. The figure reduced slightly to 34.57 in 2001 and then to 32.57 in 2002 before jumping again to 33.34 in 2003. These figures could be much higher given the inadequate reporting of road traffic crashes in Ghana (see Annex on road traffic crash injuries in Ghana: 1998–2006).
Further, one study found that, between 1999 and 2003, at a time the ban and penalties were still being enforced, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides and PM emissions even went up in the Accra-Tema area where the majority of the vehicles in Ghana are also concentrated. A recent study has also shown that such measures also do not yield a commensurate increase in the purchase of brand new vehicles in Africa.
Untangling the puzzle
In sum, the imposition of bans and higher penalties often lead to reduced used vehicle import without commensurate, sustained public health gains and a shift towards new less-polluting eco-friendly vehicles. These outcomes are puzzling but not surprising.
Post-colonial Ghanaian planners have perpetuated land-use systems that are roads-driven, low-density and urban sprawl-inducing inherited from their colonial experience. These patterns of spatial or societal organisation separate work and other activities from home and, hence, solicit, encourage or compel more travelling.
Meanwhile, successive governments have failed to make commensurate investment in adequate and comprehensive user-oriented public transport systems. While the largely privately-run, deregulated minibus (‘tro-tro’) sector has helpfully stepped in to meet transport demand, the sector remains highly fragmented and financial capital is thus dispersed. Their business perspective largely focuses on individual short-term profits, which are also generally low.
These conditions undermine deeper investments to improve passenger information and vehicle conditions. Their regular use means that large numbers of people are exposed to high levels of uncertainty, discomfort, safety and other problems which undermine the quality of passengers’ experience, pushing people towards private car ownership.
Meanwhile, income levels are generally low; auto loans are accessible to only a few high-income people. These undermine effective demand for the usually expensive brand new vehicles. The result of these is that many of the vehicles imported for private and commercial uses in the country tend to be used vehicles, which are often in ready supply due to the demand for new cars and recycling policies in wealthier countries.
The used vehicle bans and import penalties only set the regulatory bar–and often customs bribes–higher; they do not address and, therefore, leave intact the other critical enablers of their consumption and supply. For instance, banning or raising penalties on used vehicle import does not result in improvement in incomes to position hitherto used vehicle consumers to afford new less-polluting eco-friendly options.
More fundamentally, because the vehicles serve real needs, restricting their supply without providing any meaningful alternatives–which is often the case–only serves to direct demand and supply to the black market.
Importers, often in cahoots with corrupt customs officials, frequently manipulate the details of used vehicles and declare false information to escape imposed bans and penalties. As a result, more and more of such vehicles escape official statistics/records and end up on the market. Thus, the restrictions do not really bring down supply or consumption; they only redirect them to the black market.
Promotion of local automotive manufacturing
African countries, including Ghana, are increasingly aligning their used vehicle import bans to industrial policies meant to stimulate local manufacturing. Promoting automotive manufacturing has numerous development benefits including job creation. A lot more, however, will need to be done so such interventions don’t end up worsening public health and environmental damages.
For instance, an industrial policy that stimulates the production of more and cheaper vehicles for personal use, and ignores investment in public transport and mixed land-use, could end up undermining the environment, equity and public health. First, increased use of personal cars has been well-established to have significant negative externalities including congestion, pollution and road traffic crashes.
Second, heavy investment in the production of personal cars could undermine the production of adequate higher occupancy, low emission and safer vehicles for public transport. This could result in the practice of extending the lifespans of the existing stock of really old public transport vehicles as they will be kept on the roads even as they get older and more dangerous in the absence of alternatives.
Finally, industrial policies that heavily focus on personal cars, and not adequately aligned to the demand for public transport, will end up heightening the smuggling of even more of older, dirtier and potentially faulty used vehicles to meet the unmet demand for public transport.
COP27: Time to address Africa’s used vehicle dependency comprehensively
COP27 presents an international platform for the world to tackle effectively the globalised climate troubles to which Africa’s used vehicle dependency contributes significantly.
Ghana’s experience suggests that the contradictions underlying the supply and the consumption of the vehicles and the associated adverse socio-environmental outcomes are structural. As a result, to be effective, measures for tackling them must not just raise the regulatory bar (which is what the import bans and penalties do). Instead, they need to be carefully tailored to tackle the range of factors, causes, motivations and constraints that influence, promote, enforce, support and have entrenched motorised mobility modes as the optimal means of transport without a commensurate investment in user-oriented public transport systems.
A broader view of the problem provides new policy options to explore, including minibus recapitalisation programmes as a way to introduce higher occupancy, low emissions and safer vehicles. Minibus capitalisation programmes could be accompanied by incentives such as zero import taxes or low interest loans for high occupancy public transport vehicles.
Another option to enforce this trend would be stronger investments in related public transport infrastructure like dedicated bus lanes and proper bus stops, stations and passenger information. Here it may be interesting to note that relatively new low emissions buses made available by bus electrification in Europe may still be a good option if they replace very old and polluting buses.
Further, minibus electrification itself may be an option to explore. More careful monitoring of air pollution from transport and inclusion of health costs on transport calculations is also important and makes public investment in new public transport vehicles even more attractive.
Finally, it will be important to invest in digital interventions so people can access goods, services and other things that matter to their lives online to cut down unnecessary travel. Now also is the time to rethink land-use patterns and ways to develop transit-oriented development in a way that makes sense for African cities and towns. This could include dismantling the persisting colonial planning practices, systems and societal organisation that generally separate work and other activities from home and moving towards more mixed land-use and transit-oriented development in urban areas. This way, people can live, work and shop in the same area so they travel less.
Other similar measures to reinforce this trend could include investing in non-motorised transport systems to make walking, bicycling and other similar modes safer and enjoyable. This could help reduce the heavy reliance on used vehicles and, in turn, the social, environmental and other harms that come with it.
Annex: Road traffic crash (RTC) injuries in Ghana (1998–2006)
Population of Ghana
RTC injury per 100, 000 people
17, 462, 504
17, 908, 977
18, 357, 159
18, 812, 369
19, 278, 850
19, 756, 929
20, 246, 376
20, 750, 308
21, 272, 328
21, 814, 648
22, 379, 057