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From Surplus to Second Life: The Rise of Used Cars in West Africa Amidst the Electric Vehicle Shift

As the West embraces electric cars, the surplus of gasoline-powered vehicles finds new life in West Africa. The demand for affordable used cars is rising, presenting challenges and opportunities for both developed and developing nations.


From Surplus to Second Life: The Rise of Used Cars in West Africa Amidst the Electric Vehicle Shift p
Image credit: ShutterStock

A wide array of vehicles are showcased in a busy car lot in Cotonou, Benin, West Africa, including a 2008 US-built Ford Escape. Priced around $4,000, it is one of the more affordable options compared to other brands. According to a CNN article, Prospective buyers prioritize affordability over the car’s history.

The Ford Escape is representative of the millions of used cars imported annually to West Africa from affluent countries like Japan, South Korea, Europe, and the United States. Benin, in particular, serves as a major importer of these vehicles. As Western nations increasingly adopt electric vehicles (EVs) to mitigate carbon emissions, the surplus of gasoline-powered cars finds new life in developing nations such as Benin, where the demand for used vehicles escalates due to population growth.

The global market for used light-duty vehicles experienced significant expansion between 2015 and 2019, with over 4.8 million units exported worldwide. Although there was a temporary decline in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic, exports have rebounded and are currently on a rapid upward trajectory, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Approximately 18% of the world’s used vehicle exports originate from the United States, with a considerable portion reaching Africa, particularly Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana. These exports comprise salvaged cars involved in accidents, vehicles damaged by floods, and older models no longer desirable in the domestic market. American dealers seek international avenues to dispose of these used cars.

Companies specializing in international car shipping, like West Coast Shipping, primarily transport two- to five-year-old economy cars to Africa. In countries like Kenya and Nigeria, more than 90% of the automobile fleet consists of used vehicles obtained from overseas sources.

The demand for used cars is expected to rise further as the adoption of electric cars gains traction in the West, resulting in an increased supply of used vehicles to African countries. The International Energy Agency projects that nearly one in five vehicles sold globally this year will be electric, compared to less than 5% in 2020. As China, Europe, and the United States lead the EV market, dealers in states like New York and Florida are increasingly exploring overseas markets to sell their older gasoline-powered models.

Despite efforts to regulate the import of used cars and mitigate environmental impact, challenges persist. Weak regulations surrounding emissions and safety standards in West African countries have allowed the influx of polluting and unsafe vehicles. Although attempts have been made to tighten regulations, enforcement remains uncertain.

The UNEP has engaged in discussions with officials from the United States and the European Union to establish new regulations that would restrict the shipment of very old or dilapidated cars to developing nations. While these conversations are still in their early stages, and no commitments have been made, the impact of climate change and global emissions necessitates addressing the issue of used cars from a broader perspective. Increased shipments of older and more polluting vehicles pose a significant problem for both developed and developing nations.

While the transition to electric vehicles holds promise for Africa, significant improvements to the charging infrastructure are required. Embracing EVs, whether used or new, would be a step in the right direction for the continent, aligning with global trends.