I recently went to Lagos, which is the capital of Nigeria and also one of the largest cities on Earth. To be clear, I did not personally go to Lagos, but instead I visited the city on Google Street View during an immense period of personal boredom. I spent about an hour roaming the city, and looking at stuff, and something interesting hit me: they’re driving our cars.
Really, though — they are. If you spend more than a few minutes on Google Street View of Lagos — or most African cities, for that matter — you’ll quickly discover that an enormous portion of the vehicles, likely more than half, is comprised of used cars exported from North America. In the photos above, you can easily see what I mean: U.S.-market Toyota Sienna, U.S.-market Honda Accord. There’s a Toyota Matrix, a Nissan Altima, a Subaru Outback — even a Toyota Solara in one of the photos. As it turns out, African cars are, in large part, U.S.-market cars.
There are, of course, a few good reasons for this. A primary one is the fact that much of Africa doesn’t have a new car market, on account of the price of new vehicles — but Africans still need cars, of course. So without local new cars to purchase cheaply as used cars, they import them from foreign countries.
But why North America? That, too, has a good answer: Owing to the lack of parts support and dealership networks, the top priority of Africans when buying used cars is reliability — and that means they want Japanese cars. Even though Europe is much closer to Africa (and, therefore, shipping used cars should be cheaper), Japanese cars are still relatively rare in Europe. In North America, Japanese cars are common, which is why so many are brought over from the states. Fuel plays a role, too: Most European cars are diesel-powered, while Africa (like North America) primarily runs on traditional gasoline.
The sheer number of North American cars in Lagos (and in other African cities) is so substantial that I honestly wonder what effect it has on the price of used Japanese cars in North America. These cars are usually purchased at wholesale auction and then sent to Africa, meaning the pool of used Japanese cars available for Americans is shrinking — which could be one major reason why used Japanese cars are more expensive here in North America than their foreign or domestic counterparts. With that said, Americans also prioritize reliability, which is another reason why Japanese cars command higher prices.
But I think the African market plays a role, too — and if you spend more than a few minutes on Street View in Lagos, you’ll surely see familiar minivans and crossovers that once brought suburb-dwelling American kids to soccer practice and piano lessons, now doing their duties on the rutted roads of Nigeria.
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.