Plucky Madagascar car maker hopes to shift up a gear

AFP
A Karenjy LANJA car is pictured at the Karenjy Factory on August 4, 2014 in Fianarantsoa
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Antananarivo (AFP) - When you next shop around for a new car, the chances are you will not buy a Karenjy.

For a start, only a dozen are built each year, by hand, on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar and none are exported outside the impoverished nation.

They don't come with electric windows, airbags, sat nav, or other conveniences long considered standard.

And in terms of looks, their long sloping front and boxy hindquarters may be something of an acquired taste.

All this has meant that since Karenjy was founded by the state in 1984, the island's only car manufacturer has been thoroughly pummelled by foreign competition on its home turf.

"Everything is based on design and the previous Karenjys looked very bulky," said Nantenaina Andrianaivoson, a young Malagasy father who drives a Peugeot 307.

"There was plenty of room for improvement."

Even a Papal endorsement from John Paul II, who cruised around the central city of Fianarantsoa on a custom built Karenjy "Papamobile" during a 1989 visit, was not enough to save the firm.

In 1993, Karenjy -- which means 'a stroll' in Malagasy -- was placed under administration and the government simply abandoned it, spelling a slow walk to death.

The factory became dilapidated, its shop floor surrendered to vegetation that grows quickly in the hot sun on this island of 20 million residents off southeast Africa.

Building materials were unusable, but a few tools and a spare car remained.

- 'Rebirth' -

In 2008, French-Malagasy company Le Relais bought the carcass of the firm hoping to turn it around.

But after a year-long refurbishment, a coup plunged the country into a deep political and economic crisis which brought punishing international sanctions.

The resultant strife cost Madagascar -- already one of the world's poorest countries -- $8 billion and tens of thousands of jobs, according to World Bank estimates. Not an ideal market in which to sell cars.

But now, according to Le Relais's Luc Ronssin, "Karenjy is rising from the ashes after a 15 year coma."

Last week Karenjy unveiled its latest model, the "Mazana 2," along with plans to increase production around twentyfold to 200 units a year by 2017.

That is still a tiny rate of production by any measure, but would make up two percent of the 8,600 cars Madagascar imported last year.

Hopes are pinned on the new Mazana -- meaning strong in Malagasy -- which will hit the market next year and is a low maintenance 4x4 designed for the island's rugged terrain.

It bears a passing resemblance to a Hummer but makers say it will also suit the wallet of impoverished Malagasy consumers.

It will be "very competitively priced and cheaper than imported vehicles," said Ronssin.

An AFP reporter who test-drove the car attests to its sturdiness even on rough and winding roads.

- 'A question of patriotism -

The company's optimism about the market has been spurred on by last year's election, which heralded the return of democracy and the resumption of relations with international donors.

The United States recently allowed Madagascar back in to a lucrative trade pact that gives preferential access to US markets, further kindling hopes of a brighter future for Malagasy business.

The country's new leader Hery Rajaonarimampianina has toured the world seeking to bring investors and jobs to Madagascar.

But Karenjy is not just aiming to make a quick buck, it also wants to be socially responsible.

Owners have so far resisted bringing robots to the factory floor, there is no production line and work is done by hand by 70 specialised workers.

"Le Relais has a specific approach to business: making money is not a problem, the question is what to do with it to create real social development," said Ronssin.

On an island that has felt the full force of globalisation, that is a message that resonates with the patriotic Malagasy.

Resident Patrick Fananontsoa drives a Mazana 1 originally bought by his brother.

"My brother wanted to buy a Mazana 1, because he was fed up with all the Chinese cars," said Fananontsoa, "it was a question of patriotism.

"It was also a little cheaper and efficient with decent petrol consumption.

"The design may be a bit rustic, but lots of people like it."

Still, given the "complicated" global operating environment, Ronssin says Karenjy cars will only be targeted for the domestic market.

International car buyers may have to wait a little while yet before buying their first Karenjy.

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