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Sun, Jul 25, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Zambians drive toward a brighter future in the 'dotcoms'

One charity organizations plan to provide impoverished Africans with used cars has become wildly successful -- so much so that the government wants to tax it

AFP , LUSAKA

The sticker on the metallic green Toyota Sprinter caught in an early morning traffic jam in Zambia's capital of Lusaka is a familiar sight: "There goes another vehicle donated by Transport Aid Japan."

Over the past four years, hundreds of Japanese used cars have come to this poor southern African country, purchased by Zambian companies and individuals over the Internet through Transport Aid Japan, a charity organization.

For many ordinary Zambians, the dream of owning a car has suddenly seemed attainable and they have been spending hours on the Internet, filing out applications for a free or cheap used car from Transport Aid Japan.

So popular have become the used cars here that they are commonly referred to as "dotcoms" because they are purchased over the Internet.

"I never thought that one day, I would own a car," says Jack Bwalya, a civil servant who is one of the beneficiaries of the donated second-hand vehicles from Japan, where used cars are discarded.

Transport Aid Japan donates used vehicles that are between eight and 12 years old but are in good condition to be used in various parts of Africa.

Those who do not qualify for a free vehicle such as private businesses can still buy used cars from the charity at a reasonably cheap price.

"I bought my car for only US$250," said Peter Mwale, a newspaper vendor, who is a proud owner of a grey Toyota Carina, which he bought from the charity.

The only major cost, he said, was freight which cost about US$1,000 to ship the car from Japan to the port of Durban in South Africa.

"I feel rich to own a car and everyone in our family is excited," Mwale said with a smile.

Prices of new cars are skyhigh in Zambia. The cheapest Toyota model sells for more than US$10,000.

The Japanese "dotcoms" have even generated spinoffs for locals like Chris Mutale who charges a fee to help Zambians fill out the applications.

"If you want a free car just go to www.transportaid.com," Mutale said.

The founder of Transport Aid Japan, Julie Berg, recently told a local magazine, that her organization donates vehicles to charities, government departments, farmers, councils and individuals involved in humanitarian work.

"The biggest problem most African agencies and individuals face is transport and that is why we came up with this organization to make transportation a reality for many poor people," Berg said.

The used cars are also fueling traffic problems in Lusaka but on that score, the Japanese have also stepped in to help.

Under an aid program from the Japanese government, some of the main roads in Lusaka have been expanded from single lanes to three lanes in an effort to get rid of traffic jams in the capital city.

Meanwhile, car salesmen complain that sales of new cars have dropped as a result of the "dotcoms."

"There has been a reduction in the sales of motor vehicles by recognized dealers as a result of the easy access to vehicles from Japan," said Kenson Simwanza, sales manager at Motormart, a dealer in brand new vehicles.

"Despite this, we have our own clients who want to buy brand new vehicles because they are durable and reliable," Simwanza said.

Driving a "dotcom" in Zambia however is also a symbol of your status as one of Zambia's millions of poor.

A former British colony, Zambia ranks among the world's poorest nations.

"I can't drive a dotcom car. I'm above that," said Fred Mwebe, a computer scientist, who drives a BMW.

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