Toyota car in WRC Safari ‘unwrapping’ giant Japanese trading company in Kenya

TOP: Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT’s Elvyn Evans of Britain in World Rally Championship action. ABOVE: Hustle-and-bustle of WRC Safari Rally Project’s team preparing for the route of event set for June 24-27

TOP: Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT’s Elvyn Evans of Britain in World Rally Championship action. ABOVE: Hustle-and-bustle of WRC Safari Rally Project’s team preparing for the route of event set for June 24-27

DRIVING in the Safari Rally is a famous sport in Kenya. Nearly everybody, from a little child to the most senior, knows about it. It has always been as captivating as, say, football and athletics.

They follow the Safari through hearsay, radio, television, written Press, billboards, flyers or social media. It was always a big event at every nook and cranny of the country. The car is as famous and as attractive as the horse.

Many in Kenya will never own a car, will rarely ride in it, but the car topic grips a vast majority. Isn’t it like the horse? How many children have, will ever, see a horse? But they ALL know what a horse is and can elegantly mimic how to ride it. A horse is a natural and everyone would appreciate one. That’s why they said: “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride …”

Home-brewed Toyota … Ian Duncan, WRC Safari winner 1995 started out driving locally assembled Toyota panel van

Home-brewed Toyota … Ian Duncan, WRC Safari winner in 1995 started out driving locally assembled Toyota panel vans

So is the car and the sport of driving it. Few have access to direct participation in it but the manner in which motorsport, specifically the Safari, attracts crosses the social/economic strata. All Kenyans like to discuss the Safari, an event that began in 1953, became part of the World Rally Championship (WRC) in 1973 and stayed up to 2002, and now, after an 18-year absence is returning to the circuit on June 24-27, 2021.

When the WRC Safari Rally is back they will have different approaches of following it. One being, viewing it as “a battle of cars [manufacturers]”. In the entire Safari absence the WRC the winning driver drove a: Toyota, Ford, Volkswagen, Citroen, Subaru and Peugeot. On its return in June the question on many people is “Which car will win it?”

Among Kenya’s finest … Baldev “Boldy” Chager, destiny of his Mitsubishi unknown during countdown to WRC Safari Rally June 24-27

They have already taken their picks and sides. After one 2021 WRC round, the Monte Carlo, a few days ago, Toyota (Sebastien Ogier, France) drew the first blood. Hyundai’s best (Thierry Neuville, Belgium) was third and the other placed cars were, seventh (Skoda); eighth (Ford); 10th (Citroen) and 12th (Volkswagen).

To Kenya’s “ordinary” Safari Rally “buffs” the rules over “certified” cars, is rather complicated. But suffice to say, all above-mentioned cars are “legal” in the WRC and hope is that as many as possible will be featuring in Kenya, as manufacturers’ teams (these are only three – Toyota, Hyundai and Ford), as team-backed single entries or as privateers.

Toyota, the name in focus at Safari Rally countdown … Toyota Tsusho East Africa Limited executive chairman, Dennis Awori, in earlier photo as chairman Toyota Kenya Limited

A three-car battle – Toyota, Hyundai and Ford – on Kenyan soil is already whetting the appetite of the locals. But prospect of more excitement is: “Which of our own is going to take on these fellows? What will our chaps drive? Are the cars they have on the Kenya National Rally Championship (KNRC) circuit ‘allowed in?”

Many questions. They will continue occupying lots of space in the Safari countdown which is already in earnest with vast preparation work put in at the theatre of operation in Naivasha, 76km west of Nairobi on the floor of the Great Rift Valley. Those who have been the route, through geographic and wildlife spectacular stages (shortest 8.5km to longest 33km) on Chui Lodge, Kedong’, Oserian, Elementaita. Soysambu, Sleeping Warrior. Malewa and Hell’s Gate are delighted at prospects of witnessing a thrilling time.

Safari Rally June 24-27 preparations at service park, Naivasha, Kenya

The domestic competition (KNRC) will soon get off the ground. We begin to see those with a serious look-ahead to compete in the Safari in June. It is with the knowledge that, unless they buy new cars, no local has one for a fair fight against the foreign top guns coming.

This is one thing to understand; the WRC will be contested under different categories of car quality (power). As in the football leagues, from the Premier to Division V!

The KNRC already has a classification before this season’s zoom off. Its ‘Premier League’s’ likes of Baldev “Boldy” Chager, Onkar Rai, Carl “Flash” Tundo, Manvir Baryan, Ian Duncan, Tejveer Rai, Eric Bengi and Karan Patel capture the imagination of the Kenyans that, with the “right” they could give as good as they get against the incoming foreigners. But their current cars, if they are entered in the Safari would not qualify for WRC points category. These mostly Skoda, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi, if anything will enter in the Safari second and third-tier classes. There are a lot of KNRC Subarus that will be inelligible.

Another local Safari hope, Carl “Flash” Tundo (above, bellow) in the WRC Candidate (2019) event at Kedong’. But status of his Mitsubishi unclear

The KNRC Div One and Two category drivers have all manner of cars which, if they get a slot at all in the Safari, will be under special concession to compete on ARC (African Rally Championship) or KNRC platform. It is a waiting game – entries close two weeks or so before the Safari to see whether there will be a few daredevils, for example such as: Izhar Mirza, Amar Haq, Adil Mirza, Mahesh Halai, John Ng’ang’a, Nikhil Sachania, Asad Khan, McRae Kimathi, Hussein Malik, Jonathan Somen, Raj Bharij or Geoff Mayes.

But, back to the original topic. The Safari script is shaping up for a block-buster – Who Is King of the Cars on Kenya soil? The “Premier” in June followed by sequels because the Safari has an initial three-year star in the WRC, hopeful to be renewed.

The last WRC Safari champion was Ford. Picture of their impending return is rather forlorn. “For morale if nothing else, M-Sport, writes authoritative website ‘Dirtfish’, could do with a strong result in Finland next month but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for it to get them against the might of Toyota and Hyundai.”

The route survey continued Thursday, in Naivasha. Picture/Courtesy ANWAR SIDI Media Safety and Route Liasion WRC Safari Rally Project

Kenyans always wanted to find out who was king of East African roads. Toyota, alone will draw a huge section of all the Safari attention. They are a record eight-time WRC Safari champion: in 1984 (Bjorn Waldegard), ’85 (Juha Kankkunen), ’86, ’90 (Waldegard), ’92 (Carlos Sainz), ’93 (Kankkunen), ’94 (Ian Duncan) and ’95 (Yoshio Fujimoto).

For now, the only other known returning WRC-era Safari champion is three-time winners Ford. Toyota will be in a field missing fierce WRC Safari rivals including: five-time winners each – Datsun/Nissan and Mitsubishi, Subaru (four), Lancia (three), Peugeot (two), Opel (one) and Audi (one).

You can also see that Toyota led another big contest (of makes): “Europe” (Lancia, Peugeot, Opel and Audi) versus “Japan” (Toyota, Datsun/Nissan, Subaru and Mitsubishi).

Marking out a safety position at the “Power Stage”, Hell’s Gate, Naivasha on Thursday. Picture/Courtesy ANWAR SIDI, Media Safety and Route Liasion WRC Safari Rally Project

In this year’s Safari, “Japan” starts strongly with Toyota and Hyundai against ‘Europe” (Ford). This will be an opportunity for locals to take sides in the “Premier Division” (WRC) category which for seems will not feature a domestic contestant.

When Toyota ruled in past WRC Safaris, the Japanese contracted professional developers and managers to fully prepare the car under Toyota Germany and Toyota Team Europe. So powerful, dominant and satisfied by their investment were the Japanese that they also sponsored drivers, both Japanese and Kenyan – to take part in the Safari in second-tier (standard cars – Group ‘N’ and private entry) categories.

Initially in Kenya the Toyota brand was sold by an agent known as Westlands Motors which morphed into Toyota Kenya. Nostalgia records one Guy Bromley, Toyota chief in Kenya personally taking part in the Safari. Then they started assembling Toyota “panel van” cars and Toyota gave one to then brave youngster, Ian Duncan, to drive in the Safari. In fact, Duncan would, on Toyota Kenya support graduate to driving the second-tier Toyota Celica Turbo culminating in his landmark WRC Safari win of 1995.

The name on the lips of many, as the Safari approaches, is thus, Toyota. They come as Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT based in Finland, their lead drivers being Sebastien Ogier (France), Elfyn Evans (Britain) and Kalle Rovanpera (Sweden). Their car, Toyota Yaris WRC is actually an incredibly strengthened Toyota Vitz known by most and driven by a lot of Kenyans. There will be a lot rooting for it to “beat” Hyundai and Ford.

But more so, Toyota is such an extraordinarily well known and bought vehicle in Kenya that you’d be tempted to regard it as the “national” car. It takes its place with others, who through the Safari life-time, also appeared as the “Kenyan Car”. These, intermittently, were: Volkswagen, Ford, Volvo, Peugeot, Datsun/Nissan, Subaru and Mitsubishi with Mercedes, Audi, Opel and Lancia giving a good account of themselves.

Karan Patel … hopes that some of the up-and-coming lower-tier Kenya National Championship (KNRC) drivers will get a shot at the Safari

As a vehicle, Toyota – some models now being assembled in Kenya – is so dominant that some advertising puts it aptly: “ […the car, truck, bus] in front of you is a Toyota].” And you could very well be in a Toyota yourself. And the one you see on the rear mirror, a Toyota too!

There is Toyota Kenya [Limited] that sells cars, other vehicles and machinery but that is under the gigantic [Japanese] holding, which will be on the local focus during the impending Safari Rally and throughout its new life in the WRC.

Wananchi [Kenyan citizens] will become more aware of how Toyota is no longer just the Toyota car. The Toyota Tsusho East Africa Limited [Executive] chairman is Dennis Awori, a well-known local sportsman (rugby, squash) and former two-term Kenya’s ambassador to Japan.

Buffalo country … grazing in the plains, volcanic hills a backdrop on the WRC Safari Rally route, Naivasha, Kenya. Picture/Courtesy ANWAR SIDI, Media Safety and Route Liasion WRC Safari Rally Project

Amb Awori is certainly not going to enter himself in a standard production Toyota, like his Toyota Kenya predecessor, Bromley. But in September 2019 when the Safari was admitted back to the WRC, Awori was in Japan watching the Rugby World Cup and reached about what that meant for Toyota in Kenya he said they would play their role to support the venture.

One could start seeing – with Toyota’s local vehicle manufacturing investment – the possibility of a return to a local sporting involvement

As they follow “just” a car’s performance in the coming Safari, it will start unfolding to Kenyans that the name Toyota, unlike in the old Safari days, is no longer just about a car.

The car will be putting in the limelight an amazing diversification of the giant Toyota operation in the region. Did you know that Toyota has supermarkets selling mkate na maziwa just like “Naivas” and “Mugunas”? Toyota Tsusho in December 2016 completed the takeover of French conglomerate CFAO (operators of the supermarket chain Carrefour widely expanding in Kenya, for 2.25 euros (about Sh261.89 billion). CFAO Africa is now Toyota Tsusho’s trading and investment vehicle in the continent. Their interest is in 165 firms in 49 African countries.

Zebra and Wildebeast cool off under the trees on Thursday as antelope grace in the scorching plains. Picture/Courtesy ANWAR SIDI, Media Safety and Route Liasion WRC Safari Rally Project

This is now what Toyota do in Kenya and the Eastern African region:

  • Automotive – Cars, other vehicles; merged Toyota Kenya with DT Dobie to sell other marques beside Toyota models- Kenya Vehicle Manufacturers (KVM) assembly plant in Thika and Toyota Kenya’s plant in Mombasa.
  • Machinery, Energy & Projects – such as geothermal generation and oil
  • Agricultural – equipment, chemicals & fertilizer
  • ICT solutions
  • General trading – they, for instance, through “Carrefour” supermarkets

Toyota are now doing things, not just about vehicles, that resonate with the rural African farmer or peasant. They are involved in fertiliser blending through a plant in Eldoret. It is for potato, maize and rice (Mwea) based specifications. First they set up distribution of tractors then started sensitizing farmers in partnership with international research agencies.

Phase three will be to go through post-harvest initiatives such as storage, processing and even growing crops. They say they have, for example, invested in a large scale farm in Zambia to test the waters. They say theirs is not just to sell (farm products) but get involved in agriculture.

In Kenya’s infrastructure development, Toyota are involved in the Lokichar-Lamu pipeline project and other two pipelines meeting in Juba (Southern Sudan). They were interested in also Hoima (Western Uganda) to Lokichar and another from South Ethiopia to Isiolo. They said a study had shown it was a viable investment which would be transformative in helping the whole region export oil.

Toyota have built two geothermal plants in Olkaria, Naivasha – stomping ground for rally cars in one of the Safari special stages in June – with a capacity of 140MW each and intend to bid for more projects in order to go all the way to be an independent power producer. They are also looking at going into solar power on a B2B (business to business) basis because solar power trade is taking off in Kenya.

Clearly following the Toyota as the odds-on favourite car to star in the forthcoming WRC Safari will be witnessing an interesting mix of “pleasure and business”

  • Dispatch by Media Department WRC Safari Rally Project, with additional reporting from Business Correspondents

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