One man’s vision

When South Africa emerged from the apartheid era in the mid-1990s, it was common to hear a plea to the world not to forget Africa simply because the apartheid battle was finished. Back then, “not forgetting Africa” largely meant international aid. Fortunately, that postcolonial view is now outmoded, as the West is learning how to interact with the African continent in a more productive way. 

Nairobi-born Arnold Kioko Muthui is the perfect example of how much Africa has to give back to the world. Growing up in the US, he returned to Kenya to attend high school and later studied in South Africa before dropping out of college to pursue a career in the trucking industry. Ever since, he has worked as a graphic designer for a global truck brand, as a fleet statistician, and for a multinational vehicle dealer as a sales representative – unknowingly shaping the face of Africa’s young, aspiring transport industry.

Today, Muthui is busy building his own business, Commercial Vehicle Concepts Limited. While aimed at bringing cost-effective technology to the vast and varied continent that can help the local commercial road transport industry address pressing issues like fuel siphoning, Muthui’s vision goes far beyond selling off-the-shelf componentry.

Q: Mr Muthui, how did you get into trucking?
A: As far back as I can remember, I have been passionate about heavy trucks and road haulage, so participating in the trucking industry was inevitable. When I was around 10 years old, I saw the Mercedes-Benz EXT-92 on a TV show, for example. I may have been only a child, but I was completely amazed. From that moment on, it has been my dream to design the highly efficient and productive trucks of the future. I cannot even imagine being this involved in another field.

Q: At the moment, truck design still is a hobby for you. What motivates you to keep going?
A: Truck design is quite fun when one has a good understanding of the challenges involved as well as a vision for the future. My motivation comes from within, as it is my dream to see highly efficient and productive trucks on highways across the world.

Q: Where do you draw inspiration from?
A: I draw inspiration from the trucking industry itself and my day job at Commercial Vehicle Concepts Limited. The industry faces ever-increasing challenges and solutions are not immediately available. This really inspires me to think outside the box. Luigi Colani, as a designer, also inspires me. While his designs are much different from mine, he truly challenges the old box shape.

Q: So, will we eventually see a design office emerge from the Commercial Vehicle Concepts business we know today? What will it stand for?
A: Hopefully. Five years from now, I will have built my business into an important and revolutionising force in the trucking industry. As diesel would be even more costly by then, we will have further fuel-saving solutions, from lightweight and aerodynamic semi-trailers and truck bodies, to advanced driver performance measuring and management systems.

Q: What is it that fascinates you about the truck as a design object?
A: Unlike other products, trucks face numerous constraints. One has a very small window in which to innovate. Legislations govern the dimensions, weights and configurations that trucks should meet. Furthermore, carriers, shippers and drivers impose their own requirements, and this creates a fascinating design environment. Besides, trucks are simply awesome machines. Everything about them is extraordinary, from the way they look to the way they operate.

Q: Do you think the trailer itself is often overlooked in that context?
A: Modern prime movers are really pushing the design envelope, yet contemporary trailer design has barely scratched the surface. I often wonder why this is the case, as a trailer is just as important as a prime mover and greater savings and profits could be obtained by improving on its design.

Q: In your own work, you seem to look at the two as one unit. What kind of reaction have you received after publishing your work online?
A: The reactions have been mostly positive, with many constructive comments and helpful suggestions. Whether positive or negative, I take each reaction seriously, since feedback allows me to become a better and more relevant truck designer.

Q: Plus, it scored you a contract with Daimler Trucks in North America…
A: Yes. Working with the Advanced Engineering department of Daimler Trucks North America for a while was undoubtedly one of the most exciting experiences in my life thus far. It was a great learning opportunity, because I associated with individuals who were at the very top of their profession on a regular basis. Furthermore, working under the guidance of these amazing individuals built my design skill and knowledge base to an extent that I can now tackle very challenging tasks.

Q: What are you working on at the moment?
A: A common theme among the reactions I have received online was the need to use more rail freight transportation, not larger trucks, to handle increasing freight volumes. While such arguments used to infuriate me, I now recognise their merits. As a result, I am now working on a revolutionary container/chassis semi-trailer that allows the economies of fixed body semi-trailers to be achieved with a demountable body configuration. I believe demountable bodies – be it a container, a swap body, or an amalgamation of the two – are the foundation of future trucking, as they can facilitate co-modality seamlessly.

According to Arnold Kioko Muthui, trucks move about 95 per cent of all surface freight in Kenya due to the poor state of the nation’s rail infrastructure, which was built more than a century ago. There are roughly 50,000 trucks registered on Kenyan roads, with about 4,000 articulated vehicles joining the fleet each year. The industry is still dominated by a few large fleets, although lower financing costs and requirements are now making truck ownership more easily accessible. Despite that development, though, most small and medium-sized transport business still opt for used imports from the UK and Japan. European 6×2 mid-lift prime movers are extremely popular, for instance, generally coupled to locally manufactured 3-axle semi-trailers – even though new trucks may be the more suitable option.

Q: Where do you see the Kenyan truck and trailer market as compared to Europe?
A: The Kenyan truck and trailer market is not as sophisticated as it is in Europe. In Europe, for example, trucks are specified for maximum fuel efficiency. However, in Kenya, where diesel costs are lower and freight rates are higher, fuel-efficient specifications are rarely considered. Air deflector kits are even removed in vain attempts to reduce weight!

Furthermore, safety and environmental friendliness are irrelevant. For example, technologies like ABS, EBS, RSS are unheard of in locally manufactured semi‑trailers. As used imports from the United Kingdom are arriving with modern SCR systems installed, the removal of these systems, along with the remapping of ECUs, is a booming business, even despite the fact that AdBlue is locally available.

Q: So simplicity and price are still the main selling points?
A: Yes, the trucks that sell in Kenya are those that are affordable to buy and operate, simple to maintain and repair, and reliable day in and day out. For fleets with capital constraints, used imports or new Chinese trucks normally fit the bill. Nevertheless, these are often plagued by reliability issues. Personally, I think in this tough and harsh operating environment, reliable trucks are the key to delivering goods on time.

Q: Which is why your work is all about productivity and efficiency enhancement…
A: Correct. While it may not appear to be the case, productivity and efficiency are quite important here in East Africa. A few capable fleets will shell out almost twice the cost of a used import or a new Chinese truck for a new European truck to ensure maximum uptime.

Q: How does the rest go about it?
A: Some road hauliers employ destructive methods to enhance their performance. For example, those who try to improve their productivity will find overloading to be a simpler means to increase their revenues than using lighter trucks. Furthermore, if they seek to reduce their fuel consumption, very slow driving speeds and freewheeling down hills are easy methods to employ.

Q: On the side, you are marketing European semi-trailers in East Africa. Is it a tough market for a European product?
A: Indeed, I represent two European semi-trailer manufacturers in Kenya. While European products are generally held in high esteem here, especially prime movers, the market is not quite ready to pay the price for European semi-trailers. I suppose this is another example that the semi-trailer is often overlooked, for the fleets that purchase expensive new European prime movers will find these semi-trailers to be uncompetitive in price.

Q: How do you go about marketing the product in such a region? Would you say it’s different to what’s being done in Europe or the US?
A: Marketing these products here is challenging, since road hauliers are both uninformed and apathetic towards semi-trailer improvements. Therefore, marketing efforts would begin by educating prospective customers on the need for improvement. 

Q: Which mistakes do international companies make that come to Africa?
A: By not understanding the unique conditions, international companies make huge mistakes. What works fine in Europe or the United States will not automatically work in Africa. For example, European driving practices and maintenance standards are unlike those found in Africa, and this should be taken into account when designing trucks for the African market. Another mistake these companies are making is with their perception of the continent. Indeed, there are regions that have very bad roads, but there are also regions with very good roads. Heavy-duty prime movers with mechanical suspensions and hub-reduction drive axles are far from ideal for soft drinks distribution between Nairobi and Mombasa, where the road linking the two cities is virtually devoid of even small potholes.

Q: Which potential do you see in the (East) African market going forward?
A: With regional integration and huge infrastructure projects underway, East Africans will trade easily and more frequently. This will in turn create new demands for road haulage services and the supporting solutions – and hopefully my work can positively affect that development.

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