Joshua Opoku Agyeman owns a secondhand car lot with a fleet of refurbished vehicles in Accra, Ghana.

For 13 years, Agyeman has been scouting online for old and used cars in the US, which he buys to resell.

“I have so many Ghanaians I am working with in America. And once I am done negotiating, I notify any of my partners in any location in the United States who do my shipments for me. And then, the container is shipped down here,” he said. 

Over 100,000 cars are imported to Ghana every year mostly from the United States. And 90% of the cars on Ghana’s roads are imported used cars. Many are either salvaged or obtained from accidents; plenty of them are more than a decade old.

At the same time, US consumers are snapping up electric vehicles — they are helping the country meet its climate goals, and new owners may qualify for a tax credit. And while many of their old cars that end up on Africa’s roads provide vital transportation in poor countries, they are often polluting and unsafe.

Kwesi Koranteng is a supervisor in the repair shop at Agyeman’s dealership.

“[The] majority of the people here in Ghana cannot afford brand new cars, so the demand for used cars is on the rise,” he said. “And so,when the used cars are in, we do the body work, fix the air conditioners, and do other servicing, too.” 

These older cars can lack air bags or anti-lock brakes and other safety features that drivers in the US take for granted.

Ghana’s National Road Safety Authority’s Pearl Adusu Gyasi said that efforts to discourage importing overaged cars have yielded very few results.

“What people are failing to notice is that every aging engine in these imported, rickety cars is a potential time bomb,” she said. “Affordability should never outweigh the value we place on our  lives.” 

Many older vehicles release a toxic cocktail of air pollutants. It’s common to see trucks and cars belching black smoke. Those vehicles typically lack modern emission controls. Or their catalytic converters, which filter the exhaust, are removed and sold for their valuable metals.

These cars are one of the reasons that Accra’s traffic-clogged streets are among the most polluted in the world, said Cordie Aziz of the Institute for Environmental and Sanitation Studies at the University of Ghana.

She said that, on average, air pollution here is 11 times higher than the World Health Organization sets as safe. 

“The air pollution becomes more centered in highly populated areas where you see a lot of vehicle traffic,” she said. “These are all areas that have shown to have higher levels of pollution based on the EPA sensors that were placed around the city. The situation is really alarming.”

In Accra, an estimated 40% of the city’s air pollution concentrations relate to vehicle transport emissions. 

Children who walk to schools alongside busy roads and informal vendors  lining the roads are most at risk of the health effects of these toxic fumes.

Aziz said that the enforcement of laws to check the situation is lax, putting people at risk of chronic respiratory diseases as well as contributing to climate change. 

The UN Environment Program has warned that the world cannot meet its zero-emission targets under the Paris Agreement on climate change unless efforts are made to regulate the used car trade.

“Africa is already bearing the biggest impact of climate change,” Aziz said. “We cannot allow it to become a dumping ground for used and rickety imported cars.”

But that is not all. When these used cars are no longer roadworthy, they end up in the hands of scrap dealers who dismantle them for various parts including the batteries.

Amina Yussif lives at Agbogbloshie in Accra, close to a car-battery smashing site that she said exposed her 4-year-old child to lead poisoning. She said that her child’s developmental milestones have been severely affected.

“When I found out that he had been exposed to lead, it was like my world came crashing down,” she said. “As a mother, seeing your child struggle with health issues every day is just heartbreaking.”

Pure Earth, a New York-based NGO along with the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, found that globally up to 800 million children have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood – a neurotoxin that can cause permanent brain damage.

Ghana tried to implement a ban on the import of used cars 10 years old or more in 2020. But the government backed down after pushback from importers. People now have to pay additional taxes when they import those old cars. 

But the business continues to thrive because imported old and used cars are still cheaper than foreign brands assembled in Ghana, like Volkswagen and Toyota.

Chineyenwa Okoro Onu, an environmental sustainability consultant  in Lagos, Nigeria, is concerned that Africa is fast becoming a graveyard for polluting cars.

“The worst-case scenario will be that these used cars will not meet the emission standards set by the country of origin and therefore, have even worse environmental impact in Africa. We deserve better as a continent,” she said.

She said as more people get rid of their old gas guzzlers to be environmentally friendly, the more used cars are likely to be exported to Africa. 

But Theo Acheampong, an energy economist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, said he disagrees: “Even in Africa, in Ghana, there is a big, growing momentum for electric transportation and other cleaner mobility solutions.”

He said that Ghana’s abundant lithium resources and advancements in extraction technology pave the way for battery manufacturing facilities.

Acheampong said the continent’s wealth of natural resources, including solar and wind power, can be harnessed to provide clean, renewable energy for effective public transportation.

“So, these buses could run on things like hydrogen, or they could run on electric batteries and that would allow a lot of people to move around without necessarily having to have their own private cars,” he said.

Onu has other solutions,too. She said that a range of incentives like tax breaks and subsidies can shift Ghanians to driving electric cars.

“To ensure that African countries like Ghanaians catch up with this transition for cleaner transportation, we need to incentivize the adoption of sustainable alternatives as much as possible,” she said.

Source: Ghana/ Karim Dini-Osman