Chinese car lust drives battery boom, bust in Kenya

ATHI RIVER, Kenya, April 27, 2006 (AFP) – China’s rapid expansion into Africa in search of fuel to feed its booming development needs is leaving a profound mark on the continent’s economies, often in little noticed sectors. And as Kenya hosts Chinese President Hu Jintao on his last stop in a three-nation African tour, the reverberations from Beijing’s skyrocketing wealth and clout are being felt throughout society.

Along with a readily apparent insatiable appetite for oil, surging demand from China’s growing middle class for cars is driving another, less visible, but perhaps equally important, craving: lead for automobile batteries.

Once content to sell their stocks of used batteries to local auto parts shops for recycling, in recent months Kenyan junk merchants have entered the international marketplace lured by the high prices offered by Chinese dealers.

As a result, the east African nation’s informal scrap dealers are flush with newfound cash from the Orient while its automotive supply industry faces potential ruin.

“They buy the batteries at 15 to 18 shillings per kilo and the local guys only 11.5 shillings,” says Steven Maina, a scrap dealer in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, and one of the beneficiaries