There are two main concerns when renting a car in Senegal – cost, and security. We’ll explain both, and why it you shouldn’t skimp on either.
*This blog is pretty frank! It’s is not meant to scare you – it’s simply meant to inform you about the industry as it realistically stands, so that you can make informed choices for you, your family, or your staff.
Car Safety in Senegal
First, you should know that the car rental industry – actually, the car industry in general in Africa – has not been well-regulated yet. This includes insurance. The regulations may be on the books, but they are rarely, if ever, enforced. And rarely fairly enforced – you may often see a taxi, a bus, or a “clando” (clandestine, unregistered) car pulled over for a critical violation by a police officer, and then once they pay their “fee” to the officer, they drive away unscathed.
Therefore, things like brakes, tire pressure and grip, up-to-date safety certifications, emissions, and overall mechanical inspections are more lax than you are used to; for the car you are looking to rent or buy, as well as the other cars on the road. People may get an inspection with a mechanic, for their own cars or those they are renting/selling, but (a) the mechanic might not have a sufficient level of knowledge and training to see what’s wrong, or (b) the car owner might not have the financial means to fix what is wrong – so they will just not say anything. When I once asked someone when the used car he was renting had last had its tires replaced, he stared blankly at me and replied, “Why would we change the tires?”
Where Do Cars in Senegal Come From?
The vast majority of cars in Senegal are used – or salvaged/total losses – from Europe or North America. Sometimes they are also stolen, but this has been cracked down on quite a bit by the customs officials at the port. The trouble is, you don’t know which one they are, once they’ve entered the market. They could be perfectly harmless used cars that have been imported and resold, or they could be salvaged cars with expensive or unfixable problems that were discarded in other countries for not meeting the safety requirements. If you ask, “Is this a salvaged car?” They will always respond, “No!” either because they don’t want to lose your business, or because the car has changed hands so many times that they sincerely don’t know.
You will also see extremely old vehicles on the road – we’re talking 50+ years old -- that you will be surprised are even allowed or able to drive at all. This is because the Senegalese government categorically turns a blind eye toward getting rid of old or dangerous vehicles, especially for public transportation (taxis, “clandos”, buses, or “7-places”). They may feel that forcing people to get rid of these cars would either (a) be a huge cost and ordeal to discard these cars somewhere, and also (b) a loss of livelihood and source of income for many people hovering over the poverty line.
So what are the options for buying or renting a car – and what should you look out for?
Even the nicest-looking cars you can find, which are parked at the most legitimate roadside “dealerships,” which seem clean, organized, with an official-sign out front and a tent to cover the vehicles, and sell you “insurance,” are not 100% guaranteed. And price will still be a bit higher, at a minimum of 25,000 CFA / day for a tiny 4-door sedan (after negotiating), or ~$50/day.
In order to understand the risks and benefits, it’s a good idea to understand how this segment of the market works. These roadside dealerships are owned by Senegalese businessmen who either have citizenship or residency in Europe or North America, or have a Senegalese partner in these places, who’s business model is to purchase used cars from dealerships, individuals (Craigslist) – OR they have a salvage license, which allows them to buy cars which were total losses, in accidents, or who failed the local safety/emissions testing. They then send these cars in shipping containers to Senegal, which are then imported by the local partner, and driven to the roadside dealership, and kept in the parking lot. Occasionally, they will go through an official inspection at a local mechanic, (but if they don’t “pass,” there is always a “solution.”) They will sign up for insurance, which includes showing the title and registration paperwork, and this will give them a certificate to keep inside the vehicle – but doesn’t necessarily guarantee a claim will be respected in a timely manner.
When my parents came to visit Senegal, we rented a Peugeot from one of these places, that seemed in good working order, (the manager had said that all of his cars were inspected monthly by a mechanic), but we had a very dangerous problem after only about 3 days of driving outside of Dakar. When the car would slow to under ~5 miles per hour (~10 kilometers/hour), it would stall/turn off. This was every time we slowed to go over a speed bump, stop at a stop sign, or slow for a passing animal on the road – which became extremely dangerous. We called the owner of the dealership, and he didn’t have any solution for us, and didn’t want to make an insurance claim (probably because his monthly payments would increase), and we were miles from a mechanic.
We luckily made it back to Dakar, and returned the car to him, cutting out trip short, and I am fairly certain the owner did not pay to fix the problem before renting to someone else.
If you or your company has the means, it’s safe to say that buying a new car directly from the dealership in Dakar is the best – and most expensive! – option. These companies are taxed a lot by the Senegalese government, as well as at the port for customs and duties fees, so their vehicles are pricier than you would find in other countries. There is also less competition in Senegal for luxury or even original cars, so their prices can be twice as expensive as in countries with more competition – sometimes even more.
You can find most car brands here in Dakar; including Toyota, Hyundai, Land Rover, Jeep, BMW, Mercedes, and more.
Be careful, though, about their return policies and maintenance care. In the United States, for example, you have a 30-60 day buy-back guarantee for a used car from a dealership – for a brand-new car, you can expect a warrantee and at minimum a free routine service, from the dealership, for at least the first 80,000 miles. However, in Senegal, there are generally no returns on literally anything you buy. Stores do not give refunds – even if the item you bought was defective, and especially if you simply changed your mind.
If you suspect something is wrong with the car you just bought, they may work with you to fix it – but they will never just give you your money back. So be absolutely sure before buying a car – and at the very least, ask specifically about their return and maintenance policy.
(Unofficial) Individual Renters
Not very long ago, my husband and I rented a Ford Focus from a friend for a large discount (15,000 CFA/day (~$30). I usually do not condone renting from individuals, nor do it myself, but in this case the person was a trusted friend, who I knew did routine maintenance inspections here in Senegal. He is familiar with the safety expectations of renters, and takes the responsibility to make sure his cars are in good condition before giving them to someone for the weekend. The car had just been to the mechanic two weeks prior, and also was up-to-date on its insurance policy. I checked the car’s breaks, fluids, lights, and tires before leaving with my husband for the weekend.
After arriving in Saly, the next day my husband just left the house when the front axle came unglued from the wheel on the driver’s side. It just – bump! – popped off. Again, luckily he was only going about 10 miles per hour on a sandy side road, but God forbid we had been on a busier road, going faster, with other cars around us. It would have been very bad news indeed. We were able to call a local mechanic to come take a look, who was able to re-attach the wheel to the axel. We drove VERY slowly all the way back to Dakar the next day, and sent pictures as proof to my friend, who paid for the repairs and was “very sorry.” He said it had to have been his mechanic who overlooked the problem.
Senegal had many, many individuals selling cars. They are not licensed, not taxed, and deal completely in cash. They work similarly to the unofficial dealerships, in that they have contacts abroad who purchase the used cars – in various states of safety and repair – and take care of the import process. They try to sell the cars as quickly as they can, and take a cut for themselves, and rent them in the meantime before they sell. In this business model, you can easily see why it is not in their best interest to ensure that a car is in good working order – especially if it’s a costly repair – it means less money for them. There is a general attitude of “They’ll be fine,” and just to hope for the best. Or they sincerely do not know the state of all of their vehicles, as they rarely drive them.
I would strongly advise against renting a vehicle – or purchasing one -- from an individual seller, for the sole reason that you will have no way of knowing what you will be getting. There has also been many cases of scams; where you pay your deposit to hold the car based on a picture, and expect the person to deliver the keys, or wait until the car is imported, and the car never comes. It’s just not a good idea to go this route, even though you may think you are saving a significant amount of money.
Credible Rental Companies
It’s difficult to know which companies are credible, and which aren’t, as you can imagine.
The best way to be sure, is to ask us for the official recommendation list of vetted partners, who have experience with foreign safety requirements and can meet the expectations of foreign embassies, consulates, and international NGOs. These are the most sure – and slightly more expensive – way to go.
Importing Your Own Vehicle
If you are savvy with import and customs regulations, have experience with shipping containers, and are in touch with a “Transitaire” at the Dakar port, importing your own vehicle would be the best way to go. You know your own car, and whether or not it’s up-to-date on its safety and emissions. Just be prepared to pay a significant percentage (between 20-30% of the estimated value of the car) in customs and duties taxes.
If you need assistance with importing your own vehicle, feel free to contact us and we’d be happy to give you a hand.
We hope this blog was helpful! If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.