Kyalami, Midrand - South Africa's motorcycle industry continues to be battered by declining sales, with only around 18 500 new bikes sold last year compared to more than 27 000 in 2014 - and a far cry from the 80 000 units sold at the market peak in 1980.
In a bid to reverse this trend in a country where bikes could provide an affordable alternative to millions of cash-strapped consumers - and at the same time help reduce road congestion - the motorcycle industry sought answers at a stakeholder summit last Friday at the Bike Festival at Kyalami.
Listening to the various speakers, the big theme of the event seemed to be ‘missed opportunities’. Even as gleaming new show bikes graced the stands in the Kyalami pits, the Autotrader-sponsored Motorcycle Industry Stakeholder Summit sought ways to convert more tyre kickers into buyers, and also to attract a new breed of customers into the two-wheeled fold.
Motorcycles and scooters have become immensely popular in many countries where commuters choose them for their affordability and traffic-beating convenience, but the trend hasn’t taken off here in any significant numbers.
There used to be a culture where many white South African teenagers swopped their bus tickets and bicycles for motorcycles when they turned 16, but post-Apartheid that culture hasn’t spread to other races.
With 66 percent of motorcycles in South Africa bought by white males, speakers at last week’s summit identified a huge untapped market of black consumers of both genders, in both the lifestyle and commuter categories.
“The market is essentially a white male industry, and we need to change that,” said Lachlan Harris, the national director of AMID (Association of Motorcycle Importers and Distributors).
His view was shared by Seipei Mashugane, the so-called “Biker Queen” who was official ambassador of the Bike Festival.
“The township commuter market needs to be infiltrated, and getting them to commute by bike. Motorcycles just aren’t marketed to these people,” said Mashugane, who has spent the past eight years of her 10 riding years creating the Biker Queen brand centred on the biker lifestyle, specifically black middle class riders in Gauteng.
Mashugane says her own journey into motorcycles started with bicycles, which unlike motorcycling is a popular activity that’s well marketed in Soweto.
Other industry speakers at the summit identified affordability and perceptions of poor safety as barriers preventing many people from buying motorcycles.
Affordability has been particularly hard hit in recent years with the depreciating rand, and even recreational riders are feeling the pinch with many large motorcycles priced from R180 000 to more than R300 000.
Motorcycle sales were also hit by the introduction of homologation rules in 2013, resulting in some of the bikes produced by the four major Japanese importers - Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki - not complying with new emissions rules. It meant that a number of mid-segment bikes that were designed for the Asian market could no longer be imported into South Africa.
It caused the over-500cc market to plummet, but small-motorcycle sales have recently increased. These smaller bikes have good affordability with starting prices of around R13 500 for a 125cc bike or scooter.
Aspiration and relative affordability needn’t be mutually exclusive either, with premium brands such as BMW offering a 300cc class motorcycle for just under R70 000 - about half the price of the cheapest new car you can buy.
But the other barriers to growing bike sales are difficult to surmount, not the least being the lack of weather protection on a motorcycle, the emergence of ride-hailing apps such as Uber, and also the safety aspect. In a country with our dismal road-safety record, motorcyclists are particularly vulnerable.
Not that minibus taxis are much safer, but it would still take a big paradigm shift to get the bulk of SA’s commuters to switch from minibuses to motorbikes - as badly driven as those taxis might be.
There’s no easy solution, but events such as last week’s motorcycle summit at least get people talking.