Bob Geldof's intruiging efforts to intervene in the problems of the African continent via a series of Live 8 concerts set me thinking about an earlier, automotive attempt to improve the lives of people in Africa. An attempt that ended, hopefully unlike Live 8, in chaos and inprisonment.

Bob Geldof's intruiging efforts to intervene in the problems of the African continent via a series of Live 8 concerts set me thinking about an earlier, automotive attempt to improve the lives of people in Africa. An attempt that ended, hopefully unlike Live 8, in chaos and inprisonment.

The germ of this idea was sown in the early Seventies when an English journalist and photographer named Tony Howarth spent some time in Africa. He noticed that the cars people were driving were designed for the boulevards and highways of Europe and the US rather than the dirt roads of Africa, where they broke down and disintegrated with great rapidity, often before their owners had finished paying for them.

He figured that the indigenous farmer wasn't interested in stylish chrome trim, snazzy seat covers or the latest music features, but instead wanted something robust, cheap and practical to get their goods to market or themselves and their families to town.

Howarth decided he could build a vehicle better suited to the harsh African environment; he would call this vehicle The Africar. The first three cars he produced were an estate, a pick-up and a six-wheeled estate. To benefit the locals rather than Western corporations, they were to be made as much as possible from local materials by people not necessarily skilled in complex engineering. This materials question was perhaps Howarth's first mistake: he decided the Africar was to be built out of plywood!

I first became aware of this creation in the late Eighties when maybe six documentaries appeared on Channel Four, all about Howarth's cars. The films told the story of how the three Africars were driven to the Arctic Circle, then rather pointlessly turned south reaching the equator four months later.

It was an inescapable fact that the Africars bore an unfortunate resemblance to three sheds with wheels on. Another disturbing facet of the films, all produced by Howarth, was that the claims made for the performance, robustness and economy of the carsseemed too good to be true.

Sure enough, in July 1988 officers from the Lancashire Police, where the Africar's factory was situated, seized the company's documents and the landlord took back the factory. Tony Howarth was in the States when all this happened and didn't return until 1994 when he was arrested, charged and finally sent to prison.

Even if the cars had worked properly, it's unlikely African drivers would have wanted to be seen driving around in something that resembled an Ikea wardrobe. Like another observer of Africa's dark heart, those of us who saw the Africar were left muttering, "The horror, the horror!"

I don't know what significance this story holds for the noble efforts of Live 8, perhaps it is that change in Africa or anywhere else can only come from within not without. We should be finding out what the local population needs rather than imposing our vision of what's good for them.

motoring@independent.co.uk

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