Leaders reveal thoughts on Akio's recent messages

2020.04.19

Toshimitsu Imai, COO for Africa Division, Toyota Tsusho Corp.

Kagawa

Next, we have Mr. Imai, head of operations in Africa, who has kindly joined us for an online remote interview. Mr. Imai, welcome.

Imai

Thank you, I’m happy to be here.

Kagawa

I’m Teruyuki Kagawa, Editor-in-Chief of Toyota Times. I look forward to talking with you today.

Imai

I enjoy reading Toyota Times.

Kagawa

Thank you. Mr. Imai, I am told you are an expert on Africa, to the extent that President Toyoda calls you “Mr. Africa.” Is that right?

Imai

I’ve lived in the region for more than a decade over all, in places like South Africa, Kenya and Madagascar.

Kagawa

Wow.

Imai

My work has been related to Africa for over 30 years. My child was also born in South Africa. Africa is my life.

Kagawa

Africa is your life! That’s amazing, isn’t it? Instead of “life is full of variety” you say that Africa is your life? I think that’s wonderful. Madagascar is one place I haven’t been to that I would love to visit. Isn’t Madagascar full of insects? I’m a great fan of insects!

Imai

Oh, I hear you’re an expert on insects?

Kagawa

Yes, I love them.

Imai

There are a great deal of unique insects in Africa.

Kagawa

The biodiversity is just amazing. The baobab trees, butterflies over the chameleons… But we can’t really air any of that, so we’ll have to move along. (laughs)

Where are you at the moment, by the way?

Imai

I’m in Tokyo.

Kagawa

Oh, in Tokyo.

Imai

I would prefer to be in Africa, but at the moment I’m covering Africa while working in Japan.

Kagawa

Is that so? In what country was your most recent stay, and until when were you staying there?

Imai

I was in South Africa around mid-February. I usually spend around two weeks of every month in Africa. With 54 countries in all, I start from the north of Africa and do the rounds and visit most of them once every three months or so.

Kagawa

You do the rounds? Does that mean visiting all the plants, the production and sales locations?

Imai

Of the 54 countries, only South Africa has a major Toyota plant. Each country has a distributor. Toyota has around 600 dealerships throughout Africa. You can buy Toyota parts and get your car serviced even in rather rural areas.

Kagawa

Under normal circumstances, you go around and check on these places to see how they’re doing. Now that we find ourselves in the midst of this crisis, how exactly has the situation changed?

Imai

South Africa, Nigeria and Morocco are all under lockdown. At the main African mother plant in South Africa that I mentioned, Toyota South Africa, has currently suspended operations for five weeks starting from March 27.

We are suspending production now, but many of the cars we produce here are cars serving as lifelines that people’s lives depend on, so we can’t let such vehicles stop running. So our dealerships continue to stay open for service, with the 600 dealerships I mentioned working hard to deliver parts for as long as they can.

The customers of these dealerships include organizations like the Red Cross, UNHCR, the organization that delivers food to refugee camps, and the WFP, the World Food Program and so forth. Lives depend on whether these organizations can keep their cars running, and people can face other problems aside from COVID-19. Toyota staff all around Africa are working hard, really doing their best, to make sure these cars keep running.

Kagawa

In South Africa, for example, are there any other support activities?

Imai

We produce minibuses. There are around 300,000 minibuses on the streets of South Africa. Out of concern that customers may be infected with COVID-19, we began distributing free disinfectants to minibus drivers, for example.

We also made “Toyota COVID Protect Yourself” T-shirts that encourage people to look out for their own health. We had different ones telling people to wear masks, wash their hands, avoid hugging and so on. We also had billboards as part of a campaign to promote safety during commutes to work in South Africa.

Kagawa

If this situation continues for several months, do you know what measures you plan to take?

Imai

I’m sure others have mentioned this, but at the beginning of March, in the message President Akio Toyoda shared with staff around the world, the president stated, “We are a family, and family takes care of family.” This implied that we are family, and this family will take care of its family members, so rest assured. But, at the same time, we were encouraged to do what we can in the short term to get through this together.

The message called for us to work through this together in the short term by supporting our immediate customers whose lives we are supporting and get through this together. We made sure this message was seen by everyone involved with Toyota in Africa. So even if this continues for several months, we will remember the president’s directive and will focus on doing what we can in the short term to get through this.

Another message we received was that spring will always come after winter, so, in the medium term, for example, we’re steadily making preparations to introduce new models.

Kagawa

Given your long involvement in Africa, I’m sure you are looking forward to returning and being able to move around freely again. At the end of the JAMA press conference, the president spoke about the joy of movement.

Imai

In Africa, movement involves cars. If you’re traveling into the hinterlands somewhere, you do so by car, likely a Land Cruiser. The scenery is beautiful—driving through the savannah, passing by lakes and seeing zebras, these places are truly filled with joys of movement. The coronavirus, however, has caused lockdowns for the immediate future, and I’m sure Africa will face various hardships. But I am looking forward to when we get through this so that Africa can once again taste the joy of movement with the help of Toyota cars.

Kagawa

Some 25 years ago, I also traveled through Kenya, starting from Nairobi. We must have traveled in a Toyota vehicle. In any case, roads in Africa are very rough, as you know. I remember bouncing along thinking there was no end to this.

I’m impressed that the car could handle it, but at the same time, that’s what roads are naturally like. So it’s probably nice for the car to take on such roads every so often. The thought just occurred to me now. Do you miss those roads too, being unable to return to Africa?

Imai

I love traveling down those roads in a Land Cruiser. In 2018, when we did the Toyota 5 Continents Drive in Africa, I took some time off work, about a week, and went to drive along with the event. (laughs)

Kagawa

(laughs)

Imai

It really was the joy of movement…

Kagawa

Do you have a message that you’d like to share with Toyota Group members around the world?

Imai

Let’s remain united as we work through this period. Then when the winter passes, we can move around together in spring once more.

Kagawa

Thank you very much. I really am looking forward to moving again.

Imai

As am I.

Kagawa

I really hope you can show me around Africa sometime.

Imai

Any time. I’d like to see a Toyota Times Africa edition…

Kagawa

Let’s do an Africa edition.

Kagawa/Imai

Kenko Daiichi!

Kagawa

Thank you.

Imai

Thank you.

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