What is in a car licence plate? Everything, if it is a personalised plate that is seen as a statement of individuality.
With more than 10,000 vehicles pouring on Kenyan roads during high seasons, according to the National Transport and Safety Authority database, a few car owners are opting for custom plates.
The many luxury cars on the roads have given rise to another must-have status symbol: a prestigious licence-plate number.
The mark of distinction comes with either having a name inscribed on the metal plate at a price of Sh1 million or getting one that matches with your lucky triple numbers, which costs Sh30,000.
The uptake of the Sh1 million custom plates is still low with only five Kenyans driving cars with their names or initials.
In the exclusive club of five is billionaire investor Chris Kirubi who owns three cars with personalised plates.
The other four cars are owned by Nairobi Senator Mike Sonko, flamboyant lawyer Donald Kipkorir, international football stars MacDonald Mariga and his brother Victor Wanyama.
Kenyans who revere lucky numbers and want them on their cars are more. Getting the special numbers was a logistic headache with no criteria to issue them despite the growing demand.
The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) in September introduced the Sh30,000 charge to clamp down on the triple licence plates frenzy and the fee has not subdued demand.
Jacqueline Githinji, the NTSA director in charge of registration, said car owners seeking triple numbers are willing to wait until a new series begins, ‘‘which depends on the rate at which new car registrations are happening.’’
Some car owners wait for up to two months, depending on the volumes of imports.
But some people shy away from the exposure that comes with driving a car with a personal label.
Mr Kipkorir said he is not scared of the exposure the personalised number plates give him, adding that it is a good revenue stream for the government as ‘‘all developed countries have a similar policy.’’
“Privatised number plates don’t create any security concerns at all. It is a basic issue of personal branding. It is also a vanity trip which life is all about. Personal helicopters by the way have privatised plates,’’ Mr Kipkorir wrote in response to a text message inquiry on why he chose the mark of uniqueness on the road.
Mr Kirubi was equally not bothered by the publicity the privatised numbers expose him to, saying he had nothing to hide from apart from the Sh1 million being a good revenue channel for the government.
“The practice of having private number plates happens all over the world. It is just like painting your house red because you like red and I see nothing peculiar with it. I have three because I paid Sh3 million and anyone who wants as much as five can pay and have it. You see I don’t fear anything because I have no shady deals to hide so I don’t mind being noticed,” Mr Kirubi said.
He has almost half the personalised number plates NTSA has issued and he said the low uptake was mainly due to the fees required for one to get it.
“People can pay little money to get a number plate, so this is just luxury and many cannot afford it. It is a matter of choice by the way but an expensive choice, so those who want it must pay for it. It (licence plate] remains exclusive forever because no one will entirely copy the other person’s initials and numbers,” the Nairobi-based businessman told BD Life.
Rules of the club
The NTSA allows those willing to play in this league a maximum of eight and a minimum of three characters in capital letters only.
Letters ‘O’ and ‘I’ are not allowed just as in the normal number plate series, but the big boys are allowed to break the rules if these letters are included in a complete word such as OKOTH!
As the appeal for triple numbers grows, the Sh30,000 payment has eased the registration backlog that was caused by dealers waiting for a series to change so as to have the triple number plates on their customers’ cars, causing a pile up of vehicles waiting to be registered at the port of Mombasa.
Distinctively, a majority of Porsche owners have taken the triple label distinction, a trend they adopted long before the charges were introduced. Ms Githinji said that people are willing to go an extra mile to have this uniqueness on their vehicles.
‘‘We have enabled them in a more organised way through this approach where they formally apply and get the triple numbers or any other unique numbers they have requested at a fee. Some, for instance, have more than one car and insist that they must all be 555Ws and we allow them to have it. They may have to wait a little longer sometimes when the triples in a particular series have all been booked,” she said.
Most are patient enough to wait to have the numbers of their choice on their cars.
Any car owner in the exclusive five-vehicles club willing to dispose of their machines bearing their names or special initials on the plates are, however, not allowed to transfer the car with the name attached. Instead, one has to surrender the plate and the vehicle is given its original registration before the transfer is done.
The distinct number plates are also vehicle specific and one is not allowed to keep transferring them from one vehicle to another. If they own another similar vehicle, one can apply to transfer the number plate and part with an additional Sh20,000.
“Where a person intends to use personalised identification plates on another motor vehicle upon disposal of a vehicle which initially had a personalised identification plate, a retention certificate may be issued by the Authority for a period not exceeding six months,” reads NTSA guidelines on the issuance of the special registration.
The transfer is made easy by the fact that the log book details remain with the original number plate, but the Traffic Commandant is informed about the ownership of the specific vehicle. If one is not using the special number plate for six months, it is returned to NTSA for ‘safe keeping.’
But not all cars are allowed to bear names of owners and chosen initials on the number plates though. Prohibited from this club include public service vehicles, trucks (whether private or for hire), ambulances, diplomatic cars, tractors and heavy machinery.
This rule does not, however, apply to the triple numbers or chosen numbers where people prefer to have representation of their years of birth or ‘lucky’ numbers on their car registration. Governors and those occupying their offices already enjoy the unique number plates that identify counties the vehicles come from.
A number of countries have benefited from sale of vanity licence plates in auctions to boost their coffers. In 2008, a businessman in Abu Dhabi bought a licence plate inscribed “1” at an auction for Sh1.43 billion.
Last year, in England, a retired businessman bought “1 RH”—his initials—for about Sh40 million. Also, Hong Kong has had a thriving auction for years, with the wealthy going to great lengths to secure custom tags. In one auction, a plate that read “STORAGE” was sold for Sh1.2 million.
In July, Uganda increased taxes levied on personalised number plates from Sh150,000 to Sh600,000.
In South Africa, cars have number plates identifying which provinces they come from including plate design and colours, as well as numbering scheme. Cape Town, for instance, has CA as the initial with the writing black on a white plate while Limpopo has the CHZ before the number series.
In Kenya, there’s room for vanity to grow as the club of dollar millionaires expands from the 8,962 reported this year.
The Knight Frank Attitude Survey released this year noted that the super rich are expected to splash out on collectibles such as classic cars.