By Chijioke Ohuocha
LAGOS, Aug 11 (Reuters) - Ford Motor Company will start assembling its best-selling Ford Ranger pickup truck in Nigeria by the fourth quarter, as it expands in Africa and the Middle East, the U.S. automaker said on Tuesday.
The Nigerian assembly plant, in partnership with Ford dealer Coscharis Motors Limited, is the first outside South Africa, where Ford produces the Ranger for 148 markets.
"Nigeria is a priority market for us in sub-Saharan Africa," said Jeff Nemeth, the president and CEO of Ford Motor Company's business in sub-Saharan Africa.
"Depending on how Nigeria develops over time ... we are potentially looking at using our Nigerian plant to service West Africa," he told Reuters.
The auto market in Africa's biggest economy has huge potential but retails only a small amount of new vehicles annually, Nemeth said.
He said the sector is dominated by imported used vehicles, while limited financing for consumers to buy new vehicles and the absence of an industrial policy that would encourage suppliers to set up in Nigeria have stunted growth.
The Ikeja plant near Lagos will assemble the Ford Ranger using parts and components imported from South Africa. The plant will have the capacity to assemble up to 5,000 units annually, which will be sold in Nigeria.
Ford produces 85,000 units each year in South Africa, which are sold across 24 African countries.
"It would take between 1 to 2 months to take an order, build it and deliver it within the country. If you order from overseas it would take between 4 to 6 months," Nemeth said, noting that the benefit of the Nigerian plant was being close to its customers.
Rival automakers, Renault-Nissan, South Korea's Kia Motors and Germany's Volkswagen have announced plans to assemble vehicles in Africa's most populous nation.
(Editing by Louise Heavens)