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Africa boosts homegrown e-mobility in bid to curb emissions

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A few tricycles can bring massive change to a poor, rural strip like Wedza in eastern Zimbabwe. The front wheel of the electric vehicle could have come from a motorcycle, while the back half features a cargo area. Locals use the tricycles, dubbed hamba, to transport goods and people — they’ve even served as mobile vaccination centers during the region’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

For Susan Chapanduka, a chicken, horticulture and tobacco farmer, the hamba is more than a symbol of progress. “We were using wheelbarrows or ox-drawn carts to go to the market. It was laborious and expensive, especially for me. I did not own an ox-drawn cart. So I would have to hire the cart,” she told DW.

With the hamba, Chapanduka’s trip to the market is faster and cheaper than before. Now, she has enough left over to pay her children’s school fees and fertilizer for her crops.

The hamba is assembled in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, by the social enterprise Mobility for Africa. According to the firm’s founder, Shantha Bloemen, electric mobility plays a crucial role in fighting climate change. “If you think about green and electric transport, which doesn’t mean you have to import expensive dirty petrol, you can actually transform rural areas and build really vibrant local economies,” Bloemen told DW.

Three years ago, Mobility for Africa launched its pilot phase in Wedza to prove to future investors that the concept is viable. Each of the 50 tricycles is shared by a small group of women like Susan Chapanduka. The leasing fee is around $15 (€13.75) per month, plus small fees for each battery charge.

Electric mobility on the rise

The hamba isn’t an isolated case. Different types of electric mobility are gaining popularity in many parts of Africa — though that doesn’t necessarily mean electric cars like those being rolled out in the Global North, where only the wealthy can afford them.

Economic factors are making electric mobility more attractive in Africa, explained Marah Köberle, an expert on African mobility with the Siemens Foundation in Germany. “Higher fuel prices, as well as lower prices for batteries and solar PV panels support the shift towards e-mobility,” Köberle told DW.

This is especially true for private passenger motorbikes, which are in heavy demand for short, quick journeys in many African cities.

Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, for example, has around 26,000 motorbike taxis. To meet its climate goals, the Rwandan government aims to electrify 30% of the fleet by the end of the decade in cooperation with UN organizations.

Several startups have been launched to remove old engines from motorcycles and retrofitting them with electric gear.

No oil change, service needed

One of the startups is Rwanda Electric Mobility, which has so far retrofitted around 125 motorcycles. “You don’t need oil, our motor is service free, you don’t need to service the chain, it doesn’t have chains, all those costs they are kept by the rider,” said Maxim Mutuyeyezu, head of the technical department.

Köberle of the Siemens Foundation, who monitored a pilot project using electric motorcycles in western Kenya, said some drivers were able to increase their savings by 30% by saving on the costs of bikes with internal combustion engines. “Some of the riders are really enthusiastic, they said it’s the first time in their life they have the feeling they can save some money,” she said.

The batteries used by most electric motorcycle projects in Kenya, Rwanda and the greater region can be swapped out, ensuring riders don’t have to waste time on charging. Instead, they drop the empty battery at a designated swapping station for a full one, which takes as little time as filling a tank with gasoline.

The batteries remain company property, which is helpful for riders. “The battery is still the most expensive part of the motorbike,” said Köberle. This reduces the cost and minimizes the economic risk of battery failure.

Solar buses made in Africa

However, swapping batteries in larger vehicles isn’t always possible, or feasible. This is why Ugandan company Kiira Motors came up with another innovative idea: using solar energy.

“One of the beauties we have as a nation is that we are located along the equator, and we receive sunshine eight hours consistently throughout the year,” said Allan Muhumuza, head of marketing for Kiira Motors.

One charge of the solar panel on the bus’ roof can allow the 49-seater to travel up to 300 kilometers (186 miles), enough for a regular day in operation.

However, electric buses are still rare in Africa. Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, just put its first two into service last year.

A bigger rollout is planned for Dakar, Senegal. By the end of 2023, it’s hoped a new commuter bus network to the suburbs will decongest traffic, with all of its 140 buses running on electricity.

But there’s also innovation happening far from the capitals. In the northeastern city of Maiduguri in Nigeria, DW met entrepreneur Mustapha Gajibo in his workshop. His electric 12-seater bus has a range of 200 kilometers and is also equipped with solar panels.

Gajibo’s hopes for his projects goes far beyond Maiduguri. “My vision is to be the leading manufacturer of electric vehicles not only in Nigeria but in the whole world,” he said.

Electric mobility has some obvious benefits — they’re free of emissions, harming neither the climate nor the health of the local population. Mobility expert Marah Köberle sees yet another advantage. 

“This shift to e-mobility also brings the chance for a stronger focus on the ‘Made in Africa’ brand,” she said.

Source : Deutsche Welle