Motorcycles with swap batteries and buses with solar panels on their roofs: African innovators have been working on ideas that support the climate, the local population and promote the “Made in Africa” brand.
A few tricycles can bring massive change to a poor, rural strip like Wedza in eastern Zimbabwe. The front of the electric vehicle would resemble a motorcycle if it wasn’t for the cargo area in the rear part. Local people use them to transport goods and people – the tricycles dubbed “hamba” even served as mobile vaccination centers during the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
Susan Chapanduka is a chicken, horticulture and tobacco farmer. The hamba is more than a symbol of progress to her. “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.
The hamba gets her to the market timelier and cheaper than before. Now, she has the resources to pay school fees for her children and fertilizer for her crops.
The hamba is being assembled in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare by the social enterprise “Mobility for Africa.” According to the firm’s founder, Shantha Bloemen, e-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), plus small fees for each battery charge.
Electric mobility on the rise
The hamba is not an isolated case. Different types of electric mobility are on the rise in many places in Africa. This is not necessarily connected to electric cars, as they are being rolled out in the global north — where only the wealthier can afford them.
Yet economic factors make e-mobility more attractive, as Marah Köberle, an expert on mobility in Africa with the Siemens Foundation in Germany, explains. “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-run passenger motorbikes, which are the backbone for fast short, distance journeys in many African cities.
For example, Rwanda’s capital Kigali has around 26,000 motorbike taxis. To meet their climate goals, the Rwandan government aims at electrifying 30% of them by the end of the decade and is thus cooperating with UN organizations.
This has attracted several start-ups to remove old engines from motorcycles and retrofit them with electric gear.
No oil change and service needed
One of them is Rwanda Electric Mobility. So far, they have 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;” Maxim Mutuyeyezu, Head of the Technical Department, told DW.
Marah Köberle of Siemens Foundation has monitored a project in western Kenya. She said some drivers could save up to 30% more money than when they used internal combustion engine bikes. “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,” Köberle told DW.
The batteries of most electric motorcycle initiatives in Kenya, Rwanda, and the greater region are swappable, ensuring the 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 up gasoline.
The batteries remain company property, which is helpful for riders. “The battery is still the most expensive part of the motorbike,” explains mobility expert Köberle. This reduces the cost and minimizes the economic risk of battery failure.
Solar buses made in Africa
However, swapping batteries for larger vehicles might not always be possible. This is why Ugandan company Kiira Motors came up with another innovative idea of 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,” Allan Muhumuza, Kiira Motors Head of Marketing, told DW.
The solar PV panel’s one charge on the 49-seater roof contributes to its 300 kilometers (186 miles) range, enough for a regular day in operation.
However, electric buses are still rare in Africa. Kenya’s capital Nairobi has just put its first two in service.
A bigger scale rollout is planned for Senegal’s capital Dakar. In addition, a new commuter bus network is supposed to decongest traffic by the end of 2023 – all of its 140 buses running on electricity.
But there’s also innovation happening far from the capitals. In Nigeria’s northeastern city of Maiduguri, DW met entrepreneur Mustapha Gajibo in his workshop. His e-powered 12-seater bus has a range of 200 kilometers and is also equipped with solar PV panels. Gajibo’s vision 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,” Gajibo said.
Electric mobility has some obvious benefits. They come emission-free and thus harm neither the climate nor the local population’s health. Mobility expert Marah Köberle sees yet another advantage. “This shift to e-mobility brings the chance that vehicles and mobility has a stronger ‘Made in Africa’ focus.”
Privilege Musvanhiri (Zimbabwe), Themistocle Hakizimana (Rwanda), Julius Mugambwa (Uganda), and Muhammad Al-Amin (Nigeria) contributed to this article, originally written in German.