By Jason Hopps
Nairobi — I’ve seen just about everything here.
Kenya’s capital is a bustling, vibrant, international city of 3 million people that attracts artists, investors, tourists, and traders from around the world. Tall buildings are rising at a torrid pace, and the multi-lane highways that crisscross the city are crammed with cars and buses — many of them belching thick, black exhaust.
Something I haven’t seen in Nairobi, however, are clean-running electric cars or buses. Not a Tesla, nor a Prius. Until recently, I hadn’t seen electric motorbikes or scooters here, either.
But that is about to change.
For years, I’ve been fascinated by the promise of electric vehicles — or EVs, as they’re known. They seem to embody a greener future: quiet, clean, and elegant (with the caveat, of course, that they still largely rely on fossil fuels to charge their batteries).
When I travel home to Canada, or to Europe and the United States, I’m amazed at how quickly EVs are filling up the roads. On a recent trip to London, almost every Uber I took was electric. Many of my friends and family members are buying electric cars, not only for the long-term cost savings and environmental benefits, but also because they look great and run well, too.
All this is possible because of rapid advances in technology coupled with government incentives and infrastructure development, including charging stations that now dot cities around the world.
But not in Nairobi. And with only a few exceptions, hardly anywhere in Africa. There are good reasons for this.
Electricity is expensive and notoriously unreliable in most of Africa. Distances are great — Nigeria alone is almost triple the size of Germany — and the infrastructure to charge and service EVs doesn’t yet exist.
Impact of demographics and climate
But demographics and climate considerations will create incentives for EVs here. Africa’s population is set to double to 2.5 billion by 2050, bringing more cars to the roads as living standards rise. African governments know that climate change will continue to extract high financial, health, and social costs — and that vehicles are a growing source of fossil fuel pollution.
To understand better why EVs are still scarce in Africa — and when they might finally be navigating Nairobi’s streets in numbers — I spoke with Kartik Gopal, IFC Senior Industry Specialist for Electric Vehicles.
Gopal has a long history in the EV sector, having led strategy for an EV automotive company and worked with consulting firms and the UNDP to develop the market for electric vehicles.
When we spoke, we talked about the 2006 documentary ‘Who Killed the Electric Car?’, which lamented the death of EVs — but prematurely, it turned out.
“It was a very good movie for its time,” Gopal said. “But here we are less than 20 years later, and rich countries have been rapidly adopting the technology … In fact, Norway is already 80 percent electric and other countries are coming close to that.”
Turning to Africa, Gopal listed numerous factors that are short circuiting an electric vehicle revolution on the continent. In addition to the access to power and charging infrastructure challenges, he also cited the long payback period for personal mobility EVs and the near total absence of subsidies from African governments to support the market.
Still, he said, it’s hardly the end of the road.
He told me that EVs for public and goods transport will likely lead the way in Africa—and that when bus fleets electrify in major cities, the infrastructure and know-how will help support the emergence of personal transport EVs on the continent, including scooters and motorbikes.
At a cavernous warehouse on the outskirts of Nairobi, the team at ARC Ride are eagerly awaiting the delivery of hundreds of electric motorbikes from India in the coming weeks.
Writer Jason Hopps, left, stands with workers at ARC Ride in Nairobi in its warehouse, which soon will be receiving more shipments of electric vehicles. Photo by: Jason Hopps/IFC
The company — ARC stands for ‘affordable, reliable, and clean’ — is one of several Africa-based start-ups seeking to build a market for EVs in Kenya and other parts of the continent. Launched in 2020 in the expectation that electric two-wheelers will eventually dominate Africa’s urban spaces, ARC designs its own bikes but accesses parts from Japan, China, and India. The R&D, assembly, sales, and marketing all happen in Kenya.
“We plan to roll out 4,000 bikes this year in Kenya along with charging and battery swap stations and then 10,000 bikes in 2023,” said Moses Nderitu, ARC Managing Director. “Our plan is to expand to Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, and to source more parts locally. So we have big ambitions.”
Rwanda is especially encouraging for EVs, Nderitu said, with its lower import duties and growing number of government-run charging sites.
ARC’s electric motorbikes run for about 70 kilometers (about 43 miles) on a single charge and offer battery-swap technology. The company wouldn’t give details on price but said it would be “competitive.” A main target market in Kenya is operators of motorbike taxis, known as boda bodas here, which ferry passengers around cities, nosing nimbly through traffic jams.
“The boda boda taxi drivers travel up to about 140 kilometers a day, so with our bikes they will only have to swap out a battery once, said Nderitu. “Once we establish a series of swapping stations in Nairobi and other cities, it will be very easy — and affordable — for them to run their bikes,” he said.
Along with ARC Ride, there is also Opibus, a Swedish-Kenyan technology company that has partnered with Uber to supply 3,000 electric motorcycles to Uber drivers in Kenya, and Basigo, which recently launched a 25-seater electric bus with a 250-kilometer range.
With EV manufacturers stepping up activities in Africa, so too are international development banks and financing companies, which are exploring investment opportunities.
One is pan-African asset financing company M-KOPA, which has helped millions purchase products and services such as solar kits, smartphones, and cash loans. I asked M-KOPA’s CEO and co-founder, Jesse Moore, about EVs. He was enthusiastic:
“Electric vehicles, especially electric motorbikes, is an exciting market that we believe will grow exponentially in Kenya and in other parts of Africa,” he said. “M-KOPA has plans to support this market and we expect to make announcements regarding partnerships soon.”
Meanwhile, IFC is exploring the potential of five African cities to support electric bus programs, and is also studying policy issues, including import duties, charging standards, and gender and social inclusion in the sector.
These developments are promising and point to a strong future for EVs in Africa. Still, the concept of electric transport remains novel in Nairobi. Will EVs gain traction in Africa? I asked my regular boda boda driver, Nicholas Kearg, for his thoughts.
Boda boda driver Nicholas Kearg on his gas-powered motorcycle. He says he would love to get an electric motorbike. Photo by: Jason Hopps/IFC
Kearg told me he now pays about 700 shillings a day for gas (about $6), up from 300 shillings only a year ago. With other running costs, including oil and oil filters, he said his profits are squeezed and that he needs to complete several trips a day just to break even.
He was excited when I described to him the benefits of electric bikes.
“If I could reduce running costs and have a reliable bike, I know I’d go for electric,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind paying a little more to buy one because right now I’m hardly making a living. When can I get one of these bikes?”
By most accounts, he won’t have to wait that long.
Jason Hopps is an IFC communications officer based in Nairobi.
Published in April 2022