When Rwanda’s president said last August that he wanted all of the country’s motorbikes to be electric as soon as possible, Ampersand’s waiting list exploded. The country’s first electric motorbike company now has about 7,000 drivers in line for its vehicles. The problem is it can deliver just 40 bikes by the end of March.
For Josh Whale, Ampersand’s CEO, the demand shows that Africa’s population isn’t content with second-hand trends from affluent countries. People are impatient for the most efficient technology.
“Countries here leapfrogged landlines and went straight to cell phones, and leapfrogged conventional finance to go straight to mobile money,” he said. “Now Africa’s growth is leapfrogging petrol to go to electric vehicles.”
The momentum on the continent is particularly strong in East Africa, the fastest-growing region, where the population is set to more than double by 2050 and big money is flowing into growing and stabilizing the electricity grid. Already, renewable energy accounts for almost 90% of the energy supply in some countries in the region, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Electric motorbike startups have sprung up across the region in the past two years to supply and manage the motorbike-taxi drivers who run the most common form of public transport in most cities. Ampersand and Safi, another startup, operate in Rwanda, where motorbikes are called motos. They’re mostly called boda-bodas in Kenya, where ARC Ride and Ecobodaa are launching soon, and in Uganda, where Bodawerk and Zembo are providing electric versions to local drivers.
Green technology adoption is growing in Kenya, where the government’s electricity producer has spent hundreds of millions of dollars drawing geothermal energy from the volcanic Rift Valley. That provides almost half of the country’s grid energy, which ARC Ride will use to charge its fleet of electric rickshaws and motorbikes, imported from India. From January, its drivers will work with Sendy and Amitruck, two of the country’s largest delivery companies, as well as carry people. ARC Ride’s electric vehicles will be among the first to compete with Nairobi’s petrol-powered motorbike taxis, which number over 100,000. The company says it’s in talks with Bolt to help supply drivers for their ride-share and delivery services. Bolt declined to comment on the specifics of its plans.
Most of the motorbikes on East Africa’s roads are cheap petrol bikes, usually imported from India or China in parts before they’re assembled, with noisy engines and high repair costs which drain drivers’ income. Electric bikes, on the other hand, are much quieter, have lower repair costs, and can have their batteries replaced in just a few minutes.
“Ever since I started driving an electric bike, I’ve had more money to bring home gifts for my children,” said Thacien Mbuzehoze, the first driver to buy a bike on a rent-to-own basis from Ampersand when it launched commercially last year. “Other drivers thought it was a gimmick. Over time, once I made more money, other drivers started approaching me to ask how I got it.”
Electric bikes, which have zero direct emissions, are also good news for the region’s air quality. In many cities, East Africa’s pollution is considerably above levels considered to be safe by World Health Organization. Air quality in Uganda’s capital Kampala is more than 10 times over the WHO’s safe level.
There are still difficulties in the growth of electric vehicles in the region, where electrification is low and regulatory policy is young. In 2018, Kenya’s president promised to steer the country toward 100% renewable energy consumption by 2020, but has been slow to legislate how it will get there. In Rwanda, where only half the population has access to electricity, the government’s aim to roll out access to everyone by 2024 remains a challenge.
“Political instability is perhaps the most significant challenge,” said Christoph Domke, an energy specialist and senior director at FTI Consulting. “But there is considerable good will towards renewable projects in a number of East African countries.”
There’s hope that electric-vehicle demand will also push governments to flood their grid supplies with renewable energy. Once it’s set up in Kenya, ARC Ride is planning to roll out electric vehicles in Rwanda, where it will hook them up to charging stations at solar mini-grids built by ARC Power, its sister company. In the scorching equatorial sun, the batteries from solar panels are usually fully charged by 11 a.m., so there’s always a huge surplus of battery power there to be used.
“We all need to reach this tipping point of electric vehicles — and the tipping point is there for the taking in many mass markets,” said Ampersand’s Whale. “In East Africa, the market’s ready to go. Policymakers see the benefits in terms of saving money, in terms of fuel savings and in terms of grid capacity. It’s waiting on us.”
Todd Gillespie writes for Bloomberg.