For a poor, remote country like Wedza in eastern Zimbabwe, a couple of tricycles can change pretty much everything: The front half of the electric-powered vehicle resembles a motor scooter, with a rectangular loading area at the back. They are used as ambulances, taxis and even as a mobile vaccination center during the COVID vaccination campaign.

Susan Chapanduka raises chickens, grows vegetables and tobacco. For her, the “hamba” that she shares with other women is a huge step forward: “We used to use wheelbarrows or ox wagons to get to the market. It was exhausting and expensive, I always had to rent the ox cart,” Chapanduka told DW. Although she also pays for the “Hamba”, she gets to the market punctually and cheaper with the vehicle. Unlike before, she has enough money left to pay her children’s school fees and to buy fertilizer for her crops.

The “Hamba” is being built by the start-up “Mobility for Africa” ​​in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare – the vision behind it, as founder Shantha Bloemen explains to DW, is “to transform rural areas and build vibrant local communities”. Three years ago, the first 50 vehicles were brought to Wedza to prove to future investors that the concept works. Susan Chapanduka and the other women – the “Hamba” is specially adapted to the needs of women – pay around $15 a month for rent per vehicle plus a smaller amount for each battery charge.

The “Hamba” is not an isolated case: In many places in Africa, electromobility is on the rise in very different forms. Even if it does not affect the classic e-cars, which are also reserved for the more affluent in the Global North.

In addition to the obvious argument of lower CO2 emissions, there are a few reasons in favor of electric power in Africa, explains Marah Köberle from the Siemens Foundation: “Higher petrol prices and lower costs for batteries, but also photovoltaic panels support the switch to e-mobility.”

One area in which a start is being made is the mostly privately operated motorcycle taxis, which are an integral part of many African cities. In Rwanda’s capital Kigali alone, it is estimated that around 26,000 motorcycle taxis are on the road. With the support of the United Nations, the East African country wants to convert 30 percent of them to electric motors by the end of the decade in order to achieve its climate goals. In Kigali, several start-ups therefore offer what is known as retrofitting: the engine block on conventional motorcycles is removed and replaced with an electric motor.

“Our engines no longer need oil, no more maintenance, there isn’t even a chain that needs maintenance. So the driver saves all these costs,” Maxim Mutuyeyezu from Rwanda Electric Mobility told DW a few months ago. To date, his company has converted around 125 motorcycles. This initially costs a self-employed driver several months’ salary, but is significantly more profitable in the medium and long term.

The mobility expert Marah Köberle, who specializes in Africa, has scientifically accompanied a project in rural Kenya – thanks to the lower operating costs, drivers there could build up 30 percent higher reserves: “Some of the drivers are very enthusiastic – they say it is the first time in their lives that they can save something. Considering that many live below the poverty line, saving $30-40 is a big achievement that gives families some leeway.”

What many motorcycle projects in Kenya, Rwanda and other countries have in common: The batteries in the motorcycles can be replaced – instead of long charging times, drivers can simply drive to a collection point where replacing them takes no longer than it used to be a visit to a gas station. This also reduces the economic risk for the driver, Marah Köberle told DW: “The battery is still the most expensive part of an electric motorcycle. With the detachable model, drivers only pay for the battery charge, which also means they don’t take any risk if the battery needs to be replaced at the end of its life.”

In larger vehicles, such a battery replacement is often less practicable – so long charging times may have to be planned for electrically powered buses. In order to shorten this, the state-sponsored Ugandan car manufacturer Kiira Motors uses solar cells on the bus roofs: “In our country we are lucky that we are on the equator and therefore have eight hours of sunshine a day, all year round,” says Kiiras Marketing DW boss Allan Muhumuza. Thanks to the additional power of the solar cells, the bus with 49 seats has a range of 300 kilometers – enough for a normal day of use.

E-buses are still a rarity in Africa, in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, for example, the first two went into regular service in 2022. But what is certain is that there will be more. In Senegal’s capital Dakar, for example, a new bus network is to better connect the suburbs at the end of the year and thus relieve commuter traffic – all of the at least 140 buses are to be electric.

Electrical solutions are also being worked on away from the capital cities: In Maiduguri in north-eastern Nigeria, for example, the founder Mustapha Gajibo has developed an electrically operated twelve-seater that could connect rural areas with a range of 200 kilometers. At a meeting with DW a few months ago, Gajibo was already thinking far beyond his region: “My vision is that our company will become the leading manufacturer of electric vehicles not only in Nigeria but in the whole world.”

In addition to the obvious positive aspects – electric motors do not cause any exhaust gases that would have a negative impact on the climate or the health of people on the side of the road – mobility expert Marah Köberle emphasizes another point: “The switch to e-mobility also offers the opportunity for more ‘Made in Africa’.”

Starring: Privilege Musvanhiri (Simbabwe), Themistocle Hakizimana (Rwanda), Julius Mugambwa (Uganda) Muhammad Al-Amin (Nigeria)

Autor: David Ehl

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The original of this article “How electric pioneers make Africa mobile” comes from Deutsche Welle.