Efficient mass transit systems that reduce the number of private vehicles on the streets should be the preferred solution in the quest to reduce congestion and emissions in Africa’s growing cities. In most African cities, informal operators are the backbone of the urban commuter network, servicing urban commuter routes with 14- to 35-seater minibuses and motorcycle taxis known as Boda Bodas. In Kenya, estimates put the minibus and bus fleet at just over 100,000 vehicles. There are about 600,000 commercial motorcycles in Kenya, according to the Motorcycle Assemblers Association of Kenya. The minibuses are famously known as Matatus. Matatu is Swahili for the word three and it is believed the name stuck from the 1970s when the fare was 3p. With emissions from the transport sector accounting for a huge chunk of the pollution in Nairobi, converting these two modes of transportation to electric is bound to have a significant impact in reducing emission levels.
There is potentially quite a large addressable market for conversions as more and more of these motorcycles and Matatus age. A Kenyan startup, Opibus, is forging ahead with its plans to electrify old Matatus and Boda Bodas. Based in Nairobi’s industrial area just off the famous Mombasa Road, Opibus begins mass EV conversions of minibuses and motorcycles in Q1 2020. The company has been working with the Nairobi City County Government, the Minibus Owners Association, and the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) to get everything in place for the mass rollout. Opibus is currently offering battery packs built with prismatic Lithium Iron Phosphate cells in three battery pack sizes. These are the 30 kWh, 50 kWh, and 70 kWh packs with ranges of up to 140 km, 245 km, and 350 km (87, 152, and 217 miles) respectively depending on the weight of vehicle, terrain, and driving style.
In a clever move, Opibus identified off-road commercial vehicles as a quick win entry point into the market. Opibus has been converting safari vehicles for lodges in Kenya’s game parks and resorts. Converting game drive vehicles to electric makes a lot of sense. Several factors make this market ideal for conversions:
- Scheduled drives around national parks allowing for optimized, periodic EV charging sessions
- Well-defined routes and ranges of game drives
- Softer regulation governing vehicles for out of town, off-road, and rural use, allowing for immediate deployment of converted vehicles.
- Game lodges and resorts are often located in remote areas where it is usually expensive to get diesel and spare parts for servicing vehicles on site
- As a mature industry, there would be quite a high number of old safari vehicles with chassis and bodies still in good condition but needing a whole new drive train
- Higher vehicle utilization rates by fleet operators in the service industry lowering the total cost of ownership (TCOE). Higher annual mileage unlocks more savings from a diesel vs electricity spend. Opibus reckons for a 30,000 km | 18,641 miles annual cycle, and the payback for converting a Land Cruiser 79 series is about 4 years at a conversion cost of $37 000 when charging with solar.
- Unlocking more value for resort owners from existing or future assets such as solar microgrids for EV charging.
- Opportunity to appeal to a more climate-conscious tourist generation looking for greener holiday experiences
- Quieter rides allowing for closer interactions with animals.
Opibus’ plans fit quite nicely into Kenya’s National Climate Change Action Plan (NCCAP 2018-2023). The NCCAP has identified operational inefficiencies in the transport sector, heavy traffic congestion, and high fuel consumption as major contributor to high levels of GHG emissions. One of NCCAP’s strategic objectives (Objective 7b) is to establish efficient, sustainable, world-class transport systems and logistics services that withstand projected impacts of climate change. The transition to electromobility is one of the action points outlined in order to meet this objective. The NCCAP encourages the development of domestic technology for electric modes of transport. Research on the use of renewable energy for powering different modes of transport is also highlighted. Kenya’s electricity generation mix is already well above 70% renewable, with geothermal and hydro making up most of Kenya’s electricity generation capacity. Kenya plans to increase renewable energy generation penetration to 100% by end of 2020. All these electric vehicles will be charging of a very clean grid.
A 2018 paper by Fiona Raje et al., cites that 39% of CO2 emissions in Kenya are from the transport sector. Kenya is now making serious efforts to monitor and improve the level of emissions. Kenya has announced it will soon start testing vehicle emissions of vehicles older than 5 years. Suppliers of emission testing equipment are already looking into the Kenyan market. Kenya has been mulling capping the age of used cars that can brought into the country to 5 years. Currently, secondhand vehicles can be imported into Kenya if they are not more than 8 years old. In an economy where the majority cannot afford brand new cars and rely on importing used cars from Japan and England, this will result in the asking price of used cars going up. This could result in the numbers of vehicle imports going down. People will hold on to their current vehicles for a bit longer. As older vehicles get more and more expensive to maintain, conversion to electric could start to look more appealing especially for fleet operators. EV conversions around the world have traditionally been taken up as a hobby by EV enthusiasts or by small boutique garages restoring classic cars. If Opibus and any other firms entering this space target even a fraction of the 700,000 public service vehicles, EV conversions in Kenya could be going mainstream very soon.