A lot of startups pop up from time to time with the “Next Big Thing” or the next big service offering in EVs. Most of the time they will be hyping some futuristic and to some extent, mythical new six-figure price tagged EV packed with all the “Bells and Whistles” that promises to do 0 to 100 km/h in under 2 seconds! Sometimes we wonder why more people aren’t looking into some more practical solutions to everyday problems like an EV for ordinary people and not some futuristic vaporware some startups promise in perpetuity. People just want to be able to get about safely and efficiently!
To be honest, at this stage 10 years after the first mass produced EV of the modern era, the Nissan Leaf, we just need more and more practical EVs that are widely available. High performance EVs have their place. We are not against people pushing the limits to improve tech. We would just love to see more EVs and mobility as a service firms that are focused on addressing some real life problems and transforming peoples lives where it matters most.
The lives of most rural women and their families have not changed much over the last couple of decades. The women and children still walk long distances to just about everywhere they need to get to. The women walk daily to collect firewood for cooking and heating, water from a well or the nearest river, the nearest clinic, the nearest bus stop to get to the nearest town, and they also walk some distance carrying heavy loads on their heads to take their produce to the market. They often have to make several trips or lose a huge chunk of their perishable produce as they cannot carry a lot of it to the market. The children aren’t spared either, they sometimes walk several km to and from school. The hours wasted mean the communities miss out on many potential economic and self-development opportunities.
Some startups are now working to address some of these problems. We recently found Mobility For Africa (MFA). MFA is a startup founded by Australian Shantha Bloemen and is currently piloting electric three-wheelers in the rural Wedza district of Zimbabwe. MFA’s vision is to “bring solar powered electric transport solutions to women and their families that are affordable, efficient and adapted to peri urban and rural areas in Africa.” As it executes its mission, MFA aims to “empower rural women in Africa with transport solutions that can help them save time, sell more of their goods at the market, take their children to the clinic, to school, to collect water, as well as improve their economic opportunities within the households and local communities.” Its ultimate goal is to improve the quality of life of women and their families and at the same time “contribute to expanding renewable energy for transport in Africa contributing to longer term sustainability and mitigating climate change.”
MFA has partnered with Tsinghua University in China, Midlands State University in Gweru, Zimbabwe, and The Solar Shack to set up the pilot and create the data system to measure results from the pilot programs. MFA has also set up an assembly plant in Harare’s industrial zone. By choosing to bring in semi-knocked down kits from China and assembling the electric tricycle in Harare, MFA will create some good job opportunities and technology transfer programs in Zimbabwe’s current economic environment where unemployment is at an all-time high. MFA has also developed training and operation manuals for its Electric Lady Agents. MFA also facilitates driving lessons & testing for competency for users that also include a driving manual and battery charging guidelines. The manuals are available in both English and local language versions.
The electric tricycle is known as the Hamba, which means “go” in the local languages. Working with its technical partners, the company has used the lessons learnt in the first phase of the pilot to make improvements and modify the original Chinese tricycle to make it more suitable to rural African conditions. The use of solar charging hubs in such rural setups is critical, as most of the time these villages are far from the grid. The synergies between the solar hubs and the electric vehicles will help propel both the distributed solar microgrid and the electric vehicle sectors in this part of the world. The solar hubs will allow battery charging and or battery swapping stations to be set up at multiple locations, which in turn will encourage adoption of electric vehicles. Typical EVs utilized in these villages may be in the form of two-wheelers, three-wheelers, and low range affordable electric cars and lorries.
MFA plans to roll out a pay-as-you-go system (PayGo). The PayGo system is well understood in rural Africa since the wave of small home solar systems provided by the likes of M-Kopa swept across Sub-Saharan Africa. During this trial phase, MFA has started with a monthly and daily rental system and hope to prove that the women can pay. Armed with this data, it hopes to raise the capital to allow it to provide longer term financing options.
MFA has successfully raised some funds through a crowdsourcing campaign that allowed it to ship the first container of tricycles and get the pilot program going. MFA has also won a grant from the Live Expo Innovation Grant and also secured a grant from the Africa Energy Competition Fund. MFA has recently secured a partnership with a German second-life battery company, betteries, to test out second-life lithium batteries for the Hamba. MFA hopes Zimbabwe will be a local base for assembly and distribution of its products across Africa. We hope it will be able to find more funding partners to enable it to quickly roll out the commercial phase of the project. After that the company would have a very nice template to simply cut and paste across many African nations.
All images courtesy of Mobility For Africa