Mobility For Africa Shows How Electric Vehicles Can Transform Lives Where it Matters Most – Part 2

Mobility For Africa (MFA) has just completed the first of a two-part pilot phase which we covered here recently. MFA has now started the second phase of the pilot. MFA tested several models which included exploring agricultural produce transport services as well as general taxi services. It also used the pilot to measure the financial viability of the project as well as identifying solutions for different business models.

We caught up with Shantha Bloemen (SB), Founding Director of Mobility For Africa to find out more:

CT: You have just completed the first phase of the pilot project; how did it go?

SB: We learnt a lot in our first phase of the pilot and have used that knowledge to already invest our focus now in refining our model and identifying technical solutions. We are now entering our second phase of the pilot to focus on the financial viability, the use of lithium batteries, exploring different fast charging options and off grid energy charging systems. During the first phase, we had 92 female pilot participants, who represent around 400 people in their households. This is 30 groups of 3 women who have formed small groups and work to share the tricycle and generate income. Demand for tricycles is high, with over 100 people on waiting list. We have sought to test only with rural women as they often have 1) no prior experience in bike riding 2) carry the heaviest burden on carrying things in rural area 3) often excluded from owning transport. We believe if we can show a viable model for rural women, then the market size will be reflective of true population and illustrate real demand.

MFA Solar Charging Hub
MFA Solar Charging Hub. Images courtesy of Mobility For Africa.

CT: What is the range of these electric tricycles?

SB: Currently the tricycles can go 50 km on one full charge and carry 350 kg of people or goods. We are exploring different battery options that would be lighter, faster charging yet still affordable.

CT: What’s the energy capacity of the battery pack?

SB: We now use 6.6 kWh Li Ion packs that weigh 35 kg. We were using lead acid batteries initially in the early stages of the pilot which weighed 60 kilos, had half the shelf life, and took much longer to charge.

MFA Solar Charging Hub
MFA Solar Charging Hub. Images courtesy of Mobility For Africa.

CT: How long does it take to charge the tricycle?

SB: Currently it takes 6 hours but we are working on improving our charging design so this can be reduced to 2-3 hours.

CT: How many kW of solar panels do you have on the charging station hub?

SB: Our charging station has 8.1 kWp of solar panels. We are exploring different charging options and improving how energy is generated and used so we can meet the demand.

CT: Have you incorporated the local community in the operation and maintenance?

SB: Yes – empowering the local community is at the heart of building a sustainable model. We want rural women, who are often ignored, to be able to drive and use the Hamba. We know that men already have more access to bicycles and motorbikes. The benefit is also that this type of tricycle only goes at 15-20km/h and can be driven by a woman. It is NOT a motorbike and such a low speed tricycle doesn’t need to a license and can be used for off road usage. We have trained “Local Lady Agents” who work to train the community, and also know how to repair breakdowns. We then have a technical team that can provide back-up.

CT: Are you assembling the Hamba in Zimbabwe?

SB: We have been assembling locally from day 1. We have just renovated our factory and hoping with investment we can start to get production moving.

CT: What are your future plans as you scale?

SB: We have a potential collaboration to test in Tanzania working with Betteries and Rift Valley, who are independent energy producers but once again dependent on funding for us to set up the pilot. In addition to expanding our testing to Tanzania, we are hoping to focus on Southern Africa – Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique.

CT: What are the other lessons learned from the Wedza Pilot?

SB: 1. Battery Technology Is Critical

  1. Electricity coverage in rural areas is low across most of Sub Saharan Africa. Electric Mobility is dependent on electricity. We know the battery charging requires more power than what is available at household level.
  2. Batteries are the most valuable component of a tricycle. The battery life is dependent on how it is maintained. It also needs to be recycled and not dumped.

iii.    Testing the options for rural battery recharging, testing how much energy it takes, how far the tricycles can ride on a charge and what is the best model for managing their life cycle will be needed for the second round of the pilot.

  1. A Strong Supply Of Off-Grid Energy Must Be Available
  2. In order for EV to be viable in rural areas the venture will need to secure off-grid solar partners in order to affordably power the vehicles.
  3. This is an expensive investment and may need to be subsidized in remote and poorer communities initially, thus the venture is prioritizing partnerships with mini-grid developers and development actors.
  4. Community Based Engagement Must be Embedded.
  5. Community engagement is needed to help to train women in how to use the Hamba and also address social norms/ gender.
  6. A flexible sliding payment system demonstrates that women can increase impact and pay over time.

iii.    Local capacity to repair and maintains the tricycles critical.

  1. Additional investment in local agricultural productivity and income generating activities will generate greater economic impact for families.
  2. Need to explore different ways mobility can boost rural social and economic activity.

MFA is still working on refining its model and trying to find the resources to be able to expand. Armed with real data and valuable insights from the pilot programs, MFA hopes to build partnerships with development agencies, local governments, and commercial partners to integrate electric mobility solutions into their rural operations improving access to services, increasing productivity, improving incomes for the local community, and improving the quality of life for rural women. This is such a noble initiative that has already transformed the lives of many ordinary folks in rural Wedza, Zimbabwe. The company has already received some great testimonials from participants of the pilot illustrating the positive impact on the lives of rural women. The oldest participant of the program, Gogo Nellie (68) has already tripled her income. A member of the community went into premature labor and was rushed to the clinic in the middle of the night, with the baby born safely. Another participant who is into avocado farming says, “Selling avocado pears is now much easier I can carry 3 buckets using Hamba up from 1 bucket by head.” Another participant had this to say, “I can now fetch water in 4 buckets at any given time from 1 bucket carried by head.” In another noble gesture, MFA is dedicating some of its 20 Hambas to service the rural health sector in these times of Covid-19 pandemic and also to deliver food and supplies to families in need.

All images courtesy of Mobility For Africa/MFA Solar Charging Hub.

Remeredzai Joseph Kuhudzai

Remeredzai Joseph Kuhudzai has been fascinated with batteries since he was in primary school. As part of his High School Physics class he had to choose an elective course. He picked the renewable energy course and he has been hooked ever since.

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