I was born in a small town in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. Mutare is a beautiful place. I lived in Greenside near the Cross Kopje until I was 15 years old. In such a small town we would walk to almost anywhere. Fridays were my favorites. After school I would walk to town to the Turner Memorial Library to get my customary two reads for the week. From there I would go to The Meikles Department Store (it was kind of like a Macys).
I liked that store very much because it had a Spinalong, Zimbabwe’s premier Music Record Store at the time. I would go and check out the new releases on Vinyl, CD and Cassette. Like most small cities, most of the stores were on the one major street called “Main Street.” On my walks from Greenside to Town and back, I would be looking out for any new cars in the city.
At Mutare Junior School in the early 1990s, my friends and I would exchange copies of South Africa’s car magazine. My favorite editions were always whenever they featured a Porsche. I guess South Africans have always loved Porsche, which is why they have been rewarded with three models of the Taycan on the South African market. South Africans can now buy an all-electric Porsche, but can’t get a Tesla just yet.
In 1996 my family moved to the capital city, Harare. I then moved from Mutare Boys High to Prince Edward School. My eldest brother had attended Prince Edward School in the early 1990s and he was there on one of the school’s historic days. October 11, 1991, her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, visited the school. Her Majesty also planted a tree in the school’s arboretum to mark the occasion.
I always loved my walks to school at Prince Edward. In the morning rush hour traffic, I would get a chance to see some new vehicles on the road. I was always looking out for the new number plates. At school, the French class was one of my favorite classes. In one of the lessons, Madame Kauffman brought a VHS tape of a James Bond movie that we had to watch in French. The epic car chase scenes got me hooked. It was actually James Bond that got me to love BMW so much back then. James Bond is going electric, and it’s always good to see celebrities like Meek Mill as well getting the word out and promoting EVs.
I wanna buy all Tesla’s… I need a Tesla rep ASAP!!!
— Meek Mill (@MeekMill) May 22, 2020
In 2009, I moved to South Africa to study for a Masters Degree. Pretoria and Johannesburg were much much bigger than what I was used to. Getting around was difficult before the Gautrain. I knew right away I needed to get a car there, but as a full-time student with some part-time tutoring jobs, my budget was tight. A couple of months later I managed to get a grant.
After doing some math, I got a 1999 Renault Megane. I got it for R27,000, which was about $4,000 then, but it needed a lot of work. I took it to Renault in Pretoria, and it cost me another R18,000 ($2,500) to fix it up, including a timing belt change. That payment really hurt and made me really feel the true cost of owning an old internal combustion engine (ICE) car. I quickly traded it in for a 1997 Honda Ballade (Civic). A couple of years later I sold the Honda Ballade and got a VW Passat.
Getting a car made life a whole lot easier, as I could now go to the lab at any time, even at 2 AM and on weekends. During the semester breaks, a friend of mine and I would drive back to Zimbabwe in his Alpha Romeo 156. The 1200 km trip from Pretoria to Harare would take just over 20 hours, including the long wait at the border.
During those trips to Zimbabwe around 2011, it always used to worry me why petrol was much more expensive in Zimbabwe. Also, petrol wasn’t always available when you needed it. Petrol and diesel shortages still persist to this day in Zimbabwe and finding petrol can be a day’s job or more. So I started looking into alternatives to get cheaper fuel.
I read a lot about people around the world converting used cooking oil from fast food restaurants into biodiesel. I also looked up ethanol blending, something Zimbabwe has a long history of doing. Then I thought what about hydrogen and fuel cells? The whole supply chain and infrastructure associated with producing, storing, and transporting hydrogen looked complicated and expensive for a lot of African countries to set up.
What about using ethanol and methanol that already have some existing ecosystems in this part of the world and looking into some sort of ethanal/methanol reforming for fuel cells? These systems need to be pressurized and also heated to certain temperatures, another not so simple process.
It looked to me back then that battery electric vehicles were the only ones that actually made sense from a technology point of view to address the long term problems. So I decided I should just only look into BEVs. CleanTechnica, PushEVs, and EVSalesblog became some of my daily must-reads to catch up on the latest developments in the EV Space. EV Obsession too!
Back at university during my Masters and PhD, all those weekends in the particle accelerator always paid off, as the results of our Ion Beam Analysis along with our Electron Microscopy Data would take us all over the world to present at International Conferences. We also got to travel to international laboratories to do several measurements with our partners at those labs.
It was on one of those trips in September 2014 when I was attending a conference at KU Leuven in Belgium that really convinced me that BEVs were the way to go. I had gone to a laundromat to check out their machines, as I have always wanted to start one back home (haven’t done so yet!). As I opened the door to leave the laundromat, I saw one of the most beautiful cars drive by. It certainly stood out in the whole street. It was beautiful and so silent. It almost felt like the purest car I had ever seen. I just stood there looking at it until it turned into the next street. That was the first time I had ever seen a Tesla Model S! And I was like, simplicity and beauty in motion! Why do we need fuel cell cars? It has to be BEV!
Since then, I have been looking up what’s been happening in the EV space around Africa, hoping OEMs start bringing BEVs to more African countries. Africa’s low motorization levels presents a huge opportunity for the continent to leapfrog straight into the EV age, but getting an EV in this part of the world is not always easy. A few models are available in South Africa, but most are quite expensive. In most parts of the continent, one’s best bet is to get a used EV imported from Europe, America, or Asia. These land at much more affordable prices for most consumers in these markets. It’s starting to happen, with more used car dealers across the continent starting to stock used EVs.
After my post-doc, I moved back to Zimbabwe and sold the Passat in South Africa. I got a preowned Mercedes Benz A190 in Zimbabwe that was just a bag of problems from day 1! It was always in the shop for one thing or another, costing me a lot of money having to always fix something on that ICE! I just got rid of it and got a Honda Fit from Japan, but I was just not satisfied anymore with the ICE world.
Since that laundromat in Belgium I was convinced I needed to join the EV evolution. I needed to get one! I looked at my budget and saw that the one I could work with for now was a used Nissan Leaf. The Leaf has had its share of controversy with the accelerated battery degradation issues due to the absence of an active (water-cooled) thermal management system. It would be interesting to see how well it does in hot and sunny Zimbabwe. The Wright Family has been driving their Leaf for over 3 years now, and they are doing just fine. It has lost a couple of bars, but apart from changing tires after hitting some potholes its been great for them.
I found a dealer in Harare selling used Leafs. He had 5 Leafs in stock, ranging from 2011 to 2013 year models. I got the 2013 year model.
The model I got, just like 90% of all cars brought into East and Southern Africa (excluding South Africa) is an import from Japan. Everything is in Japanese, but that’s fine. It still has 10 bars from the original 12 on the battery. It has a 6.6 kW AC onboard charger, so it gets to charge in just over 4 hours on the 240V that’s standard in Zim homes.
So, my family is loving it as we don’t have to go looking for petrol filling stations anymore. My daily commutes were a maximum 60 km for the round trip, so the Leaf has been really great. Residential electricity tariffs are around 5 cents/kWh around here, so it’s just about a dollar to fill it up!
One of my friends was telling me he doesn’t like the look of the Nissan Leaf, but he gets how it’s a money saver. He currently spends $20 every three days to top up petrol for his current ICE vehicle. Driving electric in Africa is a lot cheaper than driving ICE, as we have seen in part 1, part 2, and 3. We hope more dealers start bringing in EVs to help catalyze adoption.