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Electrifying Africa’s fossil-powered cars

The conversion of fossil fuel-powered cars to electric vehicles (EVs) is quietly picking up steam in Africa as soaring fuel prices drive consumer interest in green mobility.

Seth Onyango, bird story agency

While the price tag on EVs puts them way out of reach of many around the globe, some startups in Africa are now up-cycling regular ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles to clean transmission, using conversion kits. Others are jumping right in and building battery-powered vehicles from scratch.

Electric mass-transit company Roam announced the launch of Roam Rapid on October 19, the first electric mass transit bus in Kenya.

In a statement, the Bus Rapid Transit, BRT, versioned buses are “designed to address the unique challenges of public transport in Nairobi and Africa.”

The 90-passenger capacity buses will have special seats and facilities for special passengers including the elderly and people with limited mobility thanks to its enlarged leg space, spaces accommodating wheelchairs and a lowered floor-entry for facilitative access among other smart features.

Further, in May this year, Nigerian entrepreneur Mustapha Gajibo who had been converting petrol mini-buses into EVs, announced plans to build solar battery-powered buses from scratch.

Gajibo, 30, a resident of Maiduguri, in northeast Nigeria expressed confidence that the geopolitical climate that has pumped up fuel prices would drive the uptake of electric vehicles in that market.

His startup is now building a 12-seater minibus which can cover up to 200 kilometres on a single charge, making the transporter affordable to run and ideal for city commuting.

Gajibo's early uptake of electric conversions and the publicity surrounding it has been a shot in the arm for the wider adoption of converted and electric vehicles.

Before Gajibo’s foray into the business, the emphasis was on converting diesel and petrol-propelled game-viewing vehicles into EVs, due to their size and design which made it easy to instal electric motors.

Fuelling the adoption of electric safari vehicles (ESVs) are luxury safari lodges operating in some of the continent’s premium safari destinations like the Kruger National Park (South Africa), Maasai Mara National Reserve (Kenya), Serengeti National Park (Tanzania) and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda).

Others are Etosha (Namibia), Ngorongoro (Tanzania), Hwange (Zimbabwe), South Luangwa (Zambia) and the Okavango Delta (Botswana).

Currently, startups in Kenya and South Africa are where most of the conversions of diesel and petrol Land Rovers or Toyota Land Cruisers are done as demand soars.

Conversion costs are in the region of between US$25,000 and US$45,000 per vehicle. Where possible, solar panels to capture further green energy are built into the roof of the vehicle.

Operators argue that despite the high cost, the return on investment makes the investment worthwhile, given the appeal to tourists of green, silent travel in the bush.

But with new affordable and lightweight EV conversion kits for cars and hybrid systems going for as low as US$8,000 for smaller cars, the conversion of sedans is set to become a wider consumer trend.

Already, Africa is witnessing the expansion of EV charging networks in crucial markets, signalling greater adoption of clean mobility on the continent.

Electrifying Africa’s fossil-powered cars [Graphics: Hope Mukami]

Governments are seeing opportunities in this for job creation and have been dishing out licenses to companies making conversions in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria.

In 2020, the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) became one of the first state agencies to issue Knights Energy and Swedish-owned Opibus licences to convert tourism vans and buses to electric engines.

According to the government, EV conversion plans fit into Kenya’s National Climate Change Action Plan (NCCAP) 2018-2023, which identified operational inefficiencies in the transport sector, heavy traffic congestion, and high fuel consumption as major contributors to high levels of emissions.

For many entrepreneurs, however, it is simple arithmetic – if you can’t sell EVs new, then offer conversions. But there is one challenge: the growing scarcity of Lithium-ion batteries.

That could, however, change if states like South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia speed up plans to develop a Lithium-ion battery value chain.

In May, Zambia and the DRC inked a deal to use some of the estimated 70 per cent of the world's cobalt reserves found on their territory for the local manufacture of batteries for EVs.

Under the aegis of the Republic of Zambia and the DRC Battery Council, the two states plan to drive investments into battery manufacturing, hoping to drive local costs down and boost availability on the continent.

Meanwhile, plans are also afoot for South Africa’s government and industry to tap into EV components manufacturing, leveraging the country’s vibrant automotive manufacturing value chain.

In November 2017, energy storage and automotive component specialist Metair unveiled a programme to produce lithium-ion batteries across its operations in South Africa, Turkey and Romania.

Metair partnered with the South African Institute for Advanced Materials Chemistry (SAIAMC), located at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), which houses the only pilot-scale Lithium-ion battery cell assembly facility in Africa.

And last year, South Africa made a major proposal to encourage green transportation with a new EV promotion policy, offering subsidies to manufacturers and buyers in order to drive up the supply and demand of EVs.

Released in May 2021, the country's e-mobility policy framework, “Green Paper” showed the state is planning significant fiscal incentives to spur the sale of new energy vehicles (NEVs).

In the proposed roadmap, the Rainbow Nation will ramp up investment in the expansion and development of new and existing manufacturing plants to support the production of NEVs.

This includes producing EV components, with battery manufacturing a priority, according to South Africa’s Department of Trade, Industry, and Competition.

African states plan to increase the share of the continent’s EV ownership to reduce emissions.

Currently, there are over 10 million battery-powered vehicles on the road globally, with the number set to jump to 230 million by 2030, International Energy Agency predicts forecasts. In August, 490,000 battery electric vehicles were sold in China, more than double the corresponding number in 2021 and accounting for the vast majority of new electric vehicle (NEV) sales. NEV's made up 30.1 per cent of all new cars sold in China in August, according to the China Passenger Car Association.

For most countries, besides the zero-emission benefit, EVs are cheaper to service than their gas counterparts, with electricity being less expensive than petrol and diesel in most places.

Car sales in Africa are expected to more than double by 2040, driven by urbanisation and rising incomes. A good proportion of those could be made up of EVs as local production in Africa begins to kick in and prices of electric cars drop expected, over the next decade.

McKinsey says the total cost of ownership (TCO) of EVs is more favourable than that of ICE vehicles in Africa, even in countries with fairly high electricity costs like Kenya, where the residential electricity tariff is over 20 cents per kilowatt-hour, suggesting that Africa is ready for an EV revolution.

Early entrants into EVs including smaller players like Gajibo - are also expected to fuel investments in green mobility, worldwide.

Electric two-wheelers are expected to record faster growth than other vehicles, with Nigeria and Kenya witnessing a surge in demand for them.

According to a Research and Markets report, the global electric bus market size is projected to grow from 112,041 units in 2022 to reach 671,285 units by 2027, a constant average growth rate of 43.1 per cent.

The advancements in battery pack technologies and electric powertrains are some of the major factors driving the growth of the electric bus and coach market while many countries are focusing on electrification of their mass transit solutions, especially buses and coaches.

Factors such as a rise in pollution and environmental hazards, stringent government regulations, and stiff competition have compelled automotive OEMs to make fuel-efficient and environment-friendly buses.

The 9-14 metre long bus segment is projected to be the largest market during the forecast period in terms of volume, but that won't slow Gajibo and others who are eyeing the potential of Africa's absolutely enormous "micro" bus segment.

bird story agency


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