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Solar-powered tricycles offer solution to transport problems in rural Zimbabwe

Locally known as 'Hambas', solar-powered three-wheelers, whose batteries last up to 100 kilometres on a single charge, are saving rural Zimbabwe dwellers hours of walking and chores.

Matius Khumbula on his e-tricycle. ( Photo Courtesy: Matius Khumbula)

Irene Kalulu, bird story agency

Small-scale dairy farmer Matius Khumbula has a new joy in his daily routine.

The 70-year-old who hails from Domboshava, a rural community located 30 kilometres from Harare, previously had to physically carry 60 litres of milk daily over 5km from his homestead to a collection point where he sells milk to the biggest dairy farm in Zimbabwe. Now he and his wife are spared the heavy physical labour, thanks to a solar-powered tricycle.

"Before, my wife and I had to make numerous trips carrying buckets of milk on our heads. It was time-consuming and tiring. With the e-tricycle, my work is so much easier, and I have time to do other things around the house," said Khumbula.

According to the latest Zimbabwean census, 67 per cent of the population is rural-based. Road networks are poor, making it difficult for the rural population to access essential services like clinics and business centres and for those in the agricultural sector to deliver their goods and services on time.

Now, a company that has started building electronic tricycles is offering to alter this narrative.

The off-road three-wheelers are being offered by Mobility for Africa (MFA), a company registered in Mauritius and operating in Zimbabwe. It provides environmentally sustainable mobility services to rural communities, particularly women.

The e-tricycle is a custom-built electric tricycle powered by swappable solar-charged battery packs, as a fleet system with a central charging station.

The tough, sturdy renewable energy-charged tricycles allow marginalised and low-income families to overcome distances to services and contribute to dynamic local economies. MFA imports the semi-knocked-down kits from China and assembles them in Harare, Zimbabwe.

The company was formed in 2018 and launched its product in Wedza in February 2019. It has since increased operations to include rural Domboshava and Chiredzi.

"E-tricycles are and will provide the incentive for increased economic opportunities, creating new local markets, tackling gender inequality and enhancing rural livelihoods," said Shantha Bloemen, the Managing Director for MFA.

She added that many women living in rural areas carry the burden of providing for their families; the e-tricycles will also help them ease the burden.

Cleopatra Magada is one of the women who has rented the e-tricycles from MFA.

"I used to buy and sell fish before I started this taxi business using e-tricycles. Fish are highly perishable so I had to make sure I would walk around, going door to door to cover as many residential areas as possible in an effort to sell out the fish. It was very painful, but my life has been made easier because of my new business," she said.

While some of the three-wheelers, nicknamed "Hamba" in the local language, are rented out to users for a monthly fee that can be shared between two to three people, users also have the option of lease-to-purchase, upfront payment, or drivers can use the tricycles to provide transportation and logistics services on a commission basis.

MFA assembles four e-tricycles daily, sturdy enough to transport anything from building materials and agricultural produce to the market to carrying school children who no longer have to walk kilometres to attend classes—a battery last around 100 kilometres on a single charge.

The company has so far distributed over 150 electric three-wheelers in Zimbabwe.

"Our project was quickly accepted in the communities as rural farmers are often far away from main roads and suffer huge costs in both time and finances to get their goods to market, which hinders the development of small-scale agriculture," said Fadzai Mavhuna, MFA Donor Relations and Investment Consultant.

Fadzai added that MFA has an opportunity to be part of pioneering productive use of energy directly linked to improving agricultural productivity and stimulating local economies.

"We have an opportunity to be part of creating shared mobility solutions that provide first-mile and last-mile solutions to rural communities. An opportunity to bring the green mobility revolution to millions of rural African communities and reducing reliance on fossil fuels and leapfrogging the transition to electric transport in the continent."

MFA has encountered difficulties due to strict policies regarding electric vehicles and currency fluctuations when importing their semi-knocked-down kits. They lost months of income as the batteries they previously received were off the shelf, no longer usable and were breaking down.

This led them to partner with a battery manufacturing company that makes bespoke batteries for their product.

In December 2022, the company raised a US$2 million investment from InfraCo Africa to scale the offering of Mobility for Africa's affordable cargo-carrying e-tricycles and solar-powered battery charging solutions for marginalised communities in rural Zimbabwe.

By the end of 2023, the company hopes to scale to 400 e-tricycles and build eight charging stations. They are also looking to expand into neighbouring countries.

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