Learning about e-mobility from East Africa

Written by
Kyle Hodgson
min read time

In this post, Odyssey’s Head of Technology, an admitted e-mobility nut, shares what he learned about the rapid scale of e-mobility across East Africa while on a long trip there this winter.

Living in the US, Canada, or even much of Europe you’d be excused for thinking the story about electric vehicles (EVs) is largely about passenger cars. Our media seems to promote this belief, publishing mostly stories about automakers and passenger vehicles. This enthusiasm is well placed, of course, as in 2022 Bloomberg NEF estimated the size of the global passenger EV fleet above 26 million cars. 

To borrow a phrase from the 2010 movie “the social network”, what’s cool isn’t 26 million EVs. What’s cool is 292 million 2 and 3 wheeled electric vehicles. A staggering 49% of global sales in the 2 and 3 wheeled vehicle category are already EVs, displacing 997,230 barrels of oil every day.

Meetings in December brought me to East Africa, where I had a front row seat to this growth. In many parts of Africa, two wheeled vehicles are ubiquitous not only because they are at lower price points, but also because they can cut through even the heaviest traffic.

When using a ride hailing app in Nairobi, you’re given options for petrol and EV two wheeled rides - and in contrast with my experience in Toronto where the EV ride takes longer to pull up and is more expensive, in Nairobi the “e boda” option is usually the same price or cheaper. 

In Kenya, you’ll see Kenyan made Roam Air, Indian One Electric, and Rwandan Ampersand Gen 3 bikes- but you won’t find them plugged into AC or even DC fast chargers. Riders stop at a swapping station, like Roam Electric’s “Roam Hub” and exchange their depleted battery for a fully charged one. The whole process takes somewhere between two and three minutes - much faster than even the latest generation DC fast chargers.

People following the Chinese EV market, especially Nio, might be imagining gleaming space aged robotic swap stations automatically unbolting and removing the battery pack - but this is different. The bikes doing well in this market are designed to make it easy for the rider to simply unplug the battery and pull it out of the frame so that they can be swapped for a charged battery when needed. Given batteries for motorcycles are much smaller, this isn’t that hard to manage - the old battery is dropped off on a shelf under the counter at the swap station, and a new one is retrieved from another shelf just like it.

It’s not that there aren’t any “regular” EV chargers, mind you. The Total Energy station in the Nairobi suburb of Hurlingham has a brand new Ampersand swap station and a 50kw DC fast charger in addition to the gas pumps they’re known for - it's just that the swap stations tend to be much busier than the EV chargers. Which is in part because these hard working two wheeler’s can’t use regular EV chargers, and likely would still choose the faster swap station experience over chargers to minimize downtime.

Unlike EVs in the North American context, the bike doesn’t provide any kind of charging, just a frame, or optionally a locking cabinet, that allows the battery to be safely and easily unplugged and removed. The battery itself has GPS and GSM chips for telemetry, and also a receptacle for plugging it into a charger. Some brands provide a simple AC home charger, or even upgraded faster home chargers that can charge the battery in a few hours. 

Rwanda’s Ampersand takes a different approach - the bike doesn’t come with a charging cable, or even ownership of a battery. This reduces the up front cost to the owner, and most electric motorcycle riders would need to own as many as four batteries to get through the average workday. According to a rider I talked to in Nairobi, “sometimes it's less, but sometimes it's more, if you are going uphill”. This is still less often than riders would need to refuel with a petrol bike according to Ampersand’s website.

The outlook from a Roam Hub battery swapping station, located on a Total Energies gas station in Kigali is decidedly positive - “e bodas” are pulling up and swapping out their batteries more frequently than petrol cars are pulling up to the gas pumps. “And this is a Sunday - if it were a weekday I wouldn’t have time to talk to you” as the station attendant explains. The Roam Hub is busy because it's working. “They are faster” explained a rider of an older model OneElectric Kirdn as he was swapping out his battery, “and my costs are about 30% less.”

Kenya has rich geothermal resources augmented with hydroelectric and wind, resulting in more than 80% of the electricity generated being green. In Rwanda, more than 50% of electricity is generated from hydroelectric, with growing solar and other forms of renewable energy - so this is truly a renewable, distributed energy story.  

While swap stations appear to be a kind of unifying force in Eastern Africa, EV charging for passenger cars is not unified across sub saharan Africa. Much like India, you see a mixture of standards that makes even the fractured North American charging situation look highly uniform. This will likely continue without a strong dedicated EV supply chain, as some vehicles are imported from Europe and North America, some produced locally, and others imported from China and India.

Scaling up?

Battery swapping has not fared so well in North America or Europe, but has succeeded in China. Passenger cars like Nio’s, with their larger, heavier batteries require robotic battery swap stations, and complete the process in around five minutes.  Tesla did run a trial with the Model S early on in California, but famously chose to focus on their charging network instead.

Still, it’s interesting to think about the possibilities that removable batteries bring. Riders could use the battery in their homes, either when the grid is unreliable, or as part of a load shifting scheme. Batteries could be brought to rural areas where they might power a flour mill or a water pump, enabling rural economic growth and productive use as well as the urban economic benefit they already provide. 

“We see ourselves as an energy provider,” said Emmanuel Hakizimana, Country Manager for Ampersand in Rwanda in December. Ampersand’s approach of owning the batteries and providing them as a service to riders does put it in a unique position. With 1,350+ bikes on the road and swap stations set up to get riders back on the road quickly, Ampersand has a fair number of charged or charging batteries at their swap stations to fulfill demand. It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine Ampersand leveraging this to do something like what Tesla did recently with its Virtual Power Plant. (https://www.tesla.com/support/energy/tesla-virtual-power-plant-pge)

Another possible re-interpretation of the 'removable battery' concept in Europe is led by the Spanish mobility company Silence.  Located in Barcelona, Silence builds scooters and a small city car around small removable batteries. They even provide a small cart that makes it easier for owners to bring the battery inside so it can be charged, or used, in the home. 

Vehicles like these are already taking off in Europe, and might look especially attractive in fleet and commercial use even in North America. If they do catch on, one might imagine food delivery and last mile delivery drivers making use of swap stations, an innovation currently being refined in East Africa. It certainly beats waiting for even the fastest DC charging.

For more on the battery swapping and e mobility in Africa, check out Drivafy on YouTube

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