Africa’s motorbike taxis are going electric – saving money and cutting emissions

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kate Whiting, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • Rwandan electric motorcycle start-up Ampersand has just been named one of the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers 2022.
  • The e-motos produce 75% less lifecycle greenhouse emissions than petrol motorbikes, and are cheaper to run.
  • Rwanda’s emerging EV market – including Ampersand – could provide a new source of supply for the country’s lithium battery repurposing initiatives.

Every day in East Africa, 100 million people hop on the back of a motorbike taxi to get to work or run errands.

In Rwanda alone, more than half the vehicles on the roads at any one time are ‘moto-taxis’, an indispensable part of the transport system, but one that’s polluting the air and contributing to climate change.

For the drivers, or ‘motars’, themselves, these motorcycles are not cheap to run – they typically spend more than $11 each day on fuel and vehicle leasing costs, and only take home around $1.60.

But cleaner, more cost-effective change is arriving. The electric vehicle revolution is gaining momentum in Rwanda, where Africa’s first e-motos made by start-up Ampersand can help to reduce emissions – producing 75% less lifecycle greenhouse emissions than petrol motorbikes using grid power, and over 98% less on renewables.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Pioneering e-mobility in Africa

One of the World Economic Forum’s newly announced cohort of 100 Technology Pioneers, Ampersand is on a mission to spark a mass-market transition to electric mobility in Africa, by creating an electric vehicle that costs less to buy, maintain and operate than a fuel equivalent.

As well as building and leasing e-motos, the company also operates battery swap stations, where it takes motars no more time to change their battery for a precharged one than it does to fill up with petrol.

Renting a charged battery also saves drivers more than $500 per year, says Ampersand, with each battery giving a range of 60 to 90km and needing fewer swaps than stops to refuel.

Etienne, one of East Africa’s estimated five million motars, says switching to an e-moto has changed his life.

“I can save extra money I would have used on fuel. I don’t waste time at the garage anymore. With my previous motorcycle I had to go at least 2 days a week.”

The road to a green future

Ampersand launched in 2019 with 20 e-motos in Kigali with the goal of expanding across the continent and enabling half of all motorcycle traffic across Africa to be electric by 2030. The market for motorcycle energy alone in East Africa is worth $8 billion a year, it says.

Investors are starting to take notice. In April 2021, Ampersand secured $3.5 million from the Ecosystem Integrity Fund (EIF) – the largest e-mobility investment by a venture capital fund in sub-Saharan Africa.

“We hope we can show that the electric age is here – for everyone – and clean mobility isn’t something that’s just going to trickle down to the global south in a second-hand manner, decades from now. Rather that it’s cost-effective, fundable, investable – now,” CEO Josh Whale told the BBC.

Two-wheeler trend and potential potholes

Ampersand is just one of many start-ups emerging in Africa’s electric two-wheeler market. As of the end of 2021, McKinsey estimates there were more than 20 start-ups in the ecosystem, which combined raised over $25 million in funding that year.

By 2040, there could be 3-4 million electric two-wheeler sales annually in Kenya and Nigeria – two of the biggest e-moto markets in sub-Saharan Africa – and outperforming other e-vehicle sales.

But there are bumps on the road ahead for wider EV adoption in sub-Saharan Africa, including unreliable electricity supply and low vehicle affordability, says McKinsey.

Nearly 550 million people lack access to electricity on the continent, according to the Forum’s Closing the Loop on Energy Access in Africa white paper, and batteries will be critical to closing the energy gap.

Meeting the growing battery demand at a lower economic, environmental and human cost will require high-quality recycling and repurposing, which is currently non-existent across most African countries.

Tackling e-waste and recycling batteries

The Rwandan government began addressing e-waste and battery waste issues more than a decade ago and, in 2021, it made mandatory its requirements for producers and importers to finance and organize environmentally sound collection and recycling.

Enviroserve Rwanda operates an e-waste dismantling facility to manage obsolete equipment. The company has accumulated 11 metric tonnes of lithium-ion batteries and is exploring battery repurposing as one solution to waste battery accumulation, with tests suggesting that more than 50% of battery cells are suitable for repurposing.

Rwanda’s emerging EV market – including Ampersand – could provide a new source of supply for repurposing initiatives, and would be particularly suited to mini-grid and grid-repurposed batteries.

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