The continent is home to about 1.3 billion people, with the average age being just below 20 years. Compared to Europe or North America, per capita energy use in Africa is very low, while growth rate of energy use is high. Over the past ten years, total primary energy demand on the continent grew by one third. The transport sector is one of the main sectors responsible for this growth, with demand for transport fuels growing by almost 50% between 2010 and 2020. Based on current trajectories and policies, transport energy use on the continent is anticipated to grow by another two thirds1 by 2040.
Much of this growth is driven by the ever-increasing demand for mobility – people making their way to work in bustling metropoles such as Nairobi, Lagos or Dakar or farmers bringing their crop to markets. Public transport systems play a huge role for mobility on the continent, since ownership of private vehicles is less than a tenth compared to the Global North. Informal, “paratransit” systems based on motorcycle taxis, tuktuks (three wheelers), cars and minibuses (matatus, dalla-dallas, gbakas as they are often referred to in different African cities) cover by far the largest share of passenger transportation. However, there is currently a noticeable growing trend with many Sub-Saharan Africa metropoles now trying to rectify the errors of the 1990’s and largely investing in formalized public transportation systems, often based on high-capacity bus operations such as bus rapid transit systems.
Currently, many African countries import petroleum fuels through government advancing expensive foreign exchange to buy gasoline and diesel on the global market, while domestic sources of renewable energy are abundant. African countries have begun to transition away from fossil fuel dependency and tap into renewable energy reserves. For example, power in Kenya is about 85% renewable – based on hydro, geothermal and increasingly wind and solar energy sources. With prices for solar panels plummeting over the past 20 years, power generation using sun light has become an increasingly viable option providing access to electricity in rural areas all across Africa. So, against this backdrop, one might beg the question, why not progress along this trajectory and make the transition towards electric mobility all over the continent
The shift towards electric mobility is gradually taking place on the continent. Start-ups providing app-based mobility services using electric motorcycles and tuktuks are popping up like mushrooms all over Sub-Sahara Africa, used EV’s such as the Nissan Leaf making their way into the market and serving as taxis in African cities, and progressive metropoles such as Abidjan and Johannesburg have outlined concrete plans to introduce electric bus-rapid transit systems into their public transportation infrastructure. The time is ripe to ensure that adequate policies and regulations are in place to get the right Electric Drive technologies to Africa, as well as to provide incentives and tailormade financial solutions to reduce the higher up-front costs of EVs and encourage EV uptake, ultimately allowing African countries to benefit from reduced energy use, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and overall improved quality of life for people.
Efforts are underway allowing countries to leapfrog from the use of old internal combustion engine-based technology, and to directly switch over to electric mobility. And while individual electric mobility hinges on the availability of a dense network of public charging infrastructure, this issue does not exist for electric vehicles operated in fleets. Electric two and three-wheelers, cars and minibuses used as taxis have very defined mission profiles, which can result in much more simplified charging infrastructure either reduced to having a standard socket available (for electric two and three-wheelers) or to charge vehicles at depots overnight. The same is true for electric public bus and bus rapid transit systems, whereby the option of using grid connected trolley buses should not be at all forgotten.
The potential to reduce dependency on petroleum fuels and in the process increase energy security, mitigate greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions through the use of electric motorcycles, tuktuks, cars, minibuses and buses in public transport fleets on the African continent, is huge. In Kenya alone, the amount of fuel used by the rapidly growing boda-boda fleet (motorcycle taxis) is estimated to almost equal the entire fuel used by passenger cars. Even better, electric mobility based on the use of electric motorcycles and three-wheelers is very much compatible with decentralized power generation based on solar off-grid applications. A battery that can cover daily driving distances of around 100 to 120 kilometers has a capacity around 4 to 6 kilowatt-hours. Nowadays, a solar panel with 150 W nameplate power output costs only around 100 USD. An e-motorcycle battery could be charged using two or three of these panels over the course of a day. Solar mini-grids can be the key to electrify rural areas of the continent. However, in many cases solar mini-grid applications suffer from low power demand in these areas, and adding a fleet of locally used electric motorcycles could generate the daily power demand to make them economically viable. In such a set-up, the solar mini-grid operator would also run a battery swapping system, whereby charged batteries are rented out to electric motorcycle drivers until they are depleted and the driver comes back to change the battery. Very much like filling up the tank, but for considerably lower cost. And by the way – the electric motorcycle without the battery (which remains the property of the battery swapping system operator) costs less than its conventional counterpart already today.
Last but not least, electric mobility provides great developmental potential for African countries such as the creation of “green jobs” providing additional employment opportunities to assemble and manufacture vehicles in many Sub-Sahara African countries. EVs are much less complex, and apart from some key components such as the lithium ion battery, many of the main parts can be manufactured in semi-industrial processes, therefore representing a real opportunity to harness much of the value chain within African countries across the continent.
The UNEP Global Electric Mobility Programme is supporting all of the above, with multiple country projects to introduce and scale up the uptake of electric mobility in more than 40 low-and-middle-income countries all over the world. Twelve of these country projects are located in Africa. The programme seeks to build capacity, develop national strategies and roadmaps to support the switch over to electric mobility, design policies and establish viable business models and financial schemes to support a smooth transition and shift towards electric mobility. And while technical assistance to introduce e-mobility in Africa is key, demonstration of the technology is equally important. For this reason, all the various country projects integrate key demonstration projects to generate know-how on the ground and to provide the much needed experience to raise confidence in financiers such as development banks, green funds and venture capital to invest in these e-mobility projects.
The country projects are supported by the Global Support Programme, which includes four Global Working Groups on electric cars (i), electric two and three-wheelers (ii), electric buses (iii) and charging infrastructure, batteries and renewable power integration (iv) to provide global policy advise, for example on regulation and standardization, and to develop knowledge products used in the country projects. On a regional level, the country projects are assisted by four Support and Investment Platforms to create Communities of Practice and to develop an E-Mobility Marketplace to facilitate match-making between e-mobility projects, financiers and EV manufacturers, paving the way towards clean mobility within the continent.1 Arica Energy Outlook, IEA 2019