As millions of decrepit cars drive across Africa, a revolution in driving is emerging: electric motorcycles are becoming fashionable. And the automobile market is also facing important changes.

There is a lot of activity at the twelve petrol pumps in the service area: new cars are constantly arriving from the N3 highway, which connects the South African port city of Durban with the metropolitan region of Johannesburg. A little further on, behind the petrol pumps, under a green awning, nothing happens: here is a charging terminal for electric cars.

Thirst for gasoline but lack of electricity: this is a scenario that continues in other parts of Africa. In partially prosperous South Africa, electric charging station coverage remains relatively dense, even if power outages are common there. From Dakar to Dar es Salaam, from Cairo to Cape Town, mobility remains dependent on the combustion engine, often under the hood of aging used cars. But mobility in Africa is changing, although not necessarily in the direction of classic electric cars.

Instead of electric cars: trend towards motorcycles and tuk-tuks, preferably electric

There are no exact figures on how many cars are on the road in Africa: it is estimated that there are between 26 and 38 million cars. The trend is increasing: “There is a huge demand for cars,” says Godwin Ayetor, a professor at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ghana. “But when comparing cars and motorcycles, demand shifts from four-wheeled vehicles to two-wheeled vehicles, which a small family is more likely to be able to afford. And they overcome traffic jams and tycoons better. Maintenance and fuel costs are also lower,” Ayetor told DW. A similar evolution can also be observed in tricycles, also better known as tuk-tuks due to the noise of their engine.

Electrically mobile in Nairobi

There is currently a growing trend towards electric drives, especially in motorcycles. One of them is driven by Thomas Omao, one of the tens of thousands of commercial motorcyclists in Nairobi.

With his electric Boda-Boda he delivers food to different delivery services and is very satisfied: “A great advantage is that electric motorcycles are very comfortable to drive,” he explains to DW. In addition, he is very profitable: “A friend of mine drives a Boda-Boda on gasoline. He spends 1,000 shillings (currently the equivalent of 6.90 euros) every day to fill the tank. Electricity costs me 400 shillings. “This way I save 600 shillings a day compared to my colleague.” Omao used his savings to buy a second motorcycle in January and now has an employee.

Omao uses technology from startup ARC Ride. He purchased the motorcycle and uses a flat rental rate for the batteries. There are almost 80 charging cabinets spread across the Kenyan capital to change batteries in just a minute. “What people are most concerned about is autonomy,” says Felix Saro-Wiwa, head of strategic development at ARC Ride. “That's why we install so many charging cabinets. Throughout the city you are never more than three or four kilometers from the nearest closet, the goal is a maximum of two kilometers, that is, a density similar to that of gas stations.

This year the young company wants to expand to two more cities in the region. And it's just one of many suppliers in Africa offering replacement motorcycle battery rentals. For Godwin Ayetor, this concept is innovative: “Starting companies sell electric two-wheeled vehicles without batteries, which reduces the purchase price for owners. They rent the battery permanently. So far it is working very well.”

Used cars are entering the market

However, electric Bodas continue to occupy a niche in the enormous fleet of motorcycles in African countries: cars are essential for the mobility of many Africans.

Hundreds of thousands of new cars roll off the assembly lines of factories across the continent every year. However, most of them are destined for export: major producer South Africa sends two-thirds of its production abroad.

However, in general new cars play a minor role. On average, according to estimates by the United Nations environmental organization UNEP, six out of every ten newly registered vehicles in Africa are imported used cars. With strong fluctuations: in Kenya the rate reaches 97 percent; South Africa, for example, prohibits the importation of used cars.

Many African governments have set a maximum age that cars cannot exceed when imported. In Kenya, the limit is eight years, so most cars are seven years old at the time of import. Neighboring Uganda, on the other hand, only draws the border at 15 years, and Rwanda draws no border at all. This means that cars there are, on average, much older and, according to a UNEP study, consume on average a quarter more gasoline than in Kenya and therefore emit more CO2.

Import bans are not a solution

In Ghana, the government tightened import conditions in 2020: it introduced a general age limit of ten years; The importation of vehicles that have suffered accidents is also not permitted. At the same time, it exempted new automobiles or their domestically produced parts from import duties. “The government believed this would reduce the price of new cars so that Ghanaians could afford new cars instead of used ones,” says Ayetor.

Festival Boateng researches mobility legislation at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. From his case study on Ghana, he concludes: “If imports of used cars are banned, people will suddenly not have more money to buy new cars. But they have to be mobile. This shifts supply and demand towards the black market,” says Boateng in an interview with DW.

It was not just regional middlemen who were perplexed when the Ethiopian government announced in late January an immediate suspension of imports of combustion engine cars. And this despite the fact that electric cars are currently still relatively expensive and only half of the population has access to electricity. In mid-March, the government backed down in order to reintroduce combustion engines.

Global North Electrical Pressure

Kenya was one of the first African countries to present an expansion plan in 2020: by 2025, at least five percent of imported vehicles should be electric.

Sooner or later, autonomy in Africa is likely to shift more toward electric cars. Used cars for the African market come mainly from the global North, and mobility there will change in favor of the climate: the EU has banned new combustion engine cars from 2035; The same date applies in Great Britain and in California, the most populous state in the United States. The United States has just imposed stricter pollution limits, which should also boost electric mobility.

So is the transportation transition to Africa moving through the back door? “We do not assume that Europe or the United States will immediately achieve all electrification goals,” says Godwin Ayetor, who also chairs the Vehicle Standards Technical Committee in Ghana. “But I think we have to prepare for it. And the issue of used cars will remain in the future.”

Between gasoline consumers, electric motorcycles and more radical ideas

But large areas of Africa are not yet ready for electric cars: mechanics lack the necessary specialist knowledge, supply chains for spare parts such as batteries simply do not exist, and there are not even uniform standards across Africa for charging plugs. Investment in charging infrastructure is also lacking in many places: when the oil company Shell presented major plans in March for a more or less global charging network, Africa was not included. For this reason, the continent remains dependent for the moment on used combustion engines, or on new types of electric motorcycles and tuk-tuks with replaceable batteries.

From the perspective of the Boateng Festival, the emerging change still opens up opportunities to solve other problems: “We have many traffic accidents, traffic jams and other problems. The switch to electric vehicles doesn't change that. We need a global concept that takes into account investments in public transport. “These investments could help reduce the need for cars.”

Currently, Dakar, the capital of Senegal, is installing a network of electric buses. The first phase is already underway and next year the project is expected to grow to around 120 buses that will be charged at night. Then he drives partially in his own lane, past the traffic jam.

Author: David Ehl

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