Public transit is driving EV sector growth in Kenya
The public transit sector in Kenya is driving the country’s electric vehicle adoption as global calls for a switch to sustainable transport continue.
For the first time last year, commercial electric mass transport buses were deployed to various routes across Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, marking the beginning of the transition from fossil fuel vehicles for some public bus operators. This came after electric motorcycle taxis, locally known as bodaboda, had already made inroads into the popular two-wheel public transport segment.
The current trend points at the possibility of Kenya’s public transit sector maintaining its leadership of EV adoption, in contrast to most developed countries, where private vehicles are spearheading the transition.
This is likely to continue in the wake of increased production by startups eyeing the public transit sector, and the actualization of proposed tax incentives/exemptions and reliefs like the special power (charging) tariffs.
Kenya is making some strides and has zero rated supply of electric buses, and bicycles, and exempted imported and locally assembled motorcycles from excise duty, in the current finance act (which remains suspended).
Having the necessary legal and policy frameworks to encourage investment in the sector is equally important, said Moses Nderitu, the chief revenue officer of BasiGo, an EV startup and one of more than a dozen that have launched in the country’s e-mobility space over the last five years.
“This will be a positive boost since the EV sector is gaining traction in the country and for this momentum to be sustained, there needs to be backing from a legal standpoint,” said Nderitu.
EV buses and motorcycles
BasiGo has been operational in Kenya for the last two years, and has been enabling bus operators to switch from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. It already has 19 EV buses ferrying passengers across Nairobi, and targets to have 1,000 vehicles on Kenyan roads by 2025 — coming after the company began assembling the vehicles locally earlier this year. The company is using parts from China’s EV maker BYD Automotive.
Roam (previously Opibus) is another company that is building products for the mass transit sector in Kenya, and has ramped up the local production of EV buses. It is designing and developing its buses locally, and is on course to launch its first new and locally built EV bus in September, with projections of mass production beginning next year. This follows its 2021 plans to mass produce electric buses and motorcycles.
Roam has been in Kenya’s electric mobility space since 2017, but prior to its 2021 shift to manufacturing, which came after significant VC backing, it specialized in converting fossil-fuel vehicles to electric.
Motorcycles by Roam are already on Kenyan roads, and the company recently opened an electric motorcycle manufacturing facility with production capacity of 50,000 units a year. It is anticipating producing 2,000 units by the end of the year.
Roam, like nearly 10 other startups targeting the EV motorcycles market, is tapping bodaboda operators in Kenya and the larger East Africa region that are keen to save on fuel costs. The company says it has ensured the prices of its vehicles is almost commensurate with the commonly available ICE variants. It has also partnered with financing partners like M-Kopa to encourage the uptake of its motorcycles as it eyes the wider East and West African markets.
Roam says it has built a hybrid solution for its motorcycle clientele. “What that means is that they can actually charge the battery at home with the free portable charger, and they can also rent a battery. They get the best of both swapping and home charging,” said Roam chief product and strategy officer, Albin Wilson.
A 2023 e-mobility report by Kenya Power estimates that there are more than 1,350 electric-powered vehicles on Kenyan roads, with 62% being motorcycles. This report says annual registration of motorcycles has doubled over the last five years to 252,601, and that there are 1.2 million motorcycles in Kenya.
Battery swapping stations
Besides motorcycle sales, these startups have built battery swapping hubs across their regions of operations (mainly in Nairobi) creating a network of charging infrastructure that is wide enough for bodabodas to operate without worry of running out of charge or failing to find nearby swapping stations.
BasiGo and Roam have built charging stations for their businesses, and will continue widening their networks, as more buses are added on different routes.
The businesses are building the charging stations in anticipation of increased EV uptake, especially in the wake of a nearly 100% increase in diesel and gasoline prices over the last decade in Kenya, and the government’s push for sustainable energy driving its climate change agenda. Kenya already generates over 90% of its power through renewable energy sources, including geothermal, wind and solar.
Arc Ride, a startup in the two-wheeler space, recently introduced to the Kenyan market its Corbett motorcycle, a crossover vehicle intended for delivery and travel. The company has also established an extensive network of battery swapping hubs in Nairobi, with its count currently at 60. The company’s co-founder and CEO, Jo Hurst-Croft, told TechCrunch that they are on track to have 100 by September, and serving markets beyond Kenya. Arc Ride buyers do not own the batteries, which Hurst-Croft said makes the motorcycles costlier.
“Arc Ride is planning on being the battery-as-a-service (BaaS) ecosystem of choice for other OEM’s [original equipment manufacturer]. We will set up in two other countries next year and have a partnership that will launch soon in West Africa. Through setting the standard we can work with many companies to make BaaS a reality in the rapidly-growing African cities,” said Hurst-Croft.
Ampersand also signed an agreement with TotalEnergies, one of the largest petroleum products distributors in Kenya, to build a network of battery swapping and charging stations, starting with Nairobi.
As startups build charging infrastructure, state-run power utility company Kenya Power is building charging systems for businesses, homes and public places like gas stations. This is geared toward boosting the local EV uptake.
“Public transport is a critical need in Kenya especially in our cities and EV sector players can plug in this to reduce tailpipe diesel emissions experienced daily,” said Nderitu.
“The private vehicle sector also has opportunities in EV, we are seeing this through the acceptance of hybrid vehicles in Kenya, only that the demand for this (EVs) is slower compared to that in the public transport sector.”
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.