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Transiting to electric vehicles, can Africa afford to miss the bus of yet another revolution?

Policy makers should not fall in the pit skeptics are trapped in where they denigrate making of high tech products as “mere assembling”
An electric car at the charging station at Kigali Convention Centre. @The New Times

Unlike people in developed countries, most Africans don’t know that the age of electric vehicles is here. But can Africa afford to miss the bus (pun intended) as it did with the industrial revolution?

A quick update on e-mobility might be useful here. Usually, vehicles use Internal Combustion Engines (ICEs) that burn fuel to power them. E-mobility is about using electric batteries for powering cars. Switching from fuel to electric vehicles is gaining momentum for several reasons, the noble one being fighting climate change as ICEs are major polluters whose carbon-emitting exhausts escalate global warming. But the main reason is one that has always driven revolutions in the industrial sector – cost effectiveness.

For long, the high cost of manufacturing electric vehicles has been the main obstacle to this particular revolution. But given the escalating petroleum prices, it is becoming increasingly feasible, if not imperative, to go electric. Although an electric car is more expensive to buy, its cost of ownership (buying, charging and maintenance) is lower than for an ICE (fuel-powered) car. Today, 60% of an electric car’s purchase price is the battery, and the race by different makers now is on developing batteries that cost less, store more power in terms of kilometres it can run on a single charge. This is the decade of maturity for the era of electric cars that started off in 2021 with 18 million units on the world’s roads and is projected to reach 200 million units by 2030, at the minimum.

At last year’s Conference Of Parties (COP)26 in Glasgow, 100 governments and other stakeholders committed to attaining Zero emissions by way of having phased out making and selling of ICEs by 2035 – 2040. And while 2035 might look far away, it is only 13 years and you only need to think where you were in 2009 to figure that reaching 2035 too is coming soon.

So, is Africa prepared to cope with these changes when its source of transport equipment will no longer be making petrol/diesel vehicles in 13 years? The used ICE vehicles might become very cheap to acquire (read dump) for Africa but their spares will cost an arm and a leg.

Aside from the difficulty to acquire spares for ICE vehicles, there is the issue of increasing oil prices, which will only worsen as oil reserves diminish in oil producing countries. If you had said, before February 2022 (Russia – Ukraine war), that oil cartels would inflict high prices on the world to maximize their profit in preparation for their demise, you would have been laughed at as an alarmist. But this is our reality now and Africa has reasons to be concerned.

Most countries on our continent rely on increasingly expensive petroleum products, imported at huge cost using scarce foreign exchange, to power their transport sectors, which is the lifeline of the economies. Even those African states with oil wells mostly produce crude for export and import refined products for their market. Switching to e-transport is therefore not only about clean energy and saving the planet; it is about rationalizing economies. Fortunately, there is enough falling water in Africa to make electricity for the entire continent as we improve on harnessing solar energy.

The good news is that several countries have started taking serious steps in the direction of e-mobility.

Rwanda probably has the most progressive approach to transiting to e-mobility in Africa. In 2021, the country unveiled its Strategy for Electric Mobility Adaptation, which borders on the idealistic and requires the Kigali style of discipline to implement. It provides for fiscal incentives including capping electricity tariffs for electric car charging stations, Zero VAT for electric vehicles, spares, batteries, charging equipment, while on the other hand imposing carbon taxes for emitting units and industries. It also provides for rent-free land for e-charging stations on government land, Green license plates for electric vehicles which accord them preferential treatment in parking and even access to bus lanes; tax holidays for electric vehicle manufacturing and assembly. Additionally, though for now the average Rwandan hasn’t ridden in an electric car yet, the Volkswagen Mobility Solutions Rwanda (VWMSR) has started putting futuristic e-cars on the road. Most notably, Rwanda is aiming at mobilizing USD 900 million for its transition to e-mobility.

Kenya is in the process of developing its Electric Mobility Policy. In 2019, the country reduced its import levy on electric vehicles from 20 to 10 percent, and now aims at electric cars constituting 5 percent of car imports in 2025.

Uganda last month launched the first electric bus route for Kampala on which it deployed two 90-passenger buses designed and built by young engineers who embarked on the project 10 years ago, using a technology transfer deal with a Chinese company. Their project, Kiira Motors Corporation, is 100% government owned and the buses are temporarily being built in the military industrial complex while a custom-designed vehicle plant is being built in Jinja city.

This year in April, Zimbabwe published its National Electric Mobility Policy which covers tariff reductions for electric vehicles and also technical training.

South Africa’s Green Transport Strategy 2018 – 2050 offers incentives to manufacturers of electric vehicles, batteries and parts.

Morocco moved earlier in 2017 to remove road licensing charges for hybrid and electric vehicles.

Nigeria this year announced plans to start offering courses in electric vehicle engineering at three state universities. This was after Hyundai released the first electric cars assembled in Nigeria – the Hyundai Kona.

These and probably a few other initiatives on the continent are proof that Africans are neither oblivious of the developments in the mobility sector nor ready to remain mere spectators when the loud, fuel burning vehicles give way to soundless electric ones which are also environmental friendly as they do not emit any exhausts.

Policy makers in Africa need to realise that modern manufacturing is feasible on the continent as it is highly decentralized. Makers of complicated equipment like cars no longer fabricate every component of their product. They do not even manufacture half of the components. The auto makers of today design the car for their target-market and outsource the supply of components to the most efficient and cost-effective manufacturers across the world.

The policy makers should therefore not fall in the pit skeptics are trapped in where they denigrate making of high tech products as “mere assembling”. They need to dream big, take advantage of the digital era of access to knowledge and incentivize their innovators to uplift African economies so they make some of the important products of strategic value to African economies. Electric vehicles fall in that category.  After all, all the strategic minerals required for their manufacture are found in Africa, currently being taken away by outsiders for a song, if for anything.


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