Unlocking the potential of batteries in Africa

By Isaia Rossi

Combustion-powered motor vehicles are the main means of transport for the African population, and their exponential spread does not seem to be abating. More and more start-ups are active in this market, and with their services centred on electric motorbikes, they can contribute to the development and improvement of the African ecosystem.


Around 2010, there were only five million motorbikes in Africa; these have more than quintupled to more than 27 million by 2022. The vehicle crisis has affected virtually all modes of travel, and two-wheelers have been a viable substitute for filling these mobility gaps.


Two driving forces behind the popularity of motorbikes can be identified: accessibility and revenue generation. 


In urban areas, time is gained by disentangling oneself from the column; there is also the possibility for the population living in rural areas to have a means of connection that, due to road conditions, is not always possible with other types of vehicles.


Since 75% of motorcyclists use the vehicle as a taxi, the motorbike trade has created millions of jobs within the continent.


Downsides of the spread of combustion-powered motorbikes


It is estimated that 100,000 or more motorcyclists and passengers lose their lives on African roads each year; those who are saved often have serious injuries that mark their inability to continue practising their trade, weighing heavily on individual family economies.


The cause of the collisions is the fact that most motorcyclists have not taken a driving course and, with the aim of reducing their journey time and increasing profit, take on dangerous driving. The risk is also increased by not using or using poor quality protection, driving dangerous vehicles without safety features such as ABS, and by poor road conditions.


Coinciding with the increase in the number of motorbikes is an increase in the number of illnesses attributable to environmental and noise pollution; most vehicles do not have catalytic converters and the petrol, which is often sold illegally, is of low quality.




The opportunity of electric motorbikes


Electric motorbikes not only improve local air quality and noise pollution, they also reduce carbon dioxide emissions, since in many African cities the main sources of electricity are hydroelectric, solar and wind power.  


Electric vehicles also reduce the expenses associated with maintenance by as much as 50 per cent, and the cost of electricity would be two-thirds that of petrol.


The role of the taxi driver, like many other jobs on the continent, is highly gendered and male-dominated; the electric motorbike could be a means of including the female gender in the sector.


STIMA: example of one of over 50 start-ups in the sector


The African two-wheeler market is represented by 30 million motorcyclists, with an annual expenditure of USD 30 trillion; by 2030 its importance is expected to double. This market is very interesting for start-ups but difficult to permeate due to its strong competitiveness; most of the motorbikes in the area are low-cost vehicles imported from India and China.


The start-up does not set itself the goal of eliminating combustion vehicles currently on the territory, but aspires to represent the main market for vehicles that will come on the road in the next few years.


In order to find a place in the market, the new product must be advantageous compared to alternatives and meet the needs of its target group. During a typical day of a taxi driver, the distances travelled double the capacity provided by a single battery; the most feasible solution is to create a dense network of battery exchange centres covering the entire territory, where riders can return discharged batteries in exchange for charged ones. In addition, selling electric vehicles without batteries would greatly reduce the initial outlay in the purchase of the motorbike and thus be more competitive in the sector.


Once the appropriate infrastructure is in place, the arduous task remains of making inroads into the taste and habits of the population; start-ups must offer a product with a fair balance between cost and quality. The most immediate and tangible motivation to focus on is the profit to be made from operating electric vehicles; professionals in the sector would be able to make a higher profit than at present, which is often almost zero. 


The initial investment for the transition to electric mobility is enormous; it is therefore necessary for start-ups to have a secure financial model with which to convince investors and on which to base future operations. 


It is a high-risk, high-reward project where there is a chance for both parties involved to profit, contributing to the transition to sustainable mobility.


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