The potential of micro-mobility through motorbikes and three-wheel vehicles to supercharge Africa’s e-mobility sector lies in collaboration, yet at the same time requires more participants to really get going.
Emile Fulcheri, CTO of electric motor-taxi start-up Stimaboda in Kenya sees the scale-up of electric motorbikes in Africa starting in the cities because the limited range of e-motorbikes gives the petrol bikes the advantage of being able to reach far-flung areas. The grid in rural areas is often not as reliable as it is in the cities.
Specifically, he recognises the potential for e-bikes to thrive when used in conjunction with minigrids.
Since remote, difficult to access rural areas with low density population are often unconnected to national grids, they make good locations for the installation of local minigrids. The minigrids in Africa are often powered by a combination of solar photovoltaic panels and diesel generators. Sometimes with batteries to store the solar electricity generated during the day.
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Fulcheri explained developers are often looking for ways to increase productive use of electricity at these minigrids, which helps the private sector make the projects more bankable. “They need people to use equipment that consume electricity and help the population generate revenues. So that they can consume and pay for more electricity, using the revenue they generate, using the electrical equipment.
“Electric motorbikes are a very good productive asset for rural micro-grids. They consume a good amount of electricity and they help people generate revenue by transporting goods and passengers,” said Fulcheri.
Hiten Parmar of South Africa’s uYilo e-Mobility programme agrees, point out there are opportunities in the micro-mobility market, especially for developing countries to which technology solutions provide more affordable access to sustainability mobility.
Micro-mobility possibilities is increasingly being integrated into transport systems
“For peri-urban areas we note electric micro-mobility bridging the gap into the cities and also serving for first and last mobility solutions. These solutions can be designed in Africa, manufactured in Africa by Africans, for the people of Africa, to solve our challenges of the African people.
“We also note that traditional vehicle manufacturers like Nissan, BMW, Audi, all have a portfolio of micro-mobility solutions that form part of the integrated transport systems for future customers,” said Parmar.
Alexander Koerner, UNEP programmer officer, concurred that small electric vehicles using relatively small batteries in the range of 2 to 6kWh can work well in combination with minigrid providers. “While minigrids in rural areas of least developed countries often suffer from low power demand, a local fleet of e-motorcycles and e-3-wheelers could add the constant and more significant power demand required to make solar minigrid solutions economically viable. As such, e-motorcycles and 3-wheelers could contribute to the decentralised electrification of rural areas in African countries,” suggested Koerner.
Parmar remarked that micro-mobility solutions are usually not energy intensive and thus the supporting charging infrastructure should be accessible through normal wall socket outlets within home and buildings. “There are also possible options of battery swopping as these battery systems are not as large as cars and so this is an additional, charging solution and business model for consideration.
Standardising battery swap infrastructure is not without its challenges
“We also see the solution of renewable minigrids being utilised within Africa for these charging hubs for ease of access to sustainable and reliable electricity for charging. In the case of embracing the circular economy, retired electric car batteries can be utilitised for more affordable branded batteries to power micro-electric mobility solutions,” said Parmar.
Fulcheri says there are several start-ups deploying electric motorbikes with battery swapping stations in Kenya. “It could make sense indeed for riders to have access to a common shared network of battery swap stations, rather than having access to one single small network for battery swap stations among others,” he speculated.
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However, he sees two challenges to setting up a common shared battery swap infrastructure, the first being technical in nature. “At the moment, companies in Kenya are each using different types of battery in terms of dimensions and chemistry. Some companies have motorbikes that use a hub motor on the rear wheel, so they have a lot of space to put a large battery pack in the middle. Other companies have motorbikes that use mid motor placed in the middle of the motorbike. They have less space for the battery, so they need to use battery packs that are smaller and more energy dense. It is difficult to agree on one single shape and chemistry of battery pack because it really depends on the design of the motorbike.
“So, if we have different batteries there is not a big benefit to sharing the infrastructure, because most of the cost is in the batteries,” said Fulcheri.
The second challenge lies in the business model. One e-mobility business model which has emerged with battery swapping is to enable the rider to pay for the battery through a Pay-As-You-Go model, rather than upfront: “Every time the rider comes to a swap station for swapping his battery, he pays a fee that includes the repayment of the battery.”
E-mobility business models are evolving according to customer need
To make this business model work, an investor finances the batteries, and this investor expects the returns for this investment by collecting the revenues from the battery swapping service. If any rider can swap his battery in any station owned by any company, it becomes difficult for the investor to collect the revenues from the batteries he has invested in.
“I think one possibility would be to see some bilateral commercial agreement between a few companies or to see companies merging and using a same standard of battery and swapping station. Recently there has been an agreement between international motorbike OME (Piaggio, KTM, Honda and Yamaha) to set up standards for swappable batteriers. We could see something similar in Africa, but the market is too early to say,” said Fulcheri.
Koenig believes the e-mobility sector in Africa could follow a similar trajectory to the mobile phone sector. “While every company had its own plug in the beginning, nowadays a few systems dominate the market. I hope it does not take that long for the 2 and 3wheeler sector in Africa to agree on common standards.
“In the beginning, coverage for charges and swapping systems is key, and private sector player should try to join forces to roll out a critical mass of vehicles alongside somewhat compatible charging infrastructure to provide an attractive offer to clients,” he explained. ESI
To hear more from Fulcheri, Koenig and Parmar, join them and fellow speaker Josh Whale, Ampersand CEO, as they ask Is the evolution of the electric motorbike the beginning of the EV sector in Africa? The Future Energy East Africa webinar into East Africa’s e-mobility Revolution will take place on 15 September at 14.00pm SAST. Register now for your front row seat.