Africa: A Laboratory for Electric Mobility?

When we talk about electric mobility, our minds often jump to China, Europe, or the USA—countries where electricity is abundant and incomes support expensive ecological transitions. Africa, on the other hand, seems to be absent from this narrative, as it’s hard to imagine an electric Range Rover crossing a river in the middle of the savannah, 1000 km away from the nearest charging station.

Nevertheless, there are some signals that challenge this simplistic view.

Firstly, let’s recall how effortlessly cell phones became ubiquitous in Africa. Africa lacked the means and capacity to develop a heavy investment and maintenance-intensive wired network, yet it swiftly embraced cell phones due to their easy and low-cost infrastructure requirements.

Recently, Ethiopia surprised everyone by announcing a proactive electric transition. They have ample hydroelectricity resources, and their trade balance is burdened by oil imports. Could this be a subtle hint worth examining closely?

Mobility in Africa primarily revolves around two-wheelers (bicycles, scooters, motorcycles) and collective transport (taxis, bush taxis, buses, etc.). The proportion of automobiles is relatively low (~60 million units) with a majority (~85%) being second, third, or fourth-hand vehicles imported from Europe or Asia, often with uncertain conditions and maintenance.

In various forward-looking analyses, local governments naturally advocate for public transport electrification, but this remains largely marginal. According to a McKinsey/Shell study covering five countries (Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia), electric vehicles (EVs) will account for 110,000 units in public transport out of a fleet of 3.35 million units, equating to a 3% penetration rate.

Conversely, electric two-wheelers’ share will skyrocket to a 22% penetration rate, representing 90% of electric mobility in the 2040 fleet.

Therefore, electric mobility in Africa is predominantly about two-wheelers. Given the extremely constrained transportation costs (typically 1 to 3 Euros per trip) relative to low incomes, the economic models supporting this shift are likely to be very specific.

For instance, leasing or rental models that separate the battery from the two-wheeler, akin to the approach of Gogoro scooters in Taiwan, are of great interest. Here, one has a battery-less two-wheeler, cheaper to produce than a thermal equivalent, while leasing companies cover the battery’s Capex and Opex.

Such models already exist, like M-Auto (an Indian company) in Togo offering a “pay as you go” model at 999 FCFA/day (1.5 Euros), or Ampersand in Rwanda and Kenya, offering “pay as you drive” motorcycles to their driver customers.

Of course, access to electricity is a significant challenge, as 50% of Africans currently lack easy access. Developing local networks based on abundant solar energy or hydroelectricity is an essential prerequisite.

Thus, Africa, grappling with low incomes, constrained mobility, and a complex energy transition, could be particularly dynamic and inventive in developing a light decarbonized mobility model that might serve as a blueprint for the rest of the world.