There is a race going on out there in Europe, Asia, and America. It is the race for electric car making and marketing. It will reach its climax in this decade but there will be no clear winner. What looks clear is the likely loser, and that loser is Africa. Africa is poised to lose because it is not taking part in the race, and may become a major dumping ground for old cars, which it already is but, at a chocking scale.
It won’t be like the Space race between USA and USSR which had only had two contenders. This EVs race has many competitors, with each investing tons of money and continuously conducting research to do better than the others. The early EV maker Tesla appears to be in the lead as a company but among countries, China is by far the leader, already selling millions of units a year, mostly in its own market. However, the situation is changing fast.
Here is a brief glance at the situation as of mid-2022. Globally, there are already 20 million EVs on the road with over 10% of new car sales now being electric ones. EVs sales in the first quarter of 2022 were over 2 million units. The biggest market is China but it is mostly supplied by Chinese makers whose cost of production is lower. A Chinese EV costs about 10% more than its equivalent traditional car, while for other countries, an EV costs about 40 – 50% more than the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) equivalent. Last year was the tipping point when the overall cost of an EV (purchase plus running/maintenance costs) in Europe fell below that of a fuel-powered car.
Tesla is the most visible foreign EV maker operating in the Chinese market. World auto giants General Motors (GM) and Volkswagen (VW) are not yet high–ranked in the EV race but they have entered in high gear. GM is investing $35billion by 2025 while VW is investing a whopping $55billioon by 2026 in EV development.
The Chinese market remains the most attractive. This year alone, the Chinese will have bought at least 4.5 million EVs. But penetrating the Chinese market is still difficult not only because of pricing but also because China leads in making smarter EVs. In other words, a recent Chinese EV is as pleasurable and convenient to operate as its European and American counterpart although European and American EV makers still invest more in safety measures than their Chinese competitors. It is actually on grounds of lacking enough safety features that Chinese models also cannot penetrate European and American markets. Possibly, the most winning attribute of an EV is the length the car can run on a single charge of its battery. While most EVs on sale will cover 200 – 300 kilometres on a single charge, Volkwagen has declared that its cars will soon be coming at 1,000 kilometres for a single charge! Some automakers are manufacturing hybrids –cars running with both fuel and electric options, but these are likely to be as transitional as those text pagers before the advent of the mobile phone (which people below 30 years never saw).
Where is Africa in this? An EV desert? Apparently. So what happens now that the countdown for fuel engines has started and the continent seems unprepared for the upcoming revolution.
There are about 1.5 billion vehicles in the world. With the ‘official’ average lifespan of a car being 10 years, the newest of those 1.5 billion cars could be written off by most standards within a decade. Now Africa has less than 50 million cars. So when the existing 1.5 billion fuel-burning cars lie condemned at the end of 2032, what will happen to them as they will only be replaced by EVs. The answer is simple – the condemned ICEs will end where condemned cars usually end: Africa.
Currently, some consumer organisations especially in West Africa are trying to raise a voice against condemned cars being shipped to Africa, and sold to Africans expensively, when at worst they should be given free since the owners in the developed countries are saved the burden of disposal costs. But supply and demand are not about justice. So as ICEs take the count, chances are that the importers in Africa are going to have a field day. Expect a sleek Range Rovers 2022 model to go for a song or nothing in 2030.
So will Africans celebrate when it starts raining cars on the continent five years or so from now? They would, were it not be for the little matters of fuel prices and spares. Maybe it is too early to tell but given the current trend regarding fossil fuels, clean energy, climate change, Russia-Ukraine war, it may not be a cars party.
There however may be several viable approaches to mitigate the foreseeable issues attached to this dumping trend. One is for Africa to use its vast arable land, rain, and irrigation to promote bio-fuel and start converting all the wonderful cars that may start falling from the skies on us from burning fossil fuel to biofuel. While converting ICE cars to electricity has already been dismissed by scientists as not financially feasible, the counter-argument for this would be that the initial cost of acquisition (for unwanted ICEs) would be low. Secondly, extracting fuel from plants is already being done at a small scale with low technology, unlike drilling and refining petroleum which is a multi-billion-dollar affair. And after all, Africa can be in charge of its bio-fuel production, unlike fossil fuels whose production technology it may never own for decades to come.
Another is to jump into the EVs manufacturing fray and start making African EVs. This is not entirely uncharted territory. Uganda’s Kiira Motors Corporation has been designing EVs and under a technology transfer deal with China, building them in the country. The first Kiira electric buses have been on the road for almost three years, hired by the Civil Aviation Authority to ply the Entebbe Airport – Kampala route. An EV is ‘simpler’ to build as it takes a tenth (3,000) of the number of the parts that make up an ICE one (30,000).
Hopefully, the transport policy officials in Africa are thinking hard and fast about this. If they aren’t, the continent could be doomed because, even as it may not afford to buy the EVs, their hard-to-dispose battery waste could still be dumped in Africa.