Can electric motorbike revolution change the mindset of Africa’s youth?

Motorbike battery swapping centres are poised to be the first significant catalyst for the region’s transition to e-mobility so far
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The year 2023 got off to a bullish start for electric motorcycle promoters in East Africa. In the region’s largest economy, Kenya-based dealers are already calling it a revolution and it might well be, at least for Africa’s youth. So, what is this revolution about and how will Africa’s youth benefit?

The new thing in the innovative capital of Nairobi is the emergence of motorbike battery swapping centres. These are poised to be the first significant catalyst for the region’s transition to e-mobility so far. With Kenya reportedly having over a million motorbikes – more than half of which are commercial boda bodas – dealers are convinced they cannot go wrong investing in battery swapping centres. Their idea is to turn obstacles into business opportunities, and this is how it works.

Electric mobility batteries remain very expensive, accounting for half the total cost of an electric bike. An average new combustion engine (petrol) motorbike costs about US$2,000 in East Africa. A comparable electric motobike costs $4,000. In other words, cost remains an obstacle for those who would wish to transition to electric motorbikes. And here is where the dealers intervene.  They are selling the electric motorbike at $2,000 without the battery. They own the battery and the rider ‘borrows’ and pays to charge it. When the motorbike’s battery is running out of charge, the rider just takes it to the charge station and swaps it with a fully charged one.

What makes the deal even more attractive for would-be clients is the cost of charging. To cover the same distance, charging costs a fifth of what petrol costs. Moreover, maintenance/service is equally cheaper because an electric motorbike is made of less than half of the parts an equivalent fuel-burning motorbike has. Electric motorbikes are therefore far cheaper to service and less complicated to manage.

But if Kenyans are launching an electric motorbike revolution, Uganda is taking the game a notch higher, or is intending to. In his New Year’s address, President Yoweri Museveni announced an incredible deal for the boda boda riders: Turn in your petrol motorbike and walk away, rather ride away, with a brand new electric one. So is there a catch?

For now, it seems like a win-win for everyone concerned. Dealers are granted lengthy battery dealership ‘monopolies’ if they accept to supply electric bikes “for as long as it will take them to recoup their investment”. In the now ageing fuel engine era, it would be like granting you the monopoly to operate filling stations in a country for a century. The battery dealers will certainly ask for near-eternity as the time they require to recoup their investment. The boda bodas will ride away with half-free electric bikes. And the government apparently will not have to invest in charging infrastructure. Uganda too is estimated to have about one million electric motorbikes.

Kenya and Uganda taking overtly bold steps to electrify two-wheel transport doesn’t mean other East African countries, and indeed all of African nations, aren’t taking the same direction. After all, the technology revolution is global and rich and poor have to move at paces that are not too far apart. It is unlikely that Africans who are now buying used, made-in 2010 vehicles will wait for another decade before made-in 2022 electric vehicles are discarded in the developed world and dumped on the continent in 2033. After all, old electric vehicles would still have to be fitted with new batteries, making them as expensive as new ones. Therefore, cheaper electric mobility will have to be developed for emerging economies, just like cheaper phones were. With a large population, Africa will remain a lucrative market for cheap products.

In any major shift, there are likely to be unintended consequences, besides the intended ones. The intended consequences of two neighbouring countries massively switching their bikes from fuel to electric – which may of course take several years – are obvious: a drastic fall in fossil fuel consumption which would reduce the import bill and improve balance of payments; reduction in pollution; a reduction in the cost of public transport and private transport for the users.

The unintended consequences could be deeper and more interesting. For instance, the designers will likely have a lady customer in mind, so she can ride without disturbing her skirt, feet close together rather than sitting astride the seat. This may signal new social trends, and more independence for young ladies creeping in. Today, an outing in most African towns implies the male driving the female companion to and especially from the venue. If electric motorbikes become accessible for all, the dynamics of dating could be affected.

But even more important, the shift might affect the very mindset and the financial priorities of young Africans in the earlier phase of their careers/working life. The quest for the first car may cease being such a burning issue. Many young African workers who acquire a car have their appetite for professional advancement and for capital accumulation capacity adversely affected, as the car (usually second hand) consumes a significant part of their income. A popularization of electrical two-wheelers could see 21st century Africa taking on the 20th century Indian scooter culture – not just for the individual but the couple and up to the family of two kids. Only when a third kid comes would four wheels become a necessity. This could be for the better.

Anyway, Africa has little option but to change as mobility technology is changing worldwide. The developed world is looking at driverless cars – easier to deploy with proper road networks and reliable computer networks – which abolishes car ownership altogether. You call the car, it takes you to your destination and you are automatically billed, like making a phone call. These changes may take longer to materialize in Africa. So, we will continue driving ourselves, but affordably. And in absence of cheap cars, electric motorbikes may take over the roads sooner than later.

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