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Emerging Tech

How e-mobility could transform Africa's transport sector

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There is a growing challenge of addressing Africa's urban transport needs, while at the same time holding in mind climate change concerns and reducing emissions and reliance of fossil fuels.

In this space, e-mobility is receiving even more attention as different technologies have evolved enough to allow for the realization of vehicles that deliver measurable benefits.

The factors that are making this a reality include improved exploitation of clean energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal; improved battery storage with smaller form factors; as well as lower input costs for the manufacturing of electric vehicles (EVs).

According to the United Nations, transportation accounts for approximately 25% of greenhouse emissions, and for 45% of all countries, the sector is the largest source of emissions and the second largest for the remaining 55%. Of the total transport emissions, road transport (motorbikes, cars, buses and trucks) accounts for 70% of emissions.

Recent estimates by the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicate that at least one fifth of all new vehicles sales from 2023 were either fully electric or hybrids of electric and internal combustion engines (ICEs).

Different automotive manufacturers have already set timelines ranging between five and 20 years within which they plan to phase out ICEs. At the same time, various government have similar timelines for phasing out fossil fuels in the road transport sector.

With that in mind, it is timely that many countries across Africa are quickly embracing electric vehicles as part of an overall strategy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, modernize urban transport and address growing climate crisis concerns.

For some countries, reduced reliance on the importation of oil also means they can now channel foreign exchange into areas that help address the climate crisis, including e-mobility.

Some key aspects where electric vehicles can have an immediate and significant impact include mass transit systems (buses) as well as haulage of goods (trucking) as these two areas are among the biggest contributors to emissions from transport.

Electric motorcycles are also slowly replacing traditional models which have become ubiquitous across Africa's main cities, including motorcycle taxis - known as 'boda bodas' in most East African countries and 'okadas' in Nigeria. The sheer number of motorcycles collectively contribute significantly to both noise and air pollution.

Against this backdrop, players in different African countries - both in the public and private sectors -are exploring how e-mobility can be ushered in, though for most countries this it is happening outside a harmonized national framework and policies.

As such, there may be overlapping initiatives or duplication of efforts as well as the lack of a cohesive vision that would not only bind together these efforts, but one in which all the stakeholders (transport, energy, climate change, urban planning, manufacturing, logistics, import and the retail etc.) are moving in tandem toward a common horizon.

Key considerations for e-mobility's success

The success of e-mobility initiatives primarily rests on key pillars: clean energy sources, charging infrastructure and an enabling policy environment.

Any country wanting to derive true dividends from EVs must have adequate clean and sustainable energy otherwise the result would be increasing emissions in the energy generation sector in order to reduce emissions in the transport sector.

As an example, Kenya generates at least 90% of its electricity from various renewable sources (solar, wind and geothermal) and out of its generation capacity, only about 60-70% goes toward meeting national demand. Therefore, Kenya is well poised to reap benefits from the uptake of EVs ranging from two wheelers to buses.

Countries that have considerable power generated from hydroelectric, solar and wind power, are in a better position to exploit the benefits of EVs than those using fossil fuels or sources that result in considerable emissions.

Charging infrastructure is an ongoing concern and especially since it takes away the ability to predict loads on the grid and this is something engineers are attempting to deal with.

Some discussions include how to view EVs as a positive aspect in the sense of how they can use or store perishable energy sources, like solar during the day, and feed it back into the grid - or even to individual households - during the night.

The limited availability of charging facilities reduces the appeal for those who may want to consider acquiring EVs. And, just as with many other similar products, investment focus on charging stations tends to be within a certain urban radius which helps solve intra-city travel needs but does not extend the appeal to inter-city travel.

However, some power utilities are exploring how they can prepare their grids to supply EVs and collaborate with private developers and urban planners to explore how charging ports can be made available at shopping malls, residential estates, parking bays and along major roads.

Environmentally friendly government policies

Under broad environmentally friendly policies, governments are exploring how to make EVs and their components more accessible.

In many markets EVs and components needed for renewable energy generation attract lower import duties. Without such subsidies current adoption rates would be woefully low. On the flip side, fossil fuels are being penalized a bit more.

Government policies can also help address some secondary concerns - which are mainly at individual or business level - which include issues like the up-front costs. Whereas true savings will accrue over time, EVs are not always within easier financial reach for individuals and businesses compared to the current ICE offerings. As such, acquisition costs need to be comparable or lower than ICEs to incentivize uptake.

The limited availability of charging stations reduces the appeal for those who may want to consider acquiring EVs.   (Source: Image by freepik).
The limited availability of charging stations reduces the appeal for those who may want to consider acquiring EVs.
(Source: Image by freepik).

While government e-mobility policies would be underpinned by environmental considerations, they can also extend to address other important issues around social inclusion, access to transport, cost of service delivery, public safety, and employment creation.

The adoption of EVs is also changing the complexion of the labor force in the energy sector. Staff from power utilities and other workers in this sector are being gradually drawn to the e-mobility space based on their understanding of the power and charging aspect. At the same time, sectors such as automotive assembly and repair are also upskilling their workforces to be ready to support EVs.

Overall, e-mobility is unlike mainstream ICT in the sense that there exists a ready pool of knowledge from which different sectors can immediately contribute as long as there is a harmonious framework and platform from which they can all participate.

The rise of e-mobility can also help buttress smart city strategies, many of which have intelligent transport systems and transport management to address traffic congestion, emissions control, regulation and compliance, public safety, public mass transport scheduling, among other areas.

The e-waste challenge

EVs will invariably exacerbate one existing challenge: e-waste. As it stands, digitization and modernization, couple with renewal or replacement cycles of devices - ranging from household electronics to ICT infrastructure - is already responsible for many millions of tons of e-waste across the continent.

According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), on average, less than 10% of e-waste in Africa is properly disposed of or recycled. EV adoption will certainly add more to the volumes and also to the types of e-waste classified as hazardous.

Thus, current efforts to address e-waste need to be urgently ramped up in readiness for an additional stream.

Some measures already in place in several countries include extended provider responsibility (EPR) principles under which manufacturers are held responsible for the collection and disposal of their products once they reach the end of their life or when they need replacement.

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The current model includes this responsibility from the source of production and including importers and distributors of items that will eventually become e-waste.

Unless mechanisms are put in place for proper disposal of EV e-waste, the benefits accruing to the environment will be eroded in a matter of years.

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*Top image source: Image by artursafronovvvv on Freepik.

— Francis Hook, Africa ICT Analyst, special to Connecting Africa

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