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Swedes on mission to change public transport through electric matatus

Monday September 23 2019

ELECTRIC CARS

The Swedish citizens seek to promote the use of electric matatus in Kenya. PHOTO | COURTESY 

NEVILLE OTUKI
By NEVILLE OTUKI
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What’s your typical matatu like?

A ramshackle jalopy driven by inebriated and sadistic maniacs hurtling down Tom Mboya Street on a weekday rush-hour and billowing black sooty smoke down its exhaust with nary a care in the world?

To a group of five Swedish innovators — four men and a woman — the future matatu presents a far rosier picture.

Imagine a matatu whooshing by without the typical engine noise, moving stealthily as if to avoid being noticed. Curiously, it has no exhaust pipe and, therefore, no smoke is released. This is the dream the group is selling.

Through their company, Opibus, Johanna Alander (the only woman), Filip Lövström, Filip Gardler, Mikael Gånge and Rawlings Nechevava want to convert petrol and diesel matatus on Kenyan roads to electric vehicles beginning next year, and Nairobi is first in the queue. No surprises there.

The innovators told Nation that they are working closely with Nairobi City County government and Matatu Owners Association to make the dream a reality.

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ECO-FRIENDLY

The conversion will see diesel and petrol engines removed from minibuses and replaced with electric motors and battery packs.

Also to be removed is the fuel tank, along with the gearbox, both of which are rendered obsolete by the electric drive.

Instead of refilling at petrol stations, the vehicles will be recharged using solar power at strategic locations.

The company’s selling point is two-pronged: “To begin with, electrified matatus are eco-friendly — zero smoke, zero carbon emissions, and no engine noise. Besides, since no fuel is used, they promise a steep drop in fuel and maintenance costs,” said Mr Gånge, 25, who doubles up as the sales manager.

Both new and second-hand vehicles can be converted, including those with faulty engines and gearboxes since such components are removed anyway.

Equally, the technology allows room for upgrades after the conversion, including adding battery capacity.

POLLUTION

Nairobi’s public transport system is shaky at best. Besides the daily chaos and traffic, city commuters are forced to put up with a cacophony of engine noise and plumes of exhaust fumes from the many vehicles on the road. This carries the risk of exposure to respiratory diseases.

Vehicles on Kenyan roads on average each emit 180 grammes of carbon dioxide per kilometre (gCO2/km), considered too high by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep).

The Unep recommends a lower emission level of 158gCO2/km for Kenya. Most Kenyans go for pocket-friendly older second-hand vehicles, as they can’t afford newer set of wheels which pollute less.

Kenya has about 2.2 million vehicles, 99 per cent of which run on petrol and diesel. Matatu Owners Association chairman Samuel Kimutai says that they’re still studying the proposal’s viability.

“We want to see if it will bring value to our current operational model in terms of efficiency, reliability and affordability,” said Mr Kimutai.

Last year, the number of licensed 14-seater matatus, minibus (15-33 seater) and buses (34-seater and above) stood at 57,949, according to Economic Survey.

Opibus reckons that matatu operators can save up to 80 per cent yearly in costs should they switch to electric drive.

“Fuel is often the largest cost factor followed by maintenance. With an electric vehicle, there is no fuel cost while maintenance is less frequent” said Mr Gånge.

“The electric motor has only one moving part in comparison to the combustion engine that consists of thousands. This means the risk of something breaking down is reduced significantly. And, since the gearbox is also removed, costly maintenance and breakdown risks are also avoided.”

PROFITS

The electric motors they use are shipped in from Switzerland while the battery pack comes from China.

Other smaller electric parts are sourced from the US. Opibus says it is yet to decide on the price-point for the matatu conversion.

The company pointed out that converted minibuses stand to recoup their investment in a year, to be followed by huge savings thereafter.

Just slightly over a year old, Opibus was founded in Nairobi by the group of six, all Swedish. By their own admission, nearly all are university dropouts.

They forayed into Kenya at the recommendation of one of the co-founders, Filip, who had grown up in the country as a boy with his family.

It wasn’t hard convincing them, given that he had effortlessly slipped into the fabric of Nairobi life and felt the energy of the people, the promising tech ecosystem and myriad opportunities, said Mr Gånge.

The startup has built and coached a local pool of young innovators drawn from disciplines as diverse as engineering and design.

Its workforce currently stands at 25, mostly comprising locals. Plans are afoot to double the number in the next six months.

HUGE COST

The company has since last year been piloting the conversion technology.

Its initial focus was on off-road vehicles for regular and safari use, targeting off-grid motor enthusiasts, travel agencies and wildlife conservancies as well as missions.

From their Nairobi workshop, they have so far electrified safari vehicles for Maasai Mara National Game Reserve, Chyulu Hills National Park and Lewa Wilderness, a wildlife sanctuary. The models include Land Cruiser HZJ 79 and Land Rover Defender 90/110.

The safari vehicle conversion process typically takes a week and costs between $30,000 (Sh3 million) and $35,000 (Sh3.5 million).

The company says it would in future cut the cost-range with the scaling up of the business and achievement of economies of scale.

The electric vehicles can run at speeds of over 120km/h. They cover a minimum of 140km before recharging with the smaller battery and up to 350km with larger batteries.

With only the sound of tyres being heard, the silent drive of an electric vehicle makes safari expeditions a quiet experience, says Mr Gånge.

WILDLIFE

And besides not leaving a carbon footprint in the parks, the vans can move much closer to wildlife, undetected, giving tourists a delightful closer view.

The rumble of the traditional diesel and petrol engines through the wild often scares away shy beasts.

“On the safari trail, guests can enjoy the raw nature without a rumbling engine while for park rangers and surveillance purposes, the silent electric units can be optimal when, for example, tracking poachers.”

Besides, the electric vans can drive through shallow water channels in the wild since the components in the electric drivetrain are mounted in water proof boxes.

South Africa has a similar company, Electric Safari Vehicles, targeting wildlife sanctuaries and games reserves with the electric conversion business.

In March, during the One Planet Summit in Nairobi, Opibus earned accolades from the UN with the deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed driving around Nairobi National Park on Opibus’ electricity-powered safari van.

Aside from vehicle conversion, the company looks to pilot electric motorcycles targeting boda-boda riders, which would be assembled in Nairobi from next January.

It’s a similar approach taken by Ampersand in Kigali with its e-Moto electric bikes.