By Jacqueline Mahugu
| Mar. 15, 2020
Imagine plugging your car in the socket in the morning and within minutes, vroom! Until a few years ago, this was a dream. Not anymore.
Electric cars are here. One cab-hailing app has a fleet of 30 electric cars. Another company is converting regular cars into electric cars in Kenya.
And sooner than later, electric matatus and boda bodas will be on our roads.
The car is virtually indistinguishable from others on the roads, apart from the markings on it letting you know that it is 100 per cent electric with zero per cent emissions and that it belongs to Nopea.
It is quieter than any other car we have been in and it has a battery icon similar to that of a mobile phone — only that is bigger — where the fuel gauge usually is. In this case, it is called an energy gauge.
“I have driven this car for a while and I love it,” the driver tells us. At Nopea, the cars belong to the company, unlike other taxi-hailing firms, which do not own vehicles.
He drives us to TRM along Thika Road, where one of Nopea’s charging stations is located. He informs us that if the battery was completely drained, it would have taken about 30 minutes to recharge fully. “These are fast chargers. You can charge it at home from a socket,” he says. The rest of their charging stations are located at The Hub in Karen and Two Rivers Mall.
After a now novel but soon-to-be common experience, our next stop is Opibus to have a closer look at the making of an electric vehicle.
The Opibus car factory is divided into pre-production of the electric car systems and conversion of cars. We find a team of engineers hard at work, converting several four-wheel vehicles into electric (not hybrid) ones.
From mid this year, the conversion will take two days instead of two to four weeks due to the streamlining of the production and method changes, according to Filip Gardler, the CEO and founder.
Any type of car
“We remove the engine, fuel tanks and gear box, and replace them with their drive trains, which comprises an electric motor, battery packs, power electronics and auxiliary systems such as driver touch screen interface, type 2 charging port and so forth. We pre-produce all of them here in our factories,” says Gardler.
They work as a team of about 55 people, mostly Kenyans, trained to develop, assemble and produce electric drive trains, which are the groups of components that deliver power to the driving wheels.
As we move through the factory, we observe engineers hard at work on the last project of their project-based manufacturing.
“We can do any type of car. We started off with the tourism industry as an entry market but now we are moving over to the larger and more impactful markets such as public transportation,” says Filip Lövström, chief technical officer and co-founder.
Their two-year efforts have paid off, and they will now move from project-based manufacturing, where they have been working project by project, to mass production through line-based manufacturing. “The plan for this year is to roll out both electric matatus and electric motorbikes,” says Lövström. The plan has generated a lot of interest, and they are about to begin piloting the boda bodas in Nairobi, Western region, around Lake Victoria – Mbita and Homa Bay towns.
They plan to have 50 electric motorcycles in those areas to test for off-grid usage.
That means they will also be available for drivers who are off-grid and will use solar power to recharge them.
The founders say upfront capital expenditure is higher for an electric car, but removing fuel costs reduces operational expenditures by an average of around 80 per cent, so matatu owners and boda bodas will be able to keep more of their profits at the end of the day.
A full battery charge in one of their four-wheel drive vehicles on a rough terrain goes for roughly 100km, with the non-extended “baseline” battery pack. How long the charge goes depends on various things, such as the size of the battery pack and the terrain.
“On tarmac, depending on the various factors, the smallest battery pack for a 14-seater would power the car for about 150km,” says Gardler.
“Depending on the type of vehicle and how much you want to work with, we can do ranges of about 400 to 450km. That’s the potential.”
The cars from Opibus charge fully in one and a half hours, but they are planning to bring the period down to half an hour, utilising DC-fast charging. One can also use a domestic power outlet at home. That would take between six and seven hours, which most people opt to do overnight.
The ultimate goal of the company is to accelerate e-mobility evolution in this region.
“It is also to make sure that Kenya is not dependent on foreign imports to make the vehicles but that Kenyan engineers can design, manufacture and assemble electric vehicles.
“That is the competence that needs to be here and that is why we started this company. The plan is to leave this in the hands if Kenyan,” Gardler says.