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The new mobility wave has hit the shores of Africa and, leading this revolution from the front, is Kenya-based electric mobility company Opibus. Believe it or not, the idea to start Opibus was born out of a research project to maximise carbon reduction for a Swedish University back in 2017.

“Back then, we saw that there were numerous solutions catering to carbon reduction in Europe, US or even China. This was clearly missing in the African continent, which needed tailored vehicles for the local use cases here. This is why we made it our mission to build, design and develop tailor-made vehicles for the East African region initially, and then the African continent as a whole,” says Albin Wilson – Chief Strategy & Marketing Officer at Opibus – speaking to Auto Futures.

Shared mobility is a huge phenomenon in emerging markets, as well as high density urban areas, where finding a parking spot can be almost impossible. Moving away from targeting individual commuter vehicles, Opibus decided to electrify the larger portion of the shared transport market.

The reason – a really good public transport system that’s efficient and high on utilisation will result in the lowest carbon emissions possible. To that end, the company decided to narrow its focus down to shared, connected and locally developed vehicles like electric motorcycle taxis, locally called boda bodas, as well as public minibuses, known as matatus,

“The thing with electric motorcycles is that we can charge from just about any outlet that you put your cell phone in. That means that charging infrastructure isn’t holding back the system. Now, if you have an electric motorcycle, you can plug it into the same outlet as your phone,” explains Wilson.

In the case of electric buses, they work on predefined routes.

“They go from point A to point B or from point B to point A, or around a central hub location. That means that we can predefine the charging stations. This paves the way for overnight charging or slow charging, which is easier to deploy, because you know where the buses park overnight. Then we can have fast charging on the route, which allows us to have a lower battery capacity and more cost-efficient vehicles.” he says.

Going down the retrofitting route is a very conscious one for Opibus. It significantly brings down the implementation costs, and can be implemented locally, thus building up more jobs for the locals.

The company’s conversion kits are built up of modular batteries, which means that irrespective of the size of the vehicle’s system, its control systems and internal combustion engine is replaced with an electric motor that connects straight onto the drive shaft. This allows Opibus to retain the vehicles’ drive shaft and the transmission system, meaning that it can use the paddle system for the accelerator and brakes.

This gives the vehicles a second lease of life and is cost-effective to both the buyer and the company. But, most importantly, for Opibus it means not having to reinvent the whole bus body for a new market.

Speaking about the company’s other key target segment, electric motorcycle taxis, Wilson says: “While the electric bus makes sense of course, 90% or so motorcycles on the road here are motorcycle taxis run by what you’d call micro-entrepreneurs. In most cases, these micro-entrepreneurs acquire their motorcycles by the leasing to own method, by which they pay it off during a fourteen month period. With Opibus, these motorcycles run on battery instead of fuel, which brings down the running cost by 60%. This significantly reduces their overall operating cost, which is why the response from this community has been really great.”

In Kenya, fuel prices have risen 26% over the last year, so you see why this has become a compelling offering. 

Opibus

On a Mission to Electrify Africa

According to Wilson, the mist of apprehension around adopting an electric vehicle disappears as soon as the value proposition of the offering becomes clear, which, in this case, is just how cost effective the electric route is.

In an emerging market, value for money and savings is very important, and it seems like Opibus has hit the nail on the head with its offerings. Generally, most of these drivers drive less than 100kms a day, and so a vehicle with a removable battery offering is a compelling one to them. And, as Wilson points out, is one that immediately takes care of any range anxiety that drivers might have.

“Our next generation motorcycle will have a dual battery, which will have a range of 200kms, so it’s well above user needs. Sure, we will see one or two years of little apprehension, but I think if you see your friend making 60% more profit than you, it’s quite compelling for you to switch over quickly. The general trend that we’re seeing in tech adoption in East Africa, and especially in Kenya, is that there’s very low friction for adopting the technology if it works better,” he adds.

Opibus has 150 motorcycles and 12 vehicles out on the roads today, with a plan to produce 3,000 motorcycles by early next year and then scaling from that by 10x. The company’s next-gen motorcycle is built from scratch, with its own frame, powertrain system, seating, the whole nine yards.

While it has the most number of pilot projects running in Kenya, it is also running pilot projects simultaneously in five other countries – Ghana, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. The target of these pilots is quite obviously operators rather than individual customers, and Opibus hopes to cater to local business models.

Opibus

African EV Market on the Cusp

For now, the company is focused on solving for the everyday commute by having a proper product offering in the bus segment, as well as building a commuter bike with a bigger battery and stronger motor in the future.

Speaking about the mobility scene in Africa and the role that he hopes for Opibus to play in the wider scheme of things, Wilson says: “I think the electric mobility scene here is just on the cusp of breaking mass scale and I think our timing, if I dare say, is spot on. We are just ramping up production now to scale our business and are seeing a lot of B2B customers that are very interested in this product and reselling it to B2C clients, so I think it’s going to be absolutely massive. Today, Kenya has 86% renewable energy production already and 20% overproduction every single day. If they can sell this to consumers through transport, then hey, why not?”

He concludes: “I think we are currently the leading player in the electric mobility movement in Africa, and we really hope that we retain that. We also want to show competition that there is a market and we would like more people to add to it. All we want to do is accelerate this movement. Our end goal is to maximise impact and carbon reduction, as well as to show the world that it is a proven market, and it is as ready for electric vehicles as it will be.” 

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