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Q&A: Hong Kong Expertise Playing Pivotal Role in Transitioning Popular Motorbike Taxis in Kenya

Andy Gao, Omnivoltaic CEO with one of the Kenyan technicians, S. Kibet showcasing one of the electric bikes assembled in Kenya. Njenga Hakeenah / CGSP

A small group of entrepreneurs from Hong Kong and China is pioneering a new e-mobility business model in Kenya that aims to revolutionize the country’s ubiquitous motorbike taxis known as bodabodas.

Tucked away in a garage in Nairobi’s Upperhill business district, local technicians mingle with a handful of Chinese technicians to rebuild old, dilapidated motorcycles and convert them into newly-refurbished electric-powered bikes that will quietly ferry people and goods throughout the capital.

The team from the Hong Kong-based company leading this effort, Omnivoltaic Energy Solutions blends their expertise in sourcing parts and components from China with local insights from partners like the Kenya Renewable Energy Association (KEREA) to ensure these new bikes are well-designed to meet the needs of Nairobi’s taxi and delivery riders.

With an estimated 1.2 million motorbikes on the streets of Nairobi today, the addressable market to eventually convert all those bikes from petrol to electric-powered is enormous. 

Andy Gao, the company’s chief executive, said the transition to e-mobility in Kenya will likely happen much faster than most anticipated due to the ever-rising cost of fuel, but it’s not going to be easy. I spoke with Andy to find out more about his experience building a new energy transportation company in Nairobi.

NJENGA HAKEENAH: What kind of EVs are you looking at and what are you focusing on?

ANDY GAO: In Kenya, Omnivoltaics is focusing on e-bikes, e-boat, and e-trucks. However, the main agenda now is the e-bike due to the demand.

NJENGA: What drove you to focus on e-bikes in Kenya?

ANDY: The price of fuel has increased a lot over the past few years, but the move was more technical-driven. The battery tech in the past three years has improved a lot and the longevity and consistency. Thus the lifecycle of the battery can be assured.

Using the Internet of Things (IoT) technology and in comparison to internal combustion engines (ICE), e-bike batteries can be monitored to ensure optimal performance. The Kenyan engineers we are working with understand the big data and cloud technology which makes it easier to provide e-mobility solutions and also maintain the batteries thus assuring performance.

NJENGA: Does this mean that you offer training to Kenyan teams to equip them with the skills that will help with the e-mobility shift?

ANDY: Since we supply the drive train, the battery and the IoT technology, the data is not only for the battery but also for all the stakeholders including suppliers, charging stations and bike riders.

We have a lot of technicians in training since the most important thing is about the IoT technology and the data which offers details of not only the health status of the battery but also for their operation and maintenance. With local partners, the training comes in handy in giving them skilled human resources who can handle any challenge that comes from the e-bike end users.

NJENGA: Fuel prices are increasing and this cost that is borne by bodaboda owners is hurting their profit margins. In comparison, the shift to electric bikes promises a cheaper alternative to expensive fuel. In this case, how and who owns the battery?

ANDY: Local suppliers own the batteries but they sell motorcycles to the bodaboda riders who are the end users. The suppliers are spread out across the country and they work with the end users depending on their specific needs.

The suppliers have enough batteries to provide the bodaboda riders in case they need to swap them. An e-bike runs 100km on a single charge and so instead of waiting for the battery to charge which takes an hour, they just swap the batteries, pay for the charge and they are ready to go.

This makes it easier for the riders since there are swapping stations across the country, with more coming in partnership with petrol stations and other stakeholders.

Each battery charge to full capacity costs less than half a liter of petrol. The battery capacity is 3kwh and charging it costs $0.68 (Kshs93) and so the riders get to make savings in that way. Also, they don’t have to worry about the range they can cover since they already know the distance they can manage on a single battery charge. This removes range anxiety from the riders when doing their errands. 

Using IOT, our technology team tracks the performance of each battery and they can narrow any problem to a single cell in the battery. In case there is a problem, the rider is alerted and the battery is replaced. This gives an advantage to the riders in that they do not have to worry about the cost of replacing the battery.

NJENGA: Where have you piloted the project and what has the response been like?

ANDY: We have piloted this in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where we have dispatched 120 units. We also have a pilot in Mombasa and two in Nairobi. 

In the DRC, some of the riders have abandoned their old motorcycles at home and are leasing e-bikes. They say they can save $4 more daily on their previous savings when they were using petrol.

In Kenya, we are working with KEREA and we plan to increase the number of units released to the market since the demand is growing.

NJENGA: The clean energy shift is seeking to optimize energy efficiency and reduce emissions. This shift also means there will be a lot of waste as riders abandon their old bikes for green public transport or buy their own e-bikes. How do you handle the waste…?

ANDY: To reduce waste, we’re retrofitting motorbikes to make them electric. Instead of the bike owner having to throw away their asset, we work with them to optimize their existing investment. We replace the engine and the battery and then mount a Vehicle Control Unit (VCU) on the old frame. The VCU is connected to the battery and the rest of the system and feeds all the data to the cloud so the local supplier has access to all the information from the retrofitted bike. The data helps with monitoring the health of the battery system as well as geo-tracking and geo-fencing so that the bike owner is always updated on what is happening with their bikes. And the most important value of the VCU is monitoring the real performance data of the battery to harmonize the motor and battery which will secure the battery’s longevity. There is also a digital display panel on the bike and an App on the rider’s phone which work together to help with the data needed for optimal performance of the battery.

NJENGA: When you retrofit the bikes, what do you do with the old batteries and the motors?

ANDY: Recycling is key to ensuring environmental protection. Bodaboda riders do not have to waste their batteries and their motors and they can always refit their ICE motors in case they need to. To avoid wastage, we use the most available motorbike frames in the market. This ensures that in case the riders need to replace any part, then they won’t struggle to find them.

For the electric batteries, they can be used as a power storage system which can be used as backup UPS systems. This ensures that the battery’s lifecycle is exhausted before it is sent to recyclers.

NJENGA: From your experience in the sector and having been in Kenya for two years running a business, what is the biggest hindrance to Kenya’s shift to e-mobility?

ANDY: Taxation is limiting the process of acquiring materials needed for the transition. Across the board, the materials we use and the components are not tax exempted. This leads to the products being expensive which slows down the adoption by the end consumer. While the demand is there, this is one of the major limitations to seeing an accelerated e-mobility shift in Kenya.

Andy Gao is the CEO of the Hong Kong-based e-mobility company Omnivoltaic Energy Solutions.

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