Startups tipped to drive EV shift amid standards concerns

Retrofitting is technically possible on all vehicles - recent old, buses, trucks, cars and two-wheelers. [iStockphoto]

Startups in the automotive space involved in engine swaps have been advised to address patent issues that could arise in the future as the electric mobility industry grows.

A State-backed public policy think tank while noting that two- and three-wheelers as good entry points for electric mobility, has noted that the sector also needs technical safety standards to gain confidence in the market.

The Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (Kippra) notes that retrofitting, which is the swapping of a petrol or diesel engine with an electric one, while presenting an opportunity for individuals to reduce fuel consumption, needs proper standards.

Kippra in the Kenya Economic Report 2023 details the role startups have in the sector, ranging from innovative ideas like engine swaps to the provision of electricity through mini-grids.

“Some startups covert diesel and petrol vehicles and motorcycles engines into electric, thus reducing carbon dioxide emissions,” the report states citing Opibus, a firm that started operations in the country in 2017.

While its initial focus has been to convert off-road vehicles for safari use, through its subsidiary Flux Motors, it has also ventured into electric motorbikes.

The retrofitting process involves removing the internal combustion powertrain, the exhaust and the tank and replacing them with an electric powertrain and a battery pack. This process takes between four hours to two days.

The report notes that retrofitting is technically possible on all vehicles - recent old, buses, trucks, cars and two-wheelers.

“Generally, the cost of buying a new electric vehicle is considerably high and hence not affordable by many households. Retrofitting provides an opportunity to reduce the shifting costs of owning an electric vehicle,” the report says.

Kippra cites this as a promising complementary solution to new vehicles.

“It will play a key role in ensuring fossil fuel vehicles are still useful in mobility and, therefore, the world transits to electric mobility and, therefore, reduce greenhouse carbon emissions in an inclusive and circular way,” the report says.

According to the report, the majority of public service vehicles run on fossil fuel engines, and retrofitters are expected to play a key role in making the transport sector go electric.

Kippra cites data from the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), which shows the number of PSV licences issued to 0-14 seater matatus has always dominated the market.

However, in the last three years, the number of minibuses and buses has increased compared to 14 seaters.

This, Kippra says, shows that investors are more interested in large-capacity vehicles for better returns.

“By converting minibuses to electric, investors will be able to reduce their operational and maintenance costs, and hence increase revenue,” the report says.

But to successfully convert fossil fuel engines, the think tank adds that retrofitters will require technical standards to ensure the safety of vehicles.

“It is important to address any constraints that may arise due to patents by automotive makers to support successful retrofitting,” the report adds.

META Electric is one of the startups that has ventured into public service vehicles.

This is by introducing T3 delivery vans that were manufactured by Chinese firm BYD, which is the world’s largest manufacturer of electric buses.

“Some of the leading public bus operators using electric vehicles from META Electric include Neo Kenya Mpya, which is one of Nairobi’s biggest public bus operators,” the report says.

“The engine is silent and has exceptionally high torque that makes the vehicle move from stationary almost instantly even when carrying heavy loads.”

Kippra notes the electric mobility sector in the country is in its early stages with the potential to grow.

“The country has experienced an increased number of innovators and startups targeting two and three-wheelers,” the report says.

Kippra adds that with over two million motorcycles, a majority of the riders have shown interest in converting their engines to electric.

“Further, equipping the electric mobility sector with technical automotive skills for engine conversion will build a home-grown supply chain for two and three-wheelers,” says Kippra in its recommendations.

“The sector requires technical standards to guide retrofitting necessary for successful conversion to electric mobility.” 

As the world moves from the use of fossil fuels to clean energy, the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region is lagging despite its vast renewable energy resources.

Amid calls for the creation of standards across the African continent, the continent is seeking funding to allow for optimal use of wind and solar power, which are available aplenty.

Countries also seek an integration that will convert national grids to regional ones, with Kenya Electricity Transmission Company (Ketraco) already having completed 96 per cent of its intended high voltage transmission line connections in Tanzania and inching further into other countries, according to the firm’s corporate communications manager Raphael Mworia, speaking to Enterprise in an earlier interview.

There are also over 5,000 active energy projects estimated at $1.9 trillion (Sh285 trillion) in the MEA, says BNC, the largest project intelligence service in the MEA.

But even as industry experts, such as Nicolas Daher, the lead energy analyst at The Economist Intelligence, warn that demand for fossil fuel will remain high for the next decade and coal use peaks in China in 2028, a possible proliferation of electric vehicles will slow down any accelerated use of oil.

The world’s demand for cleaner energy has intensified especially on the back of reports that greenhouse gas emissions reduced significantly during Covid-19, when industrial activity and transportation were suppressed.

But the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) said that Covid “did not slow the relentless advance of climate change” and that, as global leaders deliberated at Cop26 in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021, temperatures were unlikely to dip to under 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as a result.

A reprieve for those selling fossil fuel is the fact that electric vehicles are way more expensive than their internal combustion engine counterparts.

This means that few of them will be reaching African markets immediately and for the common folk.

Also, unlike fuel companies that have long set up fueling stations, charging stations are not yet established.

It could take some time for electric vehicles to gain a foothold and kick out sellers of alternative energy.

Within that period, these fossil fuel traders will have a chance to adapt and to adopt every necessary system that will keep them competitive when, finally, the transition, or overhaul, comes.

In some countries, vehicles powered by fossil fuels will be phased out by 2030. This is mostly in the West, with Africa’s adoption of electric vehicles expected to be slower.

It is expected that around 350 million electric vehicles will be on the road by 2035.

Kenya Power recently set aside Sh40 million that will enable it to transition to electric vehicles while phasing out fossil-fuel-powered vehicles and motorbikes from its fleet.