The dream began with distressed youths and handcarts, popularly known as mkokotenis.
A few years later, the dream is now a fully-fledged auto assembly firm driving Kenya’s electric mobility reality.
Kenneth Guantai pioneered an electric handcart (mkokoteni) and his company Auto Truck was recently given motor vehicle assembly status by the government.
It will have a line at the Kenya Vehicle Manufacturers (KVM) plant in Thika. Here he will also produce electric three-wheelers (tuk-tuks).
He recently also innovated a solar-powered tuk-tuk water bowser.
In 2015, Mr Guantai was running errands in the Nairobi central business district (CBD), when he encountered handcart (mkokoteni) pushers demonstrating.
The cart pullers were protesting a planned phase-out of the carriers from the city centre. “The county administration then had termed the handcarts as a ‘nuisance’ that was congesting the CBD and giving it a rugged appearance,” Guantai recalls.
“That disturbed me a lot as I realised there are many youths who don’t have any other certificate to find a job and relied on carrying other people’s stuff to earn a living.”
He was all too aware of their plight. Guantai had studied economics at the university but was yet to find employment, years after graduation.
He’d tried his hands on multiple businesses which failed, including starting a college that offered diploma courses.
In the CBD, he’d been running errands for his pharmacy hustle.
The experience in the CBD sent his innovative mind to work. He thought of developing a motorised, faster and presentable handcart that doesn’t require muscle to move.
There are thousands of handcarts in generating informal jobs in what is a largely unregulated business perhaps only checked by city by-laws. The business is also powered by human energy with no innovations in the carts since time immemorial.
“I started research on more efficient ways to use them and started interviewing several people such as university professors and engineers. The majority of them couldn’t answer how I can develop a motorised mkokoteni,” he tells Enterprise.
One foreign firm in China agreed to his idea. They could build motors to power the mkokotenis. He only had to send the design and they’d custom-make the electric kit. But he didn’t have any capital.
“I had all the data I needed but unfortunately, I didn’t have any capital to inject to make from concept to a prototype.”
This saw him shelve the idea. This was until he stumbled on a newspaper ad asking for innovators with ideas that can be commercialised.
This was the inaugural entrepreneurship programme by the Tony Elemelu Foundation that had attracted over 70,000 applicants. Guantai applied and was successfully selected.
He went to a boot camp in Nigeria after which he was awarded a seed capital of Sh500,000.
Armed with the funds, he approached the Kenya Vehicle Manufacturers (KVM) at Thika which assembles cars and trucks for global automakers.
He wanted to actualise his electric handcart from there with the help of experienced engineers.
He recalls that the then KVM managing director was sceptical of the idea as such a concept had been tried before but never took off.
Guantai hired a small space outside KVM to begin his project. Engineers from KVM would pass him by after work and put in a few hours on his project before going home.
A month later, he had developed a prototype.
Still underfunded, the next phase seemed impenetrable.
Luckily, another opportunity landed. In 2017, the United Kingdom's (UK’s) Royal Academy of Engineers introduced the Leaders in Innovation Fellowships across 15 countries worldwide.
Guantai succeeded and went to the UK after which he was given a Sh5 million grant to boost his innovation activities.
The funds were supposed to be channelled through an innovation centre. That’s how he landed at the Chandaria Business Innovation and Incubation Centre at his alma mater Kenyatta University where he has offices.
To scale further, the government was keen to support his ideas from the start, having kept writing to the cabinet secretaries and top officials about his activities.
Guantai was looking to tap into the global Green Climate Fund (GCF) by the Treasury.
They agreed that the electric handcart was a nice project but mkokotenis have zero emissions compared to motorcycles and tuk-tuks.
To tap into the funding, he decided to diversify into more e-mobility solutions.
That’s how he began developing the electric tuk-tuk. Their priority was things like motorcycles and tuk-tuks and was asked to diversify to tap into the funding.
Another challenge is that he didn’t have a factory to produce e-mobility solutions.
The government through the Ministry of Public Service placed him at the NYS to access their machinery and also impart skills to students.
In 2018, he was appointed as the head of research and innovation at NYS.
Another moment of luck also struck. The Royal Academy of Engineering introduced another eight-month fellowship targeting African innovators.
He was among the innovators chosen. This returned him to London where they even met and made pitches to renowned entrepreneurs such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates.
He was given a Sh5 million. The grant support also included staff training, and travel allowance to visit countries for case studies on e-mobility solutions.
From the Sh5 million, he made the tuk tuk which was launched by the cabinet secretaries for ICT and Youth Affairs Joe Mucheru and Margaret Kobia of Public Service and Gender Affairs at the NYS.
The NYS was also extending his support by paying staff and making sure the electric tuk-tuk came alive.
The UN also started paying attention to what he was doing.
His firm is now doing a pilot in Tanzania on e-mobility. This involves electric charging and a fleet management system for monitoring e-mobility in Africa.
Now, through government support, he’s gotten to assembler status. This means he will be assembling at KVM as he builds his company’s capacity.
“We can now comfortably take customer orders. The cost of a unit will be fair considering a tax subsidy on electric mobility,” he says.
Guantai says he has a competitive edge over tuk-tuk importers and other local assemblers by offering solutions, pricing and more space in the carriers.
“The advantage with us is that whatever we are producing is problem-based. For them, they are doing it as a business for us we are innovators,” he explains.
He gives an example of the solar-powered water bowser tuk-tuk which he innovated for Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) areas or urban ones where there’s water shortage. It has a capacity of 2,000 water litres.
Guantai further has plans to convert it into a mobile carwash which can be hailed through a mobile application.
The electric tuk-tuks can operate for 150km before charging. This means operators can drive them for a whole day and charge them overnight in normal sockets.
Their pricing is based on complete local manufacturing. They import most of the components such as the axles.
“The assembler status now enables me to send a design to a factory in Germany or China, do a Completely Knocked Down (CKD) bring it to KVM which is then able to assemble it,” he says.
CKD refers to cars that are assembled at a local manufacturing company.
His tuk-tuk prices will range from about Sh200,000, with the market prices being around Sh450,000. They are also bigger being six-seater and are even kitted to carry heavier loads.
They are at first selling by orders and have received orders from as far as South Africa with logistics firms also showing interest in their electric handcarts.
Their solar-powered tuk-tuk water bowser will cost between Sh700,000 to Sh1 million owing to the heavy and detailed modification.
He recently got a boost after the National Council for Nomadic Education in Kenya placed an order.
The electric handcarts – that can carry about 700kgs – will sell from Sh80,000 depending on the capacity.
His products target logistics and informal sectors that require moving people and goods over short distances.
“My vision is to set up one of the biggest electric mobility companies in Kenya and become a local assembler and manufacturer. I’ll create indirect and direct jobs for many youths. I’ll also scale up in the region, set up dealership avenues and reach many buyers in the continent.”
He also has some advice for budding innovators and entrepreneurs. Guantai says their approach should be problem-solving-oriented.
“An innovative idea can come from anybody. You don’t need to be an engineer to develop an innovation. Innovations are like a dream and can come from anybody at any time. Do you choose what you dream about you just dream?”
The firm, which has a team of about 20 staff, looks to break even after three years. This is as Auto Truck expands capacity and stabilises.