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What’s stalling Africa’s switch to electric vehicles?

There are millions of aging gas-guzzling cars on African roads — but some new, clean shoots between them. Electric motocycles are only one bearer of change. For cars, a large-scale transition is yet to begin.

by Tunae

There’s a hustle and bustle at the service station’s 12 gasoline pumps. A constant flow of new cars comes off the N3, the South African highway connecting the port city of Durban with the metropolis of Johannesburg.

A few meters behind the gas pumps, underneath a green tarpaulin, all is quiet. A charging pole for electric vehicles (EVs) is ready — but there are no EVs.

In South Africa it comes despite a comparatively good network of charging stations, although the country frequently experiences loadshedding, the now-routine practice of scheduling power cuts to keep the country’s power grid from collapsing.

From Dakar to Dar Es Salaam, from Cairo to Capetown, mobility is usually delivered by internal combustion engines, so-called ICEs. Often, they rattle under the bonnets of aging used cars.

A pole with a cable attached to the side reading 'Powering South Africa's eMobility revolution'
There’s a high demand for gasoline, but not for EV charging — a familiar scene across AfricaImage: David Ehl/DW

But mobility in Africa is on the move, even though this does not necessarily entail conventional electric cars.

Motorbikes and Tuk Tuks on the rise

There’s hardly any data about how many cars move through Africa — estimates range between 26 million and 38 million. But there’s an upward trend.

“There is already a huge demand for cars, and people are now buying a lot of motorcycles,” said Godwin Ayetor, a senior lecturer in automobile engineering at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana’s second city of Kumasi.

“In all the African countries, the ratio is shifting from the four-wheelers to the two-wheelers because they seem affordable for a small family. And they are able to maneuver a lot of traffic and bad roads.”

The advantages of driving motocycles and the three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, known as Tuk Tuks, include lower costs of fuel and maintenance, according to Ayetor.

Riding the current in Nairobi

Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, has seen an increasing trend towards electric motorbikes.

Thomas Omao is one of the tens of thousands of people who ride motorcycle taxis, popularly known in  Kenya as boda-bodas. He is also one of the hundreds — or maybe thousands — who ride electric boda bodas.

Omao delivers food across Nairobi — and seems happy with his choice of vehicle.

“So the electric motorbikes, number one, the vast advantage that I can say is that they are very easy to ride compared to the other ones. Number two, it’s cost effective,” Omao told DW.

Thomas Omao sits on his motobike, many more in the background
Thomas Omao has been able to save up thanks to lower fuel cost — he now owns a second e-boda, operated by one of his friendsImage: David Ehl/DW

Omao uses a flat rate of unlimited battery swaps for 400 Kenyan shillings ($3.00, €2.80) a day.

Battery swapping ensures riders don’t have to waste time on charging. Instead, they drop an empty battery at a designated swapping station for a full one, which takes as little time as filling a tank with gasoline.

“I have a friend of mine who normally uses a fuel boda-boda. For him, he uses, like, 1,000 shillings for fuel per day. So you can imagine how much I can save compared to the other fellow,” he added.

Omao bought his motorbike from Nairobi-based start-up ARC Ride. He also uses their around 80 charging cabinets for battery swaps.

“There are lots of different types of concerns people had: The main is range anxiety and that is the reason why we’ve put so many cabinets around,” Felix Saro-Wiwa, the company’s head of growth, told DW.

“So I think at this point you’re not going to be more than three or four kilometers away from any cabinet at any one point in the city,” Saro-Wiwa said.

“We want to reduce that down to two kilometers, so you’re really very close and have a sort of a similar density as you had to have with petrol.”

Felix Saro-Wiwa in front of a white cabinet with numbered doors, holding a motocycle helmet
Felix Saro-Wiwa aims for a dense network of battery swap cabinets across NairobiImage: David Ehl/DW

Later in 2024, ARC Ride plans to expand into two additional East African cities. They are only one of many providers of swap batteries across the continent.

This concept has proven its viability, according to Godwin Ayetor.

“Another problem it solves: The EV start-ups get to sell electric two-wheelers without selling the battery,” Ayetor said.

“This reduces the initial price of owning the electric two-wheeler. So people will not buy the batteries, they will buy the electric two-wheeler and rent the battery on regular basis. And so far it’s working very well.”

Used cars flood the market

However, among the immense motocycle fleet in Africa, the fraction of EVs is tiny. And when it comes to private cars, there’s hardly an alternative to ICE cars.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of new cars leave African factories, most of which have been earmarked for export. For example, South Africa, which has a history of manufacturing cars, ships two-thirds of its production overseas.

For customers in Africa, new cars play only a small role. In fact, many African governments have issued maximum ages at which used cars may be imported.

In Kenya, imported used cars are required to be younger than eight years, which leads to most of them being imported at the age of seven.

Neighbouring Uganda draws a line only at 15 years, while Rwanda does not place any restrictions on a vehicle’s age.

This age limit leads to cars in both countries being much older on average than in Kenya — according to a UNEP report

, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions are consequently one-quarter higher than in Kenya.

Is banning imports a solution?

Ghana’s government tightened the screws in 2020.

Imported cars now cannot exceed a ten-year age limit, while salvaged vehicles are completely banned. At the same time, new cars and car parts are exempted from import duties.

“Government was under the impression that all this will significantly reduce the price of new vehicles,” Ayetor told DW.Festival Boateng, a senior researcher in mobility governance at Oxford University co-wrote a paper on Ghana’s new regulations


“If you impose bans on their imports, it does not necessarily mean that the people, all of a sudden, have more money to import new ones,” Boateng concluded.

“But they still have to move. And so what you do is you practically shift the market, demand and supply, to the black market.”

In late January, Ethiopia stirred up the used cars market with a complete ban on ICE car imports.

Critics argued that the country was not ready for a large-scale shift to EV cars, with only 50% of Ethiopians having access to electricity.

In mid-March, the Horn of Africa nation’s government backtracked, re-allowing ICE imports.

EVs from Global North to ramp up the pressure

A transition towards EVs will likely take more time in Africa, depending on investment in infrastructure.

One of the first countries to introduce a roadmap was Kenya in 2020. The East African country aims at importing at least 5% EVs by 2025.

William Ruto getting out of a small yellow car, with military staff around
Kenyan President William Ruto used an EV car for making his entrance to the Africa Climate Summit that he hosted in SeptemberImage: Simon Maina/AFP

Sooner or later, more used EVs will arrive in Africa.

Imported cars usually originate in the Global North, where a transition is being encouraged in order to reduce CO2 emissions.

The European Union has banned new ICEs from 2035, the UK and the powerful US state of California set the same date.

The United States has just introduced stricter pollution standards on a federal level, also to nudge car manufacturers towards EVs.

Will Africa have to brace for a mobility transition through the back door?

“In a way, we still believe that Europe or US will still not be able to meet their electrification targets anyway because some of them keep being shifted on and on,” said Godwin Ayetor.

“But I do believe we will need to prepare for this. And we will have the issue of used cars also in the future.”

Between gas-guzzlers, e-bodas and more radical approaches

As of today, most of Africa is not ready for most EVs.

Apart from charging infrastructure and the additional pressure on the grid, it often lacks supply chains for batteries and spare parts.

Mechanics are not trained for EVs, and Africa lacks a continent-wide standard for charging plugs.

Electric motorcycles in Kampala


There are plenty of reasons why Africa will cling to used ICE cars for years to come — even while there is a shift towards electric two- and three-wheelers with swap batteries.

According to Festival Boateng, the imminent transition comes with a chance to simultaneously tackle other issues.

“There are lots of problems with the car-dependent approach that even a EV transition won’t fix,” Boateng told DW.

“We have a lot of road traffic crashes in Africa, congestion and several other problems.”

The Oxford-based political scientist argues for a more comprehensive approach that is aligned with public transport investments.

“And it’s it so happens that such investments actually help to reduce the need for cars,” said Boateng.

The Senegalese capital of Dakar serves as a good example for that.

In January, Dakar launched the first phase of what is going to be a network of electric buses. Bus lanes are being built along some stretches of roads that are notorious for traffic jams.

Around 120 buses are designed to be charged at night. During the day, they add value to commuters’ lives, overtaking the congested roads jammed with cars.


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