Electric vehicles are Africa’s future… but economics will determine how smooth the transition is from petrol

Analysis in brief: Africa will be the world’s last continent to embrace electric vehicle technology, largely because of the world’s use of Africa as a marketplace for its used petrol-powered cars. However, the next 15 years, which will see Africa’s transition to the inevitability of electric vehicles, will be time used by African countries to prepare the infrastructure and policy needed for the transportation revolution.

Cost hinders electric vehicle roll-out

Africa contributes 10% of the world’s carbon emissions – the cause of global warming that is disproportionately and negatively impacting Africa. However, that percentage is certain to rise because Africans will still be driving polluting petrol-powered vehicles long after these have been phased out of the developed world. The reason: 85% of vehicles purchased in Sub-Saharan Africa are used cars imported from the rest of the world. While electric vehicles (EVs) are less costly to use over the vehicle’s lifetime – electricity is cheaper than petrol – their upfront purchase price is prohibitively high for most Africans. A used petrol car imported from abroad costs a fraction of the US$ 55,000 price tag of an average EV. Of course, if the developed world were serious about cutting carbon emissions, it would ban the export of used petrol cars. Instead, the developed world seeks one last profit from Africa for its discarded petrol cars. A UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) study found that 40 of 49 Sub-Saharan African countries have poor-to-weak used-car market regulations, allowing cars with low emission standards to contribute to a growing crisis of urban air pollution, which is all the more reason to switch to EVs.

Because of the cost consideration, the wide-spread use of EVs by Africans must wait until the first generations of EVs are relinquished by their users in the Americas, Asia and Europe and these enter the used-car market. They will then be shipped for resale in Africa. This is likely to be more than 10 years in the future – the mid- to late-2030s. The delay is ironic, given the impossibility of manufacturing EVs without Africa’s raw materials that are necessary for electronic technology. However, the delay also gives time for African countries to put in the physical infrastructures and create the government regulations required for EVs to operate. Hopefully, these will be in place by the time a steady supply of EVs begins to flow through Africa’s ports. By 2035, China, the European Union and the US will only allow new cars that are EVs, cutting off the supply of used petrol cars. By 2050, 80% of all vehicles sold in the world will be EVs. By that time, technological advances and economics of scale will lower the price of new EVs, making these more widely owned throughout Africa. The first users of EVs will be commercial drivers such as buses, delivery vehicles and road freight vehicles. EVs have lower operating costs, which make them more economically viable the longer they are on the roads, which is as often and for as long as possible for commercial users.

Two-wheel vehicles like motorbikes that are used as taxis and delivery vehicles are already becoming electrified in countries like Kenya and Nigeria as companies invest in fleets of these. In a template for future EV incentive programmes, UNEP is currently working to introduce electric two- and three-wheel vehicles in nine African countries: Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda. UNEP is working on policy to encourage the use of electric light-duty vehicles for commercial use in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mauritius, Mozambique, Tunisia and Zambia. Finally, the UNEP is working to introduce electric buses in Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa and Tanzania.

EVs without electricity are literal non-starters

Potential users of EVs share one primary worry: the range of the vehicle. Range includes not only distance but time the vehicle is operating, such as hours idling in traffic in Cairo or Lagos. The proliferation of charge points will alleviate such anxiety. In fact, it is a worry that most Sub-Saharan African drivers of personal cars need not have. These drivers travel less than 100 km per day, and park in a dedicated spot at work, while their home parking never varies. Thus charge points at home and work will be all they require. (EVs are less costly to operate in stop-start heavy traffic conditions, which tend to consume fuel at a greater rate in petrol-powered cars.)

Commercial vehicles, which routinely travel more than 100 km are more demanding and will require charging points throughout their routes. Of course, it is a given that national governments will need to strengthen their countries’ electricity grids. Electricity supplies must be reliable and accessible. Charge stations will have to be as common and ubiquitous as petrol stations are today. Emergency charge points along highways and in isolated areas will be required. These will be the responsibility of those governments, unlike petrol stations, because electric utilities are state-owned in Sub-Saharan Africa. In one sense, this ownership can simplify meeting the needs of EV policies that states design. However, the availability and reliability of electricity has been a challenge that has eluded governments for generations, despite being an economic imperative. Now, upgrading the electricity grid will become a transportation imperative as well, and consumer and commercial pressure will mount for dependable power service delivery.

However, no matter how many charge points appear and how dependable they are, EVs will face constraints in the time it takes to recharge a battery. Filling up a petrol tank takes minutes. Recharging the batteries of a large commercial EV like a truck or a bus making a long-distance journey can take hours. For this reason, commercial freight firms are already setting up systems – and those who have not are making plans to – to run an infrastructure of battery replacement centres. Think of these like the oases that served the camel caravans crossing the Sahara Desert, or the way stations that serviced the stage coaches of Southern Africa in the 19th century by providing a fresh set of horses to hitch to a wagon for the next leg of a journey. The battery replacement centres would substitute a vehicle’s depleted battery with a fully charged one in minutes. Such stations would be run by companies for their own vehicles, but investors will likely open these for all private EV owners, and they will become essential ‘pit stops’ while traveling. Meanwhile, EV manufacturers and their battery makers will work to expand batteries’ capacities.

With familiarity will come acceptance

Unease with the new and unknown will be the natural human reaction to EVs, just as has been the initial response to genetically modified crops and the introduction of artificial meat products. Governments have an important role to play in boosting the public’s comfort with EVs through user-friendly policies and positive promotion of these vehicles. One of the most successful ways the EV has been promoted in East Africa is through the introduction of electric two- and three-wheeled electric vehicles. Modest in price and proving eminently practical means to address the users’ driving environment. The roll-out of EVs in this transportation subsector stand in contrast with the first EVs to which Africans were exposed: luxury cars. In South Africa, BMW introduced its brand’s EVs, whose high price did harm to EVs public acceptance by making them seem unaffordable and like playthings for the rich.

Governments are now twining messages of environmental good and economic practicality in their EV promotions. With much fanfare, Nigeria’s first EV charging station was opened this past April at the University of Sokoto State. Also this year, Kenya Power and Lighting Company, the country’s power monopoly, presented its plan for a national network of EV charging stations. The announcement was presented as an economic boon to Kenyans: By expanding its revenue-earning capacity with this charging station system, the public utility will tap into a transportation industry as it never could when vehicles were powered by petrol. This new revenue will be used to lower electricity prices for all Kenyans and, in turn, lessen the cost of driving an EV.

Charging infrastructure is beginning to emerge across major cities in Africa, but is still confined to upmarket areas and suburbs like Johannesburg’s Melrose Arch (pictured). In order for greater uptake of EVs to take root, charging stations need to be rolled out en masse in competing on an even footing with traditional petrol stations and easing woes about distance travelling.
Image courtesy: BMW

Oil-producing countries like Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria are conflicted. They will want to safeguard the oil exports that have sustained their economies for decades, while myopic governments lazily avoided diversifying their economies because the oil reserves were reliably producing revenues. In 2019, the Nigerian senate was presented a bill to phase out petrol-powered vehicles by 2035, in line with similar legislation in the developed world. Nigeria’s senate rejected the measure. However, when combustion cars are no longer manufactured, all oil-producing countries will have no choice but to ensure an electric infrastructure is in place to service EVs. There is also a real possibility that African entrepreneurs will begin to manufacture locally designed EVs, targeting African consumers. Indeed, in 2021, Nigeria introduced its first locally made EV: the Hyundai Kona, manufactured by Stallion Motors. Such investment can be aided by government policy, such as in Rwanda, where government is offering tax incentives to boost EV sales. Kenya has adopted a way to implement its policy of making 5% of all car imports EVs by 2025 by cutting import duties in half for EVs. This has abetted the proliferation of two- and three-wheel EV fleets in urban areas. Of course, the largest fleets of cars and trucks in any African country are those maintained by government, and the electrification of these fleets will go a long way to boost the public’s acceptance of EVs.

EVs are coming; it’s a question of preparedness

With the extinction of the petrol-powered vehicles looming, the inevitability of the EV cannot be ignored. Africans will not stop driving, and governments have no desire to stop highway construction projects that they like to display to voters as evidence of their service to the public. How effectively governments manage the transition from petrol to electric in the next 15 years will determine how well their economies perform. Policy essentials include making financing available to EV owners and entrepreneurs seeking to build and service EVs, encouraging the use of EVs through the electrification of government fleets, and finally, by ensuring reliable power supplies.

In fact, the EV revolution may finally bring a solution to Africa’s perennial electricity woes. There is no question that today’s unreliable systems that still fail to service hundreds of millions of Africans must be overhauled to accommodate EVs. Once that transformation is completed, and EV plug-ins are installed wherever they are needed, the goal of an all-inclusive and well-working power grid will be realised. That will prove a dividend that alone will justify the outlay of capital required to power the oncoming traffic of EVs.

The critical points:

  • A majority of Africans purchase less-expensive imported used vehicles, and this will drive the transformation from petrol-powered cars to EVs as the latter is no longer available and the first generation of EVs comes to African markets.
  • The switchover from petrol to electric in Africa will not reach its tipping point until the mid- to late-2030s. African countries can use the transformation time to build necessary.
  • Government policies to encourage EV use include financing vehicles and service infrastructure through tax incentives and rebates, converting government fleets to EVs, promoting the training of EV service technicians and, most importantly, improving national electricity capacity and reliability.