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17 Dec 19

Advancing eMobility in Africa

Hiten Parmar and his team of academics and engineers at eMobility innovation company uYilo have been given what some would argue is a ‘mission impossible’. Their task, should they choose to accept it, is to innovate and advance the National Electric Mobility Programme in South Africa (SA) and beyond.

What’s he up against? Well, his country has one of the worst records in the developed world for energy grid supply reliability.

In South Africa, only 80% of citizens have access to grid energy and many of those can’t afford to use it.

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has the lowest energy access rate in the world, reaching fewer than half of its people. Thirteen countries in SSA have less than 25% access, compared to only one in developing Asia.

Political disincentives for eMobility

Politically, there’s little appetite to support EV production or the import of electric vehicles, particularly in South Africa, due to an important car manufacturing industry that has been exporting 100% of the vehicles it produces for almost 100 years. EVs attract an import duty of 25% compared to 18% for ICE vehicles. In Ethiopia, duties on imported vehicles can be as much as 100%.

Financing is hard to come by and interest rates can be as high as 30%. Buying cars is unaffordable for most Africans.

That said, there’s a rising middle class. Estimated at 350 million by the African Development Bank, which could reach 1.3 billion by 2060. It is comprised, not least, of a tech-savvy, educated, and smartphone-armed youth, plus expats who studied abroad.

Parmer set up uYilo in 2013, in the Nelson Mandela University, Cape Town, South Africa with the aim of investigating ways of developing technology around electromobility. He understands the current political view but can also see how it’s blinkered to the wider opportunities.

“There can’t be any financial incentives from Governments for eMobility as there are more important basic needs, such as water, housing, health and so on. But load shedding is a potential opportunity because EVs are essentially batteries on wheels.”

Pioneering vehicle-to-grid schemes

uYilo has pioneered a vehice-to-grid (V2G) initiative that allows excess energy in EV batteries to be fed back into the grid when the car is parked up. For Africans, its most important application is to power their house and provide a buffer for when grid supply is unavailable.

The prototype is a mini smart grid that utilises apps developed in-house to source energy from solar panels above the car port that houses uYilo’s sponsored EV fleet, or from Eskom (the national utility) at the cheapest rates, and stores them in second-life batteries. These are the battery packs that were once in the EV cars.

Parmer explains: “EV batteries are usually replaced at 80% of their lives when they may no longer be able to efficiently power a car but still have 10-15 years of life left in them. At this point they solve the other significant problem in Africa, that of energy storage.”

Rapid urbanisation fuelling the need for mobility

There are 1.3 billion inhabitants in Africa and that’s estimated to double by 2050. According to the Global Cities Institute, By the end of this century, 13 of the world’s 20 largest cities will be in Africa. A mass rural exodus is creating rapid urbanisation and that means mobility requirements have never been greater.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, a region of 40 countries, only 100,000 vehicles were sold in 2017. Journeys are often local so people are used to getting about on two wheels.

Says Parmer: “The take up of EVs is slow and that has to change. Of the 610,000 vehicles produced in South Africa in 2018, 60% were exported to Europe, which is already banning ICE vehicles in many cities. In essence, South Africa is losing its principle markets for export. So, from a policy perspective, South Africa is looking at how it can incentivise EV manufacture while maintaining its competitive manufacturing edge.”

Electric mobility in action in Africa

Max.ng is a motorcycle taxi service operating in three Nigerian cities. Their business model provides safe and affordable transportation by offering trained, accountable drivers and the ability for customers to book through an app. Currently investing in infrastructure for solar charging stations, they are also planning to expand into 10 West African cities.

Mobile phone subscriptions account for 76% of Africans. Smartphone adoption in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to reach 66% by 2025. Africa is leading global mobile money adoption. Out of $40.8 billion mobile money transactions in 2018, 66% of them were in Sub-Saharan Africa. This makes the continent well placed for an eCommerce boom.

Like elsewhere in the world, another driver for change is the desire for cleaner air and green transport. The Green Transport Strategy, released by South Africa’s Government in October 2019 said that the road transport sector contributes 91.2% of emissions. Johannesburg is ranked as the 13th most polluted city in the world.

The desire for micro-mobility

Parmer thinks the future is micro-mobility (electric bikes, scooters, three-wheelers and the like), Uber appears to agree.

While the welcome for Uber in South African cities has been hostile at best, the ride hailing company is helping reshape urban mobility in Sub-Saharan Africa. UberBODA, for example, caters to commuters in Kampala and Nairobi. Boda-bodas are motorbikes that deliver huge fuel efficiencies compared to cars so UberBODA can afford to charge lower, more accessible fares without compromising the driver’s take-home earnings.

In Kenya and Tanzania commuters can utilise convenient and affordable tuk-tuks while running errands in the city, courtesy of UberPOA. They book the service through an app, pay an upfront fare, hop on the vehicle and go.

At the end of June 2019, sales of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and battery electric vehicles was 1007. However, the public charging infrastructure is in good shape. South Africa currently has one charging point for every eight EVs. In developed markets, that ratio is, on average, 20 vehicles per charging point.

Should fleets in Africa invest in EVs?



Anticipated fuel savings 40-70%

Higher upfront costs

Rapidly growing urbanisation fuelling demand for eMobility

Current lack of charging infrastructure

Opportunities provided by micro-mobility and gig economies

EV range limitations

Optimising fleet mix – introduce smaller, cheaper vehicles: bikes, scooters, 3-wheelers

High electricity prices (double those of USA and China)

Lower lifetime running costs (EVs cheaper to maintain than ICE)

Grid electricity supply instability

Overcome fossil fuel scarcity (a problem in SSA)

On-going lack of enabling policies - tax incentives and subsidies

Potential benefits of EV circular economy



Parmer suggests the higher upfront costs could be reduced by negotiating bulk buying discounts with suppliers. He also cites total cost of ownership, which could be as much as 50% that of ICE vehicles, especially if you consider the benefits of the circular economy of EVs in relationship to second-life batteries.

When all factors are taken into consideration, the “mission” for eMobility advancement is valid. The ubiquity of technology, particularly smartphones, and pace at which it is developing makes is possible. The fact that many citizens struggle to get their basic needs met make it a monumental task.

Authored by: Alison Pittaway