Kenyan riders embrace electric bikes

By Andrea Dijkstra February 09, 2021
Photos from the scheme's Nairobi launch Photos from the scheme's Nairobi launch

Africa’s cities may soon be less noisy and polluted, says Andrea Dijkstra, reporting on a new rent-to-buy electric motorbike taxi service in Nairobi.

Motorcycle taxis – known in Kenya as ‘bodabodas’ - are responsible for more than 50 per cent of CO2 emissions in the transport sector, explained Kimosop Chepkoit.

Chepkoit is the founder & CEO of Ecobodaa, a new start-up that offers professional riders the chance to swap their gas-guzzling motorbikes for affordable battery-powered alternatives.

He is passionate about cleaning up his capital city’s toxic air. ‘We think it’s better to start where we can have a maximum impact.

'Two-wheelers are also easy to electrify and don’t need such a capital expenditure [on] heavy infrastructure, compared to cars.’ 

While the electric motorbikes are more environmentally friendly, crucially they will also give bodaboda riders higher profits, according to the Kenyan entrepreneur.

That’s because users will have lower fuel expenses and will also save on servicing costs because electric motorbikes don’t require oil changes and are built with fewer moving parts.

This might lead to savings of as much as $3 per day, explained Chepkoit.

‘A saving of even $1 per day means a lot to the riders,’ he said. 

‘These are young people with families and dependents in rural areas.

'$1 is the difference between having milk for the kids and not be able to afford milk.’ 

The Kenyan company will start commercial activities this month when it launches its first 10 Ecobodaas in Kibera, the informal settlement in Nairobi where the start-up launches. 

Riders pay a deposit, which is 10 per cent of the base cost of the Ecobodaa.

Then, after paying an 18-month lease of $3.90 per day through the Kenyan electronic mobile money service M-Pesa, they become the registered owners of the motorcycle but not the batteries.

Motorbike leasing is a very common thing in East Africa, more so in Kenya and Uganda where more than 70 per cent of motorcycle sales are through the lease-to-own model.

Kenyan motorbike taxis go electric.jpg

The electric motorbikes will be among the first to compete with Nairobi’s 100,000-plus petrol-powered motorbike taxis. 

For $1, the bodaboda riders can swap the bike’s battery in less than two minutes for a fully charged one.

‘Right now, we have rented four locations in [Nairobi’s] Kibera and Kilimani areas, which we will use as swap stations once we launch. We plan to have 100 swap stations in Nairobi by end of 2021,’ explained the Ecobodaa CEO.

‘The prospected savings on fuel, oil and maintenance are definitely interesting,’ said 26-year-old bodaboda rider Jacob Sum about the Ecobodaa launch.

Sum has been working as a motortaxi rider for four years now and bought his own petrol-powered motorbike two years ago.

‘I often drive around 200 kilometres per day, which costs me around 530 Kenyan shillings [$4.80], while this would cost me with an Ecobodaa around three battery swaps of in total only $3.’

The bodaboda rider is a bit sceptical, though, about the battery range being only 60 to 75 kilometres.

‘Sometimes I bring clients from Nairobi to Naivasha which is 80kms go and 80kms back,’ he said.

‘I also use my bike to drive to my home village, which is 342km one way. For these rides, you need to swap your battery, but where?’

Based on GPS tracker information and interviews with 300 riders, Ecobodaa’s founder concluded that battery range wouldn’t be a problem for most drivers who, he said, tend to fuel up every 30km.

Ecobodaa is part of a growing number of electric motorbike start-ups that have sprung up across the region in the past two years.

They supply and manage the motorbike-taxi drivers who run the most common form of public transport in most cities.

Bodawerk and Zembo have started providing electric motorbikes in Uganda. Metro Africa Express (MAX) has launched electric motorcycles for the Nigerian market.

Ecobodaa and British start-up ARC Ride are active in Kenya.

While two companies, Ampersand and Safi, currently provide electric motorbikes in neighbouring Rwanda. 

When Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, announced last August that he wanted all of the country’s motorbikes to be electric as soon as possible, Ampersand’s waiting list exploded.

Rwanda’s first electric motorbike company now has about 7,000 drivers on a waiting list for its vehicles.

The problem is that it can deliver only 40 bikes by the end of March. 

In Kenya, Chepkoit noticed that there was a lack of electric motorcycles that would meet the tough riding conditions in Africa, and therefore designed one himself together with Steve Juma, his Ecobodaa co-founder and former classmate.

‘We manufacture in China and assemble in Nairobi,’ explained Chepkoit, who is an electrical and electronics engineer.

‘The Ecobodaa is designed for our African cities, and we intend to move into other East African cities after our successful launch in Nairobi.’