In 2016, Kenyan businessman Francis Romano imported electric vehicles into the country only to have them spend weeks at the clearing port. The country had not yet created a policy regarding the use of electric cars. While it’s been five years since this legendary incident took place, the episode still reflects the current disposition of the African continent towards electric vehicles. The African consumer of this innovation is most likely to be a tech enthusiast or billionaire. Since the goal of EVs is to reduce global carbon emissions and not for these cars to merely exist as playthings for the rich; why is it that more African consumers aren’t keying into the electric car market?
Firstly, many Africans have no need for electric cars. The primary argument is an environmental one; electric cars are more sustainable than their fossil fuels counterparts. Thus, buying an electric car is generally a personal attempt to preserve the environment, particularly if you live in a country where your carbon footprint is outsized. For instance, Americans generate an outsized carbon footprint; the country accounts for 14% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. The average American consumes more beef than anyone else, buys more than anyone else and living sustainably is difficult in its culture of consumerism. On the other hand, the entire African continent is responsible for only 2-3% of emissions. Africans live very sustainable lives by default. This should explain why our first thought when it comes to helping the environment is not the purchase of an electric vehicle.
Secondly, there is the issue of the economics of buying electric cars. In countries such as Nigeria and Kenya, it is estimated that 85-95% of all cars imported into the countries are second-hand vehicles. The prevalent reason for this of course is not that Africans do not like brand new cars rather it is simply a matter of cost. The average cost of a new electric vehicle is around $55,600. This is significantly higher than the average monthly wage of N2M earned by a Nigerian living in Lagos. The cheapest electric cars which are almost always brand new have a starting price of roughly $30,000. The more popular versions such as Tesla are markedly higher.
Additionally, there is inadequate infrastructure. Africa has the lowest electrification rate in the world, at slightly over 40%. Some 640 million Africans lack access to energy. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country; 10th in the world with a population of over 200 million people. Nigeria generates only about 6,158 megawatts of electricity (for some context, Queensland with a population of 5.1 million people generates 15,500 megawatts). That means there is not enough available electricity for household use, let alone commercial and industrial consumption. Frequent power interruptions are the norm. To use electric cars, there would have to be low-cost and stable electricity. There is a joke that to drive a Tesla in Nigeria, one would have to carry a petrol generator in the trunk of the car.
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My point here is that a continent-wide adoption of electric cars in Africa is dependent on a lot of such factors, most of which are simply not within the control of the average car owner. Cape Verde may have taken steps to phase out the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by targeting an end to imports of such vehicles by 2035. Some countries like South Africa have made strides towards adopting electric cars, but many other countries have been lax about developing concrete policies around EV adoption.
As a matter of fact, African countries seem to be doubling down on fossil fuels. According to a recent study, researchers building machine-learning models found that Africa is likely to double its electricity generation by 2030, with fossil fuels providing two-thirds of the total, hydroelectric another 18% and non-hydro renewables less than a tenth. In the private sector, Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote has so far invested over US$9 billion in building one of the world’s biggest petroleum refineries. These are signposts to our future; if Africa’s biggest businessman is still betting on fossil fuels, then who am I not to?
When the tech writers say the electric car revolution is here, frankly, I do not share in their optimism. They often look at this from a technical point of view; electric cars are the future and it is only logical that we move with the future. Africa has shown remarkable speed in adoption of other forms of frontier technology; with nations such as South Africa and Nigeria being at the forefront of cryptocurrency adoption for instance. However, to be viable in Africa, the innovation being advertised must pass three very important tests; it must be useful, affordable and easy to adopt. This is what has made Africans so sustainable. For instance, crypto offers the appeal of financial freedom and can be utilised by practically any smartphone. I’m afraid that electric cars will continue to solve problems that many Africans believe don’t exist.
Still, there might be an opportunity here if a breakthrough in power generation technology or the development of charging as a service systems occurs across the continent. Despite the numerous obstacles to EV adoption in Africa, a small number of startups and companies in a number of nations are already developing electric vehicles to encourage adoption. With the production of electric-vehicle fleets of light carriers and motorcycles—vehicles perfectly adapted for the continent’s tough road conditions—these companies just might finally be able to bring the electric-car revolution to the streets of Africa.
And as the world moves towards an electric future, these startups just might be our best bet.
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Cover image of BMW charging at South Africa’s airport by BMW Group.