development transport

Will electric vehicles be a leapfrog technology for Africa?

In Madagascar in the 1980s, there was just one Jaguar car in the country. It was imported by a patriotic British ambassador and was something of a burden – the local fuel was too impure for its refined engine, and it ran on half local petrol and half jet fuel. We would see it sometimes out and about amongst the legions of aging Citroen 2CVs and Renault 4s that made up Madagascar’s car fleet (and still do). I was also aware of one Porsche, and we knew who owned that as well.

It must be a bit like that at the moment for Madagascar’s electric car drivers. For electric cars there are, the first two arriving in 2015. There are apparently around 40 plug-in vehicles today, joined this year by two electric buses. They are served by charging points at Total petrol stations.

Needless to say, it’s very early days – but in a country with relatively few cars, could Madagascar leapfrog to electric cars and by-pass piston engines? There are several good reasons why African countries could see a boom, explored in this article on Cleantechnica.

The car market in Africa is far from saturation. The vast majority of people do not drive, and there is huge demand for low cost cars that are cheap to run. The car companies that are household names in Britain don’t make anything suitable for Madagascar, not that ordinary people can afford. But companies in China do, and Africa is a huge market for Chinese car manufacturers to expand into. Since China is already involved in road building and infrastructure across the continent already, they may well support charging networks to help out their car industry.

This transition is supported by the fact that the infrastructure for oil isn’t always there anyway. There can be long distances between fuel stations. For some drivers, shortages, rationing or long queues at the pump are not uncommon. In other words, ‘range anxiety’ applies just as much to petrol in many cases. That’s a big obstacle for drivers in Britain, who take it for granted that there’s a service station somewhere nearby. Drivers in many other parts of the world already think about their mileage and plan ahead for their next refueling. Keeping an EV charged won’t seem like such a problem, especially if you have solar.

Prices vary enormously across the continent, but oil is expensive in some parts of Africa. Landlocked countries that don’t have their own supply, such as Zambia or Malawi, pay a high price for oil. Both are prospecting and have high hopes for an oil industry, but that’s a risky business. A transition to renewable energy powered electric transport would be a safer bet for democracy and shared prosperity, as well as the environment.

Of course, the best investments are in quality public transport, wherever you are in the world. It may be possible for many African countries to avoid car dependence in the first place. But there will always be a role for cars in rural areas, as taxis, and yes, for wealthier folks who appreciate private motoring. The more of them are electric, running on sunshine and wind, the better it will be for all of us.

PS – while we’re on the subject of Madagascar, it may have a role to play in the spread of electric vehicles. EV batteries need high quality graphite, which is a resource in demand. Madagascar has exactly the right kind, not far away from its main port, and Chinese and Indian EV manufacturers are partnering with mining companies to extract it. If all goes to plan, you might one day drive an EV that contains a little slice of Madagascar.


  1. Many African countries made the leap to mobile phones, bypassing desktop computers and other business technologies, so this might work. Hope so. It needs an auto manufacturer / supplier to offer a package to a locality; a pop-up EV dealership / leasing operation (with vehicles) + a set of changing points + a wind / solar farm. They could offer electic bikes and scooters too, as a stepping stone.

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