Here in the UK, electric transport has been for the rich first, with the electric car market dominated by expensive options. It’s not like that everywhere. In China people have been able to shift to electric bikes in big numbers. In India it’s three-wheelers that have broken through. And in Kenya, it may be bus passengers that benefit first from the electric transport revolution.
In much of Africa, Asia and South America, buses are the heart of the transport system. Cities and towns are often served by a vibrant network of small or medium sized buses that run alongside or instead of more formal operators. Often called paratransit, these networks can look quite chaotic, but are often very efficient and self-organising in practice. There are enough stories of growing cities attempting to impose some kind of order on their bus networks, and living to regret it.
From an environmental point of view though, paratransit vehicles are predominantly diesel, and that’s a major source of air pollution in busy cities.
The would be a lot of benefits to those buses going electric. It would solve air pollution and reduce carbon emissions, and create healthier and quieter streets. The problem is the cost – prices have been falling, but electric buses aren’t cheap. Bespoke smaller buses exist, such as the solar jeepney, but they aren’t widely available. So what if there was a way to convert existing buses?
That’s what Opibus are doing in Kenya. The company has pioneered a modular electric drive train system that can be retro-fitted to existing vehicles. Last year they revealed an electric 4×4 aimed at the mining industry. They already do electric motorbikes, and their next target is buses.
The company grew out of research in Sweden, and then chose Kenya for their headquarters, where they produce the buses. It makes it a local solution, creating vehicles designed for an African context, and reducing dependence on imports. Existing buses get a second life as electric, with a significant saving for operators. “Our core belief,” they say, “is that conversion systems for retrofitting vehicles is the fastest, most sustainable and efficient way to deploy electric vehicles in emerging markets.”
The first Opibus is being piloted in Nairobi at the moment. If it works well, it will go into production in 2023 as an electric bus solution designed and built in Kenya.