Uganda’s free electric motorbikes

In his new year’s address earlier this month, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni susprised people with a possible new transport policy. As part of a plan to electrify the country’s transport, motorbike owers would be able to trade in their petrol bikes for electric. “Free of course,” he added. “Just swap.”

Motorbikes are a form of public transport in Uganda, and around 80% of motorcycles in the country operate as taxis – piki-pikis or boda-bodas, depending on where in East Africa you are. Electrifying the fleet of motorbike taxis would reduce emissions, oil dependency, air pollution and noise. It’s a good idea that’s already underway across the region, powered in part by local manufacturers. But how would free motorbikes work?

According to Museveni, arrangements have been made with investors who would pay the up-front cost of the motorbike. They would then re-coup their investment through charging fees. The bike itself is kind of a loss leader to get people into the charging network. Like the free (and terrible) Fire tablet that Amazon once gave me, presumably hoping I would spend more money with them.

There are a few alarm bells that ring for me over this scheme. One is that you’d need to do a lot of charging to pay back the cost of a motorbike. That incentivises the investor to make cheap motorbikes with small batteries. There’s also the risk that you’re handing a charging company a monopoly. If drivers are tied into a charging system as a condition of ownership, they might be stuck with it even if prices rise. It would also make it difficult for any rival network to get a foothold, at a time when a little competition is a good thing. This is a dynamic sector at the moment, served by several African start-ups building motorbikes and providing charging and battery-swapping services – see Zembo or Roam, for example.

I can’t say I’m 100% convinced by this particular scheme, and media reports from Uganda suggest I’m not alone. But the idea of supporting people in shifting to electric transport is a good one, and one that is playing out in various ways in different places. As more countries announce plans to phase out internal combustion vehicles, we are going to see a whole range of incentives and schemes that bring down the price of electric vehicles and encourage people to swap. It might include tax breaks, grants, lease to buy arrangements. Some might offer free charging initially, like Scotland did for a while. We might see free parking, or exemptions from congestion zone charging, like in London. Norway has been incentivising EVS for decades and has experimented with all sorts of perks. I expect scrappage schemes might be part of this in some places.

I also think it’s a good idea to focus on taxis first. Taxis are used all day long, unlike private cars. They’re in and out of town centres, adding to urban air pollution on some of the busiest streets. Electrifying taxi fleets has multiple benefits, especially when it lowers costs for operators. So schemes to support EV ownership ought to start with taxis. Delivery vans and bus fleets are also priorities, delivering benefits to society faster than directing subsidies just towards private drivers.

In short, I’m not sure free electric motorbikes in Uganda will happen quite as it was hinted at by the president, but it’s a sector to keep an eye on.

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