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How EVs Could Transform the Streets of Africa

The electric-car revolution is reaching the streets of Africa.

A handful of startups in several countries are building small electric-vehicle fleets of light carriers and motorcycles—vehicles well suited for the continent’s challenging roads—for taxi and delivery services.

In February, Kenya-based ARC Ride launched electric two- and three-wheelers for Uber Eats deliveries in Nairobi, a city of 4.4 million. While the company currently has 35 vehicles operating, Chief Executive

Joseph Hurst-Croft,

a former environmental activist in Nigeria, says he expects the fleet to grow to 300 by August. ARC also is building its own charging network across the city fed by thermal energy generated from volcanic heat along East Africa’s tectonic rift.

Proponents of electric vehicles and renewable energy see motorcycles as the fastest way to promote inexpensive, clean-energy transportation in Africa, where roads are often traffic-clogged and potholed. The executives at ARC hope that their efforts in Nairobi will be a launchpad for a broader expansion throughout Africa—akin to the way the cellular telecommunications revolution bypassed wired lines in many areas. ARC’s chairman is Johannesburg-based retired investment banker

Richard Bouma.

Rob de Jong,

head of sustainability for the United Nations Environment Program, or UNEP, says that “two- and three-wheelers are the low-hanging fruit” of EV mobility in Africa. UNEP is funding EV projects in seven African countries. “The potential leapfrog is massive,” says Mr. de Jong, who is based in Nairobi.

From Nairobi to Cape Town to Lagos, most people rely on motorcycles, minibuses and vans to get around. In Kigali, Rwanda, a city of roughly 1.2 million, there are more motorcycles than there are yellow cabs in New York City. Motorcycles make up more than half of all vehicles on the road in Kigali.

Motorcycles and utility vehicles of all types represent the fastest-growing segment of the African automotive market. Sales of both electric and traditional two- and three-wheelers in Africa will jump 50% by 2050, according to UNEP. In Kenya, the agency says, motorcycles are set to more than triple to five million this decade compared with 2018. The purchases will be driven in large part by businesses, including EV startups like ARC, that buy the vehicles and then lease or rent them to drivers. Purchases by individuals, especially of e-motorcycles, which tend to be more expensive than nonelectric models, are more rare in Africa because of low incomes and scarce credit mechanisms.

Most motorcycles currently on the road tend to run on fossil fuel, which is more expensive, and more polluting, than electricity. Fuel and maintenance costs for electric vehicles are as much as 40% less expensive on a per-mile basis than the fossil-fuel equivalent.

ARC, in partnership with ride-hailing platforms Nairobi-based Sendy Ltd. and

Uber Technologies Inc.,

UBER 0.83%

is delivering food, parcels and people.

In Kigali, meanwhile, e-motorcycle service Ampersand, which launched two years ago, currently has 35 vehicles doing taxi and delivery work. The company’s founder, Josh Whale, a New Zealander and former intellectual-property lawyer, says the startup has a waiting list of more than 7,000 requests for additional bikes. Ampersand has received funding from a variety of international sources, including $1 million from the nonprofit foundation of oil giant

Royal Dutch Shell.

U.S., British and New Zealand government agencies have…

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