Boda boda riders cut fuel costs, noise and carbon with e-bikes

Powerhive is leveraging on mini-grid solars to lead e-bike transition in Kenya.

In Summary
  • Generally, the transport sector contributes a massive 20 per cent of total greenhouse emissions in the country.
  • Kenya zero-rated taxes on e-mobility parts in the Finance Act, 2023.
John Mwithya who owns a Spark E-bike swaps battery at swapping stations at Shell Petrol Station in Westlands, Nairobi.
John Mwithya who owns a Spark E-bike swaps battery at swapping stations at Shell Petrol Station in Westlands, Nairobi.

Joshua Mwithya, a boda boda rider in Nairobi, quietly enters into a Shell Petrol Station in Westlands ready to swap his motorbike's battery for another fresh 150-kilometre nonstop daylong job. 

Unlike the ever-noisy bodas, his unnoticed arrival intrigues this writer who sought to know the kind of bike he is riding.

“This is my Spark electric bike. I’ve been using it for the past six months. It has for sure added a spark to my life and those around me’’.

Apart from increasing his customer base by 100 percent due to almost zero noise pollution, the 29-year-old Mwithya says the bike has helped him cut fuel costs by almost fourfold hence helping him maximize on daily earnings.

“I used to spend close to Sh1,400 on petrol every day. My operation costs could sometimes take 70 percent of my daily earnings. Nowadays I simply swap my battery for Sh450 and pocket my profits. No fumes, no noise and no worries about hikes in the global fuel prices.”

Mwithya is among thousands of riders who are reaping the dividends of the e-mobility revolution in Kenya, an activity participating in the country’s sole mission to cut carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030.

The latest e-mobility study by Strathmore University shows a single petrol bike emits 4.2 tonnes of carbon gas every year, meaning that the two million boda boda industry which brings Sh1 billion to Kenya’s economy, erodes the returns by generating at least 8.4 million tonnes of carbon.

Generally, the transport sector contributes a massive 20 percent of total greenhouse emissions in the country.

The Star spoke to the Powerhive founder Christopher Hornor to get more insight on how developing nations can sustainably leverage renewable energy to help cut carbon emissions in the transport sector.

Powerhive is a technology venture founded in 2011 to develop innovative energy solutions for emerging markets, enabling energy access and productive use for thousands of off-grid households and businesses. 

Leveraging over a decade of leadership in the mini-grid industry, Powerhive pioneered electric mobility solutions over three years ago in Kenya and is now assembling Spark e-bikes in conjunction with Mobius, a local motor assembler.

"Kenya’s energy mix is very favorable to support e-mobility with nearly 90 percent of the country's energy coming from renewables,'' says Hornor, whoseHornor whose firm is doing exactly that. 

The climate-smart investor appreciates the opportunity for Kenya and other developing countries in the continent to transition towards cutting-edge electric motor technologies, aligning with the progressive advancements seen in host nations.

He wonders why Kenya and other developing countries in the continent continue to import old fuel combative motor technology that is not used in host nations. 

These stations use either KPLC alone or a combination of solar and the KPLC grid, ensuring power for the stations and e-bike battery swapping.

The company is also in talks with other motorcycle brands so that they can utilize its rapidly growing network of battery-swapping stations across Kenya.

His company has partnered with leading fuel stations including Shell, Rubis and Lexo Energy to set up solar mini-grades that also leverage KPLC's naturally clean energy that not only powers those stations but also provides enough energy for e-bike battery swapping stations.

"The charging process employed by Spark Bikes is systematically organised. We have installed solar panels on certain rooftops of partner gas stations. Within these stations, there are batteries located in cabinets under a shared canopy, where the batteries are charged,'' he said. 

Each of these cabins is equipped with a QR code. Upon the arrival of a rider with a depleted battery, they can use the Power Hive app on their smartphones to scan the code, automatically opening the cabin.

This allows them to replace the battery and leave the other one charging. The entire process takes about two minutes and is available to riders 24 hours seven days a week.

However, the batteries are leased separately upon the purchase of the bike.

This innovation is particularly advantageous for riders always on the move, as the instant swap eliminates the need to wait for lengthy charging sessions.

Initially, customers buy the bike alone for Sh190,000 and then lease a battery, which could have otherwise cost riders more than close to $1,000 (Sh160,000). " Swapping is more convenient since they are costly and take longer to charge,'' Hornor told the Star. 

Although more investors in e-mobility are coming to Africa as the demand grows, Hornor says a clear policy direction targeting quality standards is important.

He laments that new entrants are flooding the market with substandard products, a move likely to slow down the transition, which is actively supported by President William Ruto's government.

To ensure a smooth transition, Powehive has partnered with local financial institutions to offset the high initial costs of e-mobility. 

"Spark Bikes offers a “Lipa Mdogo Mdogo” payment plan to assist those facing challenges in making a full upfront payment. So far, we have Mogo and 4G Capital on board. We are in talks with other some of Tier 1 lenders to facilitate more riders,'' he said.

Powerhive East Africa founder Christopher Hornor during an interview with the Star Newspaper.
Powerhive East Africa founder Christopher Hornor during an interview with the Star Newspaper.

In the firm's plan with Mogo, for instance, a customer pays a deposit of Sh20,000 upon purchase and a daily payment of Sh505 for 18 months. On the other hand, with 4G Capital, a deposit of Sh25,000 is required, followed by a daily payment of Sh518 for one year.

It is also undertaking affirmative initiatives to ensure e-bike enthusiasts comfortably access those products. 

Powerhive has a 'Jiinue Growth Programme' powered by 4G Capital where young people with micro-small enterprises can obtain loans to finance e-bikes at nine percent interest per annum.

Those products come with comprehensive health and life covers and product warranties. 

Power Hive East Africa Limited has since sold approximately 150 Spark bikes in the country, with daily orders rising by 50 percent. Hornor hints that 400 more bikes are on the way even as demand surges. 

The firm commenced its pilot programme with the first generation, a standard orange bike, in 2019. Later it introduced the second generation, a blue flat bike with additional modifications.

The third generation, currently in commercialization, is also blue but showcases a curvier shape and notable enhancements. This latest iteration features a robust design and battery, enabling experienced riders to cover up to 120km with a single swap.

It boasts a powerful 4000-kilowatt motor, a 5-inch LCD with Google Maps, and a potent music system. Furthermore, it is suitable for off-road use, providing customers with a significant advantage.

Hornor expressed, "Building a high-quality, well-priced motorcycle and battery system strong enough to withstand the local environment has taken us a while to get right. We are excited by the great feedback from our riders, some of whom have been with us for 18 months now and are very happy."

Hornor commends Kenya for its deliberate commitment to lead climate-smart innovations in Africa.

While acknowledging that some might view President William Ruto's target of 200,000 e-bikes by the year's end as ambitious, he has confidence that the incentives provided to private players in the sector will play a crucial role.

He expects that Kenya's boda boda market will significantly transition to electric in the next five years.

Although he sees, President William Ruto's ambition of 200,000 e-bikes by the end of the year as a little too ambitious, he is confident that incentives given to private players in the sector will go a long way and that Kenya’s boda boda market will be mostly electric in the next 5-8 years.

Kenya zero-rated taxes on e-mobility parts in the Finance Act, 2023.

The government removed five different taxes in the electric motorcycle-manufacturing sector. 

“We shall remove the 16 VAT on the electric motorcycles, this means the cost of the electric motorcycles will drop by 16 percent,” Ruto said mid-last year. 

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star