Electric buses are driving a silent revolution in Nairobi, Kenya


The Kenyan capital is home to more than five million people, and matatus, private minivans and shared taxis, “are crucial to the way people get around in Nairobi,” explains Christopher Kost, Africa program director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. “In the city, we have 40% of the journeys by public transport.”

“The challenge we face now is that these matatus are stuck in traffic,” he adds. “People are delayed, the service is not always reliable. Those are things we have to solve.”

Enabling a transition to clean energy

BasiGo began importing two 25-seat buses from Chinese electric vehicle giant BYD, and began a pilot project in March 2022. Running on a set route in Dandora, a neighborhood in eastern Nairobi, the CEO says the two buses have carried 175,000 passengers and have traveled more than 135,000 kilometers (84,000 miles) so far. “The most remarkable thing is that they’ve had less than two days of technical downtime in all that time,” he adds.

In the coming weeks, 15 more buses will hit the streets. These vehicles have been imported as kits to be built in the coastal city of Mombasa, creating jobs and reducing taxes, Bhattacharya explains.

Rather than operating its fleet, BasiGo sells buses directly to Nairobi’s private operators through a pay-as-you-drive scheme. Bhattacharya says buyers can purchase an electric BYD bus this way for a comparable purchase price to a similarly sized diesel bus.

As part of the deal, drivers receive free bus service and maintenance and free charging. The charging infrastructure – which connects to the national electricity grid – is deployed along busy routes at stations where buses usually stop at night. (The goal, says Bhattacharya, is to move to electric “with no behavioral change” on the part of drivers.)

The BasiGo buses have a range of 250 kilometers and can be charged in four hours. Under the business model, BasiGo retains ownership of the bus battery (“as much as 40-50% of the vehicle’s value”), which means that after eight years or 600,000 kilometers (373,000 mi), the battery is replaced and the old battery is given a second life in a non-vehicle application or recycled, says Bhattacharya.

The startup says it has received more than 100 reservations so far. The aim is to have 100 buses on Nairobi’s roads by the end of the year and 1,000 buses by the end of 2025.

Making electric a competitive alternative

A Roam Rapid bus, designed by Roam.  The bus has a range of over 224 miles and can accommodate up to 90 passengers.

Meanwhile, Roam makes his own plans. Formerly known as Opibus, the 2022 Earthshot Prize finalist, the electric mobility startup has two separate bus models designed for Nairobi’s needs.

The Roam Rapid can accommodate up to 90 people, has a range of more than 360 kilometers (224 mi), and is designed to carry passengers through major corridors and on routes such as airport transfers.

The bus has undergone four pilot projects and is currently being trialled on Thika Road, a major highway in the capital. Roam says it aims to have up to 10 Rapid models in private use by the end of the year. It awaits the results of a government contract linked to the city’s upcoming bus rapid transit (BRT) network, which could result in a contract for up to 100 buses.

The Rapid has gone through multiple pilot projects and is subject to a tender tied to the city's upcoming bus rapid transit network.

“We feel we’ve developed a product that’s lovable and usable and functional,” says project coordinator Dennis Wakaba — and with prices starting at $245,000, the Rapid is competitive with similar-quality diesel equivalents, he says.

The Roam Move is a smaller bus designed to compete with the traditional matatu market. Wakaba claims the bus costs 20 Kenyan shillings ($0.16) to run per mile, compared to 50 to 60 shillings ($0.40 to $0.48) for a diesel equivalent. Through a financing model – the details of which have yet to be finalized – he says drivers could recoup the cost of the vehicle in four to five years. The Move is still in the prototype stage, but Roam plans to complete 10 units by October.

For now, charging is only available at Roam’s workshop in the city, though Wakaba says permission has been granted to install publicly accessible chargers on Thika Road, and Roam plans to install charging points along routes to provide full daytime charging . charge overnight.

Product and strategy chief Albin Wilson is keen to differentiate between Roam and its competitor.

“The biggest difference is that we design our products (ourselves),” he argues, tailoring battery size, canister size and other factors to the Kenyan market. “We really work in a different industry,” emphasizes Wilson.

Roam's new production center.  Formerly known as Opibus, the company produces a number of electric mobility alternatives, including an electric motor.

The long view

Kost believes that while healthy competition in the private sector will ultimately benefit consumers, the public sector should also be involved. “It will not be enough to just turn the vehicles into e-buses. We need to make sure that there are improvements in infrastructure and operations and regulations at the same time,” he says.

“The ideal arrangement is where the government invests in the corridors, in the stations and the depots, and then the private sector can raise capital to invest in the buses,” he adds.

“Nairobi will be a much more efficient city if we have a decent public transportation system that provides reliable, fast service,” Kost concludes, citing potential economic benefits that could incentivize the government to get on board.

BasiGo's first buses on the road in Nairobi.  Both BasiGo and Roam already have ambitions to expand outside Kenya.

BasiGo and Roam are already looking beyond Nairobi and Kenya. “We are very excited to bring this model for scalable electrification of the public transport system to other markets,” says Bhattacharya, citing Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia as potential countries for BasiGo to expand. Roam says it is seeking tenders for the Roam Rapid in East Africa and plans to roll out the Roam Move across the region by the end of 2024.

Meanwhile, both companies are doing everything they can to win over the city’s motorists and commuters to their products. Electrification may not mean the end of the matatu. It could be an upgrade instead.

“We want to make these accessible to all people in Nairobi city. Rich, poor, ‘it doesn’t matter’ says Bhattacharya. ready to go back.”

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