The long-term journey to electric public transit in sub-Saharan Africa

Blog Sustainable Growth, Mobility, public transport and sustainable development

Mobility is necessary for economic development and human welfare; however, private vehicle and fossil fuel-driven transport is unsustainable, contributing to air pollution, climate change, and vehicle-caused deaths and injury. Public transit using electric vehicles (EVs) solves many of these problems. Many sub-Saharan African countries lack strong and centralised public transit systems. They may be able to incorporate limited EV use while building these systems, while at the same time laying the groundwork for more EVs in the future. This article discusses possible ways for sub-Saharan African countries to lay the groundwork for EVs during public transit development.

Mobility is key to economic development and human welfare. Transport provides markedly greater access to jobs; robust public transit systems increase urban productivity and lower consumer prices in urban areas. But private vehicle transport is unsustainable as it stands, contributing to air pollution, climate change, and vehicle-caused deaths and injury. The COVID-19 pandemic poses both challenges and opportunities for public transit in developing cities. With the pandemic far from over, how can cities move towards sustainable, reliable, and regulated public transit? In most sub-Saharan African countries, private vehicle ownership is low and available transit is largely informal, privately owned, and inaccessible – up to 70% of commuters in Kampala walk to their jobs. This provides a unique opportunity to build reliable and regulated public transit that lays the groundwork for electric vehicles (EVs) for the long-term.

Electric vehicles for public transit: (the long-term) sustainable option

Much of the discussion on EVs has centered around privately-owned vehicles, whose benefits disappear when compared to even fossil-fuel run public transit. Private EVs have negative side-effects such as traffic congestion and increased mortality and morbidity, with their production putting a strain on metals  such as lithium and cobalt. The transition to clean energy is therefore best suited to come via public transit, and cities in which few people own private vehicles are best poised for this transition.

Sub-Saharan African countries looking to move towards EVs as a long-term solution can look at China and Latin America. China currently owns “nearly 98 percent of the current global e-bus fleet” due to strong government support and fuel economy regulations. In Latin America, Santiago has nearly 800 e-buses on the road, and Bogotá plans to have 480 running by 2021’s end. Bloomberg’s Electric Vehicle Outlook 2021 predicts that “[b]y 2025, e-bus sales outside of China [will] hit 14,000, up from 5,000 in 2020,” which may be led by emerging economies. Similar to Latin America, the large decreases in ridership in major African metropolitan areas during the pandemic could provide these cities opportunity to rethink public transit, with decreased passenger load making it easier to change systems.

There is opportunity for cities in sub-Saharan Africa to transition from informal networks to forms of transit that provides the best of both worlds – public transit run by electricity. Currently, most countries import “polluting and unroadworthy” vehicles for both private and mass transit – “only four African countries have adopted a used vehicle emissions standard”. EVs are better for human welfare and are more cost-effective in the long-term. These cost benefits are expected to become even larger as volume increases. But currently, EV adoption in sub-Saharan Africa is sparse due to higher upfront costs and electricity issues. Even with these challenges, there are ways for cities and countries to build infrastructure so EVs can be gradually phased in.

Infrastructure and cost challenges

Viability remains a major question, and sub-Saharan African countries would need to take the following challenges into account while designing public transit systems amenable to EVs. The percentage of the market of heavy-duty EVs such as buses outside China, the US, and Europe remains tiny in terms of both number of models and vehicles on the road. Buses and smaller vehicles are affected by “lack of awareness, electricity blackouts, strong gasoline-based [markets] and inferior characteristics (low speed and high charging time).” Electric buses have run into issues going up hills or with heavy passenger loads, and need to be charged frequently. There are additional issues in areas with tough terrain and limited electricity. In places like Mozambique, for example, where less than 1/3 of households have regular electricity, it is difficult to see how electrified minibuses could be viable right now. Finally, as of now, e-buses and charging infrastructure, while cost-effective long-term, are 2x-3x more expensive up-front than fossil fuel buses.

Mitigating EV-related risks and some short-term public transit improvements

In moving towards EV use, sub-Saharan African countries could build on existing infrastructure to mitigate risks, such as beginning electrification with two-wheel vehicles and building EV infrastructure into new electric grids. While a wholesale switch to EVs may not happen in the near future – public transit must first be affordable to commuters and transit authorities must have a commitment to public transit – transit authorities could keep the following in mind while moving towards EVs long-term.

Starting with two-wheelers

Two-wheelers may be a better opportunity than buses for immediate public transit electrification. The Africa two-wheeler market is expected to exceed US$ 9 billion in 2021, driven by better fuel efficiency and convenience compared to four-wheel vehicles. Motorcycle taxis abound and are largely unregulated. With the large informal transit sector in many African cities, it is necessary to have a public transit system for these informal workers to transfer into. A 2020 study finds that electric two-wheelers – which may include scooters, motorcycles, and bikes – are the most viable EV in developing countries due to lower cost, for both transit authorities and low-income commuters. This has already begun with electric two-wheeler startups in Rwanda and Namibia, and could be incorporated into more regulated public transit systems.

African-led electrification

African-led electrification could be a long-term pathway towards electric public transit vehicles. In a best-case scenario, EVs could become an asset for places without a grid, since people could use the battery to power appliances. As countries expand electric grids, they could take the needs of EVs into account in a way unprecedented in other regions. In this case, it would be important to adopt mitigation strategies against grid overload, such as managing grid overuse by controlled charging, and ensuring that the size and location of the charging stations are based on the needs of the public transit drivers. Transit authorities could employ evidence from countries such as Indonesia, for which this article gives sustainable recommendations such as providing incentives to the industrial sector, incorporating solar, and ensuring charging happens during base load times in the daytime.

Mitigating potential EV issues before they arise

Before EVs can get off the ground, sub-Saharan African countries would need to mitigate risks, and ensure political and public will for public transit. One way some Latin American cities have mitigated cost risks has been public-private partnerships, in which bus fleet providers own and maintain the buses and lease them to municipalities in long-term contracts, “unbundling” the risk between the public and private sectors. African cities could employ this strategy and also combine the transition to an electric fleet with other consumer-centric innovations such as bus rapid transit systems (BRTs). To institute a BRT – electrified or not – city authorities would need high political will to effective implementation, communicative partnerships with bus operators and commuters, and employment provision to existing transit operators such as semi-formal minibus drivers.

Laying the groundwork for electrification

Electric vehicles for public transit provide an efficient and sustainable means of travel. While large-scale fleets of electric buses are likely not directly on the horizon for sub-Saharan African countries, there is a possibility currently to phase into electric public transit via two-wheelers, and lay the groundwork for larger EV use through electric grids, BRTs, and more. Policymakers in metropolitan areas have examples from emerging economies around the world to look towards, while designing effective and sustainable transit systems. Doing so would have long-term environmental, health, cost, and welfare benefits for residents.

Editor’s note: This blog is part of IGC’s sustainable growth series

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IGC.