Nyeri youths’ effort to make electric cars accesible to all

Ndegwa Ng’ang’a,

Ndegwa Ng’ang’a, an innovator converting fuel-powered engines to electric at Rathithi Polytechnic in Nyeri County on November 24, 2023. The project’s objective is to equip students with the skills to repair electric cars, which are gaining popularity as the fight against air pollution gains momentum.

Photo credit: J oseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

At the remote Rathithi Polytechnic in Nyeri’s Mathira Constituency, a group of students is actively assembling an electric Tuktuk beneath the shelter of a solar-powered charging station.

Guiding them through the session are some instructors, among them 30-year-old Ng’ang’a Ndegwa, who is the innovator behind the two electric three- wheelers used at the institution.

The classes, which consists of a mix of electrical and mechanical students, entail training them to build, convert and repair electric automobiles.

Ndegwa, a final-year bachelor of business administration student at the European Business University of Luxembourg, is on a mission to ensure that e-vehicles are not only locally accessible but also affordable to everyone, regardless of their financial status.

In his quest to popularise e-mobility, he has partnered with two tertiary institutions among them Rathithi Polytechnic so as to train students on the sector thus enhancing their employability and creating opportunities in industries related to clean energy, transportation, and renewable technologies.

Bernard Oduor,

Bernard Oduor, project research manager at Rathithi Polytechnic in Nyeri County on November 24, 2023.

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

He identifies himself as an entrepreneur who seizes opportunities within the world's challenges.

"My business education has instilled in me the mindset that one must seek opportunities within difficulties. Climate change is a pressing concern, and I have found a gap where I can contribute and make a positive impact," he explains.

Despite lacking a formal education in engineering, he honed his skills through apprenticeship, learning from his father, an electrical engineer.

In 2021, he retrofitted his first vehicle, a matatu, an idea that came after the closure of his prototype plant which specialised in the production of plastic petroleum through the reverse engineering of waste plastics in Nyeri Town.

“I was forced to shut down the business in 2019 because it was located at the county’s dumpsite and the land was being converted into a bus park,” says Ndegwa.

Through his organisation- the Good Guys Globe- he secured Sh1 million funding from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The matatu retrofitting project took approximately a year to become fully functional.

He notes that a majority of the time was spent on research.

However, he encountered a challenge as he lacked a permit from the car manufacturer, thus preventing him from using the vehicle.

Rathithi Polytechnic

Ndegwa Ng’ang’a, right, an innovator converting fuel powered engines to electric, demonstrates to learners the relationship of a Controller Unit to an Electric Vehicles (EV’s) powertrain system . 

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

As a result, he shifted his focus to tuktuks, engaging in the construction and conversion of the three-wheeled petrol-fueled motorised vehicles to electric.

Collaborating with Rathithi Polytechnic, they jointly contributed Sh400,000, used to construct an electric tuktuk from scratch.

He explains that the retrofitting process entails the removal and replacement of all internal combustion components of a vehicle, including the engine, exhaust, fuel pump, and manual gear levers.

An electric vehicle consists of a mortar, controller unit and lithium-ion batteries.

Such a vehicle relies on energy stored in batteries, replacing the traditional fuel tank found in diesel-powered cars, thus supplying power to the motor.

The motor serves as a substitute for the engine by converting electrical energy from the vehicle's battery into mechanical energy to drive the wheels.

Additionally, the controller unit oversees the electricity flow between the battery pack and the motor. It incorporates components such as inverters, converters, and voltage regulators, all contributing to the control of the electric motor's speed and power.

The controller also plays a crucial role in monitoring and managing various aspects of the vehicle's performance, ensuring efficient energy use and optimal operation.

Other integral components of electric vehicles include the charging system, regenerative braking system and sensors, all contributing to enhanced efficiency and safety.

He notes that lithium-ion batteries are the most expensive components in an electric vehicle because the raw materials used to make them, which include-lithium, cobalt, and nickel, are costly and subject to market fluctuations.

This is why he opts to buy used lithium-ion batteries from local solar companies, repurposing them for his electric vehicles.

"Original lithium-ion batteries from solar power systems can endure up to 10 years, while recycled ones typically offer a service life of up to three years," he explains, emphasising that the age of these batteries also influences the pricing of electric vehicles.

His electric tuktuks boast a range of up to 250 kilometers and require approximately three hours for a full recharge.

To ensure sufficient energy supply, solar panels are installed on the roofs of these three-wheelers, converting sunlight into electrical energy.

Additionally, the tuktuks are equipped with dashboards that indicate the battery charge level.

A tuktuk of this kind is priced between Sh450,000 and Sh550,000. In comparison, Ndegwa notes that an imported electric three-wheeled vehicle currently costs Sh950,000.

He recommends purchasing an electric vehicle over retrofitting a traditional combustion engine to electric, emphasising the cost-effectiveness of the former.

While retrofitting a vehicle to electric, he considers the type of car, its horsepower and the electric components to be placed in the vehicle.

He notes that different types of vehicles may have unique structures and mechanical configurations, requiring tailored approaches to the conversion process.

In evaluating the horsepower, he says that the electric motor selected for the retrofit should match or exceed the power requirements of the vehicle.

Ndegwa Ng’ang’a,

Ndegwa consults with mechancial engieering learners at Rathithi Polytechnic in Nyeri County.

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

“You should also be mindful of the weight distribution, as adding a battery pack can significantly alter the vehicle's weight. Ensure that the distribution is balanced for optimal performance and handling,” explains Ndegwa.

In the international market, he says that vehicles are priced from as high as Sh12 million to as low as Sh1.8 million, contributing to the perception that they are primarily intended for the wealthy.

Locally, he observes that the uptake of electric automobiles has predominantly taken place within the public transport sector, spurred by the increasing number of investors venturing into the sale of electric public transport vehicles.

"This is why my current target market is tuktuk associations, as it will be more feasible for me to establish charging stations along specific routes," he explains.

Initially, he faced financial constraints, limiting his production to individual owners in his home area.

However, he notes that he has since formed partnerships with three companies in the e-mobility sector to scale up the production of electric vehicles.

“My partners and I are also actively involved in local and mass production of electric vehicle components to reduce production costs,” says Ndegwa.

He adds that they have collaborated with a Chinese firm specialising in electric vehicle production, with the Chinese company manufacturing electric cars based on their orders.

“This collaboration has not only facilitated the local private sector but also resulted in electric vehicles being sold at subsidised prices locally, thanks to our memorandum of agreement with the foreign firm,” he explains.

Globally, China is the largest producer of electric cars because of its control over the production of battery materials - nickel, cobalt, and lithium- giving its carmakers a cost advantage in production.

As a result of the partnership, he has taken on the role of a consultant for imported electric vehicles.

He says that his organisation, which consists of diverse industry experts, is responsible for customising imported vehicles to ensure their effectiveness on local roads.

He, however, notes a key challenge in the local business landscape, which is the absence of a legal framework to certify, regulate, and oversee e-vehicle producers.

To address this, the government formed a taskforce in August this year with the mandate to facilitate a seamless adoption of e-mobility in the country.

The team's responsibilities include developing a national electric mobility policy, strategy, legislation, and regulations.