Electric vehicles and pollution: Where is Kenya at?

Esther Wairimu
Opibus 1
Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • Opibus is not the only company which has ventured into the electric automobile business in Kenya.
  • Alternet Systems, a US company, announced plans to supply its first batch of rideshare electric motorcycles for the self-drive rental market by July this year.
  • Other startups dealing with electric automobiles include ecobodaa, EkoRent Africa Ltd (Nopea) and Stimaboda.

Ms Lucy Mugala has been very busy of late. She has been designing and developing electric motorcycles for the Kenyan market. 

The research and development engineer at Opibus has also been leading in the development of electric conversion systems for fossil-powered vehicles in the country.

Already, Ms Mugala and her team have made 100 electric motorcycles, piloted 300 energy systems (charging systems) and converted 10 diesel-powered vehicles to electric automobiles.

The enterprise, started in 2017, ventured into the market by targeting safari vehicles. Opibus converted them from diesel to electricity.

At least 10 such vehicles are in use at Maasai Mara National Park, with more tour vans lined up for conversion. “We have piloted 300 energy systems in Kenya, 100 motorcycles and 10 conversion systems and we are targeting the matatu industry,” the mechatronic engineer tells HealthyNation.

The vehicles charge via a solar panel station, where there is a charging system for safari camps. “We have been replacing the fossil fuel components (engines and tanks) with electrical kits. They comprise a mortar, a controller and a battery pack and other electric components,” she says.

Ms Mugala looks forward to manufacturing fully electric vehicles for the market.

While Opibus’ mission of “electrifying Africa, one vehicle at a time” may seem simplistic, it speaks volumes for environment and climate change.

Burning fossil fuels

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), human-induced global warming is increasing at 0.2°C per decade.

Global warming is caused by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Human activities, including burning of fossil fuels, generate these gases which include carbon dioxide, water vapour, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons. Deforestation and farm activities are also to blame for global warming.

And, the warming is causing weather-related havoc with increased flooding, droughts and tropical cyclones being witnessed.


The Opibus workshop.

Photo credit: Pool

To reduce the effects of global warming, nations have committed to lower the production of greenhouse gases by going green.

Going green in the transport sector is one of the steps Kenya has adopted. 

The sector is one of the highest contributors of greenhouse gases, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep).

As the globe becomes warmer, nations are in a race to attain zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 and limit warming to 1.5°C.

According to the International Energy Agency, electric vehicles account for five per cent of global automobile sales. But, in order to achieve zero emissions by 2050, electric vehicles will need to make up 60 per cent of new automobile purchases by 2030.

And start-ups like Opibus have come in handy. Not only have game drives become quieter, but the environment has also become cleaner.

According to research, increasing the use of electric motorcycles and vehicles will greatly reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Motorbikes, which have become the most common form of transport especially in developing nations, have also come with increased greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the National Transport and Safety Authority, there are approximately 200,000 boda bodas in the Nairobi Metropolitan Area alone, an area covering more than 1,000 square kilometres. 

In Kenya, the number of newly registered motorcycles, commonly used as boda boda, was estimated at 1.5 million in 2018 and will likely grow to over five million by 2030. 

Zero-emission vehicles

Although developing countries have the fastest growing fleets of motorcycles, most lack vehicle emission standards or programmes and incentives to promote zero-emission vehicles.


Engineers working on an electric motorcycle at Opibus.

Photo credit: Pool

This is despite the fact that an average fossil fuel motorcycle is estimated to be 10 times more polluting per mile than a passenger car, light truck or a sports utility vehicle, researchers say.

According to Unep, global shift to electric motorcycles could prevent 11 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. This is more than double the annual energy-related emissions in the US. It would save global motorcycle owners a combined US$ 350 billion (Sh38 trillion) by 2050, “largely because electric vehicles are cheaper to fuel and maintain”.

Motorcycles just add to an increasing problem, with global data showing pollution from the entire transport sector accounts for a quarter of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.

Road transport accounts for three-quarters of transport emissions. In fact, this form of transport accounts for 15 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions globally.

“Today’s transport sector is predominantly based on the combustion of fossil fuels, making it one of the largest sources of both urban and regional air pollution,” states Unep.

Besides driving air pollution, burning of fossil fuels is also the leading cause of climate emergency, says Joyce Msuya, Unep’s deputy executive director.

While newer vehicles produce less greenhouse gases, a recent study on used vehicles and the environment released by Unep, shows there is a strong correlation between the age of a vehicle and the rate of emissions.

The study found that the older the vehicle, the less the fuel efficiency, the higher the greenhouse gas emissions and the more the environmental pollution. Unfortunately, Kenya imports 97 per cent of her vehicles from the international market, specifically Japan. 


Engineers at Opibus.

Photo credit: Pool

In 2019, the country imported 95,672 vehicles, most of them averaging 7.2 years at the time of import. While the average efficiency, or carbon dioxide emission of vehicles is up to 25 per cent better in Kenya than in Uganda and Rwanda, each vehicle produces 177.4g of carbon dioxide per kilometre, according to the Global Fuel Economy Initiative database.

Clean fuel

Vehicles imported in Kenya consume 7.4 litres of fuel per 100km. This means that for all the 100km travelled, each vehicle produces 17.1kg of carbon dioxide .

According to Unep, most developing nations import vehicles that would not be allowed to circulate on exporting country roads, “because they lack basic environment requirements and are a major contributor to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions”. 

But, used vehicles which use clean fuel are better for the environment, notes Unep. “When combined with appropriate fuel quality in the importing country, used vehicles which meet emission standards can lower the impact from both carbon dioxide and non-carbon dioxide emissions,” the report states.

Despite Kenya having a date of manufacture limit of up to eight years for imported vehicles, as well as sulphur limits, it has taken long for it to adopt complementary vehicle emission standards, the study finds.

While the government adopted the European emission standards level IV in 2019 to apply to all vehicles, its implementation is yet to start after local vehicle producers requested for two years so that they could meet the regulations.

The Euro IV standards concentrates on cleaning up of emissions from diesel cars especially reducing particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen.

As of July 2020, Kenya was found to have weak vehicle regulatory environment rankings on used vehicles. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Standards (KNBS) 2020 data, the love for imported vehicles is not about to end as prices go lower.


Electric engineers from left: Juliana Mathilo, Desmond Omondi and Emmanuel Juma at Opibus.

Photo credit: Pool

According to Ms Msuya, vehicle fleets in developing countries, Kenya included, are set to double in number by 2050, with those in Nairobi doubling every seven to eight years. 

“While there is an urgent need for effective public transport, it is not unsustainable to keep adding polluting vehicles to our streets,” she says.

In 2018, the IPCC in its report stated that in order to achieve a 1.5°C climate goal, electric vehicles, electric motorcycles and electric transit automobiles need to displace fossil fuel powered passenger vehicles by 2035 to 2050.

“Shifting to electric bikes in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and elsewhere will reduce costs, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as create jobs,” said Ms Msuya.

Globally, the electric mobility is growing. According to data, there are 7.2 million electric vehicles and over 65,000 electric motorcycles.

Introduction of electric mobility will further redeploy renewable energy, which currently stands at more than 90 per cent and create employment, says Albin Wilson, the Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer at Opibus.

“We try to make the maximum impact as we focus on the social good. We are currently targeting motorcycles by reducing costs by 50 per cent as we only import a few things - the mortar and battery cells. At least 40 per cent of all the workers are women,” he tells HealthyNation.

Boda boda market

Fuel cost, which is currently very high in the country, is reduced by half while running costs are reduced by over 80 per cent through the use of electric mobility, Mr Wilson says.

“Kenya is at 86 per cent production of renewable energy and aims to have at least five per cent of electric vehicles by 2025,” he notes, adding that the country has a favourable environment for electric mobility.

Opibus is not focusing on public service vehicles, “which have definitive routes and easy to install charging systems” for use after conversion, but is installing the charging systems to be launched in Nairobi later this year.

“Kenya is a fast growing country, and has adopted policies which support this kind of a venture. It has adopted Unep’s clean mobility agenda. According to the World Bank Climate Finance estimates, the vehicle manufacturing industry is estimated at US$5 billion by 2030,” he adds.

Opibus is not the only company which has ventured into the electric automobile business in Kenya. Alternet Systems, a US company, announced plans to supply its first batch of rideshare electric motorcycles for the self-drive rental market by July this year.

The 2,000 electric motorcycles will be sold to the boda boda market in a pilot phase, with the company planning to rent the motorcycles unlocked through a mobile phone application.

Other startups dealing with electric automobiles include ecobodaa, EkoRent Africa Ltd (Nopea) and Stimaboda.

In March, Unep launched a pilot project, giving 99 electric motorcycles to cyclers. “The reception (of electric motorcyles) has been so good. Besides air pollution, noise pollution is also reduced,” says Ms Mugala.

According to Bernard Ngugi, the Kenya Power CEO, the company is ready to leverage on opportunities created by electric mobility.

To encourage production of electric vehicles, the government reduced duty charged on the vehicles from 20 to 10 per cent, he says.

The government will also be introducing charging facilities across the country to support the programme, adds Mr Ngugi.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Development is also proposing the provision of external charging ports in residential buildings.