William Ruto

President William Ruto drives himself in an electric car from State House to KICC for the closing ceremony of the Youth Africa Climate Change Summit on September 3, 2023, ahead of the Africa Climate Summit.


Inside Yetu, the electric car President William Ruto fell in love with

It just lay there in the evening Karen sun; a small, light-green wagon with a touch of black and a bit of attitude. It was unimposing as it sat on the cabro-paved driveway, a diminutive little thing that still oozed that characteristic freshness of new cars.

From the front it looked odd; no long bonnet to accommodate an internal combustion engine, no fenders in the shape and format of your usual daily runner, no bumper grille to aid in air cooling, and no frills or those dashes of chrome finishes that ooze engineering parsimony and a touch of cheap exhibitionism.

Autopax Air Ev YETU electric car

Autopax Air Ev YETU electric car pictured on  September 13, 2023, in Karen, Nairobi.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

At first glance, it didn’t look impressive; instead, it appeared to be a designer’s idiosyncratic cross between a Nissan Cube and Suzuki Alto, or a Mazda Carol and a Citroën Ami. From the back it looked a bit narrow and its roofline slightly too high. There was a dash of red running across the back, just below the rear windshield, and just below the red line was the name badge, sitting pretty in shiny capital letters. AUTOPAX.

Way below the name badge, just above a black line of plastic separating the rear bumper and what remained of the tiny boot, another badge: Air EV Yetu.

Yetu? Kiswahili for ‘ours’? Is somebody trying to light up the collective patriotic fires of the nation? If so, they might actually be on to something here.

If this were the beginning of a relationship, it wouldn’t be love at first sight. Not for any petrolhead who grew up admiring the vroom-vroom of combustion engines, the rattle of tail-pipes once the pedals are put to metal, or that enthralling whine of a turbocharger as the engine is fed the beans up Kinungi.

So, what did President William Ruto see in this car? Why did he drop his official four-wheel-drive to cram his presidential self inside the Air EV for days during the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi two weeks ago?

Autopax Air Yetu: The electric vehicle that's the talk of Kenya

To answer those questions, we placed a call to Ms Joy Kalua, the 24-year-old Ivy league student behind the Yetu, and asked for a test-drive. “Sure, why not?” she said as she agreed.

Where the Yetu loses attention-grabbing points in first appearances, it makes up for that loss once you step inside. For a car its size, the in-cabin feel is impressive, with good head- and leg-room and modern safety features. It isn’t a mansion, and there are touches of luxury inside, but for a car of its class, it still has something going for itself.

Autopax Air Ev Yetu electric car

Bernard Mwinzi, Managing Editor, Content Hubs, poses for a photo with the Autopax Air Ev Yetu electric car on Wednesday in Karen, Nairobi. 

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

The unit I drove came with a two-tone grey-white dashboard and a fully digital, multifunctional display panel in place of an instrument cluster. On either side of the dashboard were two cup-holders, but for this test-drive I used them to hold my mobile phone.

The cloth driver and front passenger seats were comfortable for a car of this stature and class, and both came with three-point seat belts. For safety features, the car had two airbags at the front but none at the back, even though the two small seats at the back both came with standard three-point safety belts.

So, how is it to drive?

The word ‘interesting’ is what comes to mind. You climb into the cabin through wider-than-usual doors – it is a two-door, therefore the doors have to be bigger than normal to accommodate those clambering into the back – and plant yourself into the driver’s seat.

You put the key into its receptacle and turn the car on. And you sit there and wonder: What’s up, Yetu? Didn’t the motoring world move from ignition keys to short-range radio transmitter and frequency identification fobs 10 years ago?

If this is your first time driving a fully electric car, you wait for the engine to come to life, to purr and hum and shake as the combustion chamber explodes in mechanical violence and the pistons move up and down and crankshaft starts rotating and air and fuel mix in their stoichiometric ratios and waste gases are pushed out into the exhaust manifold through a silencer assembly all the way through the tail pipe into the atmosphere.

You wait for that violence, for the purring and humming, for the cabin to shake a bit as the car comes alive. And you wait, and wait, and wait.

But that doesn’t happen. Instead, the car just sits there, its small digital instruments panel lit up in blue and all manner of dials and gauges and the electric sorcery of modern engineering blinking and popping up. All is quiet. But do not be mistaken; the car is armed. Ready for take-off.

You look to the left, just off your left thigh, in search of a gear lever. There is none. Instead, where you expected a shifter, you find a small rotary dial the size of a water bottle cap. It is marked R, N and D. You depress the brake pedal, put the dial on D, disarm the handbrake, and lift your leg off the brake pedal.

President William Ruto

President William Ruto drives himself in an electric car from State House to KICC for the closing ceremony of the Youth Africa Climate Change Summit ahead of the Africa Climate Summit.  

Photo credit: PCS

The car starts to inch forward. In absolute silence. You press the acceleration pedal and the small beast comes alive. There is excitement in the air. The trees and houses and paving blocks and boda bodas zoom past.

The steering wheel feels small. If you have driven a Landcruiser, or a Land Rover, or even the standard sedan, this tiller is not for you. It does not give you that coziness of being in charge, but it responds quite well to driver input. It is multifunctional too, meaning you can tune the FM receiver, manage the entertainment unit, check performance and reset the gauges right from the steering wheel.

On a normal city drive, the car responds well and keeps up with traffic. Of course it draws attention from the public, and for a minute you want to roll down the window, plant your elbow on the frame, and strike that racketeer pose of a rapper.

It feels agile on the rough of tarmac and negotiates standard speed bumps with ease. But the car I am driving is brand new with not a single rattle in the cabin, and the McPhersons suspension at the front and three-link coil spring assembly at the rear has not been put to test by Nairobi driving conditions yet.

Still, it feels good to throw around corners and point it to the direction of the city. And so I move it from the Karen suburb to Lang’ata Road and put the pedal to the… ummmh… metal. There is a small lag as the computer decides whether I am joking or not. Then the car lurches forward and attempts to show its might. I want to laugh, not at it, but with it. The Yetu electric car wants to keep up with the Joneses, but how could it? I mean, how dare it!

Autopax Air Ev Yetu electric car

Autopax Air Ev Yetu electric car’s interior in a picture taken on Wednesday in Karen, Nairobi.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

On sale in China and Indonesia since last year – where it is marketed as the Wuling EV – the car shot to fame during the G20 Summit in Bali last year when it was adopted as one of the operational carriers. President Ruto, therefore, appeared to be reading from the Bali script when he adopted it as his daily ride during the climate summit in Nairobi.

Classified as a city car, it is a rear-motor, rear-wheel-drive three-door hatchback running on a single permanent magnet motor. It will not win any race though and neither will it corner like a rabbit as its base model is all good for 40hp at 30kW, with the ceiling at 67hp at 50kW. However, the car is good for a range of 200 kilometres per full charge for the base model, and 300 kilometres for the long range version.

That means the long-range version of the car will, at full charge, take you from Nairobi to Kabarnet (290 kilometres), Muhoroni (288 kilometres), Arusha (270 kilometres), Isiolo (272 kilometres), or Keroka (278 kilometres). Charging can happen right from home, as the charging unit can run on domestic wattage and voltage. Domestic charging time is eight hours to full charge.

So, could this car, and the many other versions of fully electric vehicles, be the answer to Kenyans’ problem with fuel costs and pollution? With a litre of petrol now retailing at Sh211, could Yetu be the beginning of a motoring revolution in the country? Kenyan motorists have shown a degree of aversion to this new technology, especially after some rather bad reviews of the earlier versions of hybrids (cars that run on both fuel and battery). Another major drawback is the cost of purchase as these cars tend to be priced much higher than their combustion counterparts. The base value of Yetu is priced at Sh1.7 million while the bigger version is going for Sh2.1 million. While these are prices for a brand new car, some Kenyans might argue that, for those amounts, one could get much bigger, stronger more versatile second-hand Japanese units.

But Joy, the Kenyan woman behind the car, is of a different opinion. She argues that, while indeed the car is not cheap, the benefits come with its daily running and cost of service. Electric vehicles do not have to queue at fuel stations for expensive petrol, do not have complicated transmission setups, do not need oil changes, some do not even have drive shafts, do not have radiators to cool super-hot engines, and generally do not need massive investments to keep them running.

Yetu car interior

For a car its size, the in-cabin feel is impressive, with good head and leg room.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

Many observers and analysts, therefore, are looking at these types of cars as the future of mobility. And, given their environmentally green credentials, they are receiving a lot of incentives from governments. The Ruto government, for instance, has announced plans to reduce excise duty on electric vehicles from 20 per cent to 10 per cent in a bid encourage their adoption.

Ruto rides motorbike during launch of electric boda bodas in Mombasa

Further afield, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics reports that although forecasts for the rate of adoption of these cars over the next decade vary widely given rapid changes in both government policies and the auto manufacturing industry in recent years, “many forecasts expect a strong acceleration” in their use. Some forecasts suggest that electric vehicle sales in the United States could reach 40 per cent of total passenger car sales by 2030, and more optimistic projections foresee electric vehicle sales surpassing 50 per cent by 2030.

The Wall Street Journal, noting that “the enthusiasm is everywhere”, also foresees a global adoption of the technology in coming years.

“Most people will have heard of California’s ban on sales of petrol-powered cars by 2035,” it notes. “Auto makers themselves are making equally sweeping promises: GM touts a ‘path to an all-electric future’ with its own proclamation of ending production of fuel vehicles by 2035. Mercedes announces the same, but with a target year of 2025. Honda has already has gotten rid of the non-hybrid version of its Civic in Europe. And in the financial markets, Tesla, an all-electric company from the start, had at one point a stock valuation that was greater than its top five carmaker rivals combined”.

A lot of this is hype and hot air, notes Mr Simon Alford, a computer scientist at Cornell University in the US. But, taken together, “it signals confidence and agreement among auto makers, governments and citizens about the promise of a future of all-electric transportation”.

The BBC, in a story about whether the UK is ready for this revolution, drives the points home even more dramatically: “At the risk of infuriating all you petrolheads out there, let's just get it out there - electric cars are the future,” the British news outlet says. “They are clean, quiet, fun to drive and help us tackle the biggest challenge of our era, climate change.”

Conversations, therefore, have shifted from whether this is the future to how to make the technology better and more reliable. Range per charge is getting better and there are some electric vehicles that can clock 500 kilometres per charge, or drive the distance from Nairobi to Mombasa without the need to stop to recharge the battery.

Joy agrees. “The future is here,” she says. “There is no turning back.”

So how did President Ruto chance upon this car? On the Sunday just before Africa Climate Summit, the government put up an e-mobility parade in Nairobi, riding on the fact that the summit’s main objective was to discuss the continent’s ongoing transition to clean green energy and reduce emissions.

Hundreds of Kenyans who have been busy trying to venture into the world of electric mobility showed up for the parade that had them drive from Green Park Terminus to the Kenyatta International Convention Centre, then to Nairobi National Park.

Joy put Yetu on the line and one of the President’s handlers, impressed by the car, took photos and informed the President, who was absolutely blown away. State House made arrangements for the car to be delivered to the President, and the rest, as they say, is history. At the time of our test-drive, the President had not returned his car, more than a week after the summit. Joy hoped that State House would turn out to be her first client.

The cars are assembled at Kenya Vehicle Manufacturers in Thika and will be available across dealerships in about four months.

[email protected]. Additional reporting by Leon Lidigu.