Henry Kamau: Urbanization & Motorization Biggest Challenge for Africa

Recently I spoke with Henry Kamau, Director of Sustainable Transport Africa about a range of topics concerning the future of fuels, vehicles and transport in Africa, including improving fuel quality, future emissions and fuel economy standards, electric mobility, public transport and biofuels. Highlights from the interview follow below. You can listen to or download the podcast below or listen to it in ITunes.

About Sustainable Transport Africa:

“Sustainable Transport Africa is an NGO, a nongovernmental organization, a not for profit that was registered in Nairobi in 2013. It is focused on the transport sector. As the Director of Sustainable Transport Africa, I am involved in identifying initiatives for the NGO to pursue. This has led to partnerships in transport-related activities for Africa with international organizations like UNEP, the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles. That’s within UNEP and the Electrical Mobility Program within UNEP. In addition, we have worked with the GFEI. That’s the Global Fuel Economy Initiative of the FIA Foundation. Sustainable Transport Africa worked on the initiative to phase out led in petrol in Africa and then moved on to reducing sulfur levels in diesel in Africa. We’re now working on improving fuel economy and reducing emissions, testing and introducing electric mobility. We’re also working on the introduction to BRT [bus rapid transit] systems in African cities.”

On the Biggest Issue Facing African Countries When It Comes to Transport:

“I think the biggest issue in Africa is that the cities in Africa that have the highest urbanization rates in the world. The population of those cities is really growing at unprecedented rates and ownership of vehicles ranks very high on the aspiration index for Africans. The first thing they want to do when they get a job after university, the first thing they’ll do with their salaries is buy a car. Not even a house. This has led to the unsustainable influx of imported used vehicles. Those are affordable. And new motorcycles, mainly used for public taxis. This results in heavily congested cities, causing air pollution and many are above minimum standards for air quality, resulting in increased health effects, such as respiratory diseases, various cancers, premature death, etc. The adverse health impacts impacted many on the non-motorized public, the majority of whom can’t afford medical treatment and even worse is the effect on urban children who are poisoned in much higher doses when exposed to poor air.

 

Several initiatives have been undertaken, primary improving fuel quality, to both reduce direct pollution and also to enable emissions control mechanisms in vehicles to function properly. This will be followed by the introduction of emission testing of vehicles later on. We’re also advocating for African governments to limit the age and mileage of used vehicles that are imported to the continent and we also attended meetings in London last year and in Geneva this year on this issue. Basically this was to seek support from the auto industry on used vehicles that are shipped to the African continent to allow for proper inspection and maintenance equipment to be available to us, as well as support in terms of supplies for this vehicles. We’re also involved in promoting ownership from private vehicles to public transport through the introduction of bus rapid transit systems, integrated with numerous transport facilities. On the technology front, we have been working on enhancing electric mobility of the continent which we can do because of abundant resources of renewable energy.”

On the Practicality of EVs for the Continent:

“To start off, Africa has an abundance of renewable energy supply that are providing over 70 percent of power in some African countries and over 50 percent in many African countries. Decarbonization through electric mobility therefore is a natural choice for Africa; however, the benefits of electric mobility are greater to sell to African governments, such as reduced urban air pollution, reduced fuel imports, reduced vehicle imports, exports, etc. These would all be beneficial to the government and African economies and it would be easier to sell electric mobility that way. We are currently involved in advocating for the introduction of battery electric motorcycles. Those prices have fallen to competitive levels. Motorcycle imports outnumber used vehicle imports, so this would have a significant impact for improving air quality in our urban centers.

 

We also participated in the development of Kenya’s transport plan on battery electric BRT buses for Nairobi, which was presented in Paris COP21 and succeeded in attracting funding. Also, in Cape Town, South Africa and Marrakech and Morocco, they are trying out battery electric buses in their BRT routes. Uganda has also developed a solar-powered, battery-electric bus, which was featured on CNN and the BBC. A number of Nissan Leafs are already in use on the continent and even a few BMW I8s. The interest is there on the continent for electric mobility. A lot of support is needed to develop vehicle charging infrastructure, both on grid and off grid.”

On the Tension Between the Need for Fuel Tax Revenues for African Governments and Electric Mobility:

“It will definitely be an issue because with the governments, their priority is on revenue generation for the development agenda. Anything that impacts on the revenue that they’re collecting will have a very small chance of being supported by governments. It needs to be packaged intelligently. If they’re not going to get the revenues from the fuel, then they need to be shown where the savings will come from on reduced fuel imports and be convinced that will be the case as well as if they can also get more revenue from electric vehicles if the volumes start to go up. Maybe they can switch tactics to electric vehicles. That’s the challenge and we need innovation in how that will be addressed, but definitely there’s not a government that will want to lose that revenue that’s coming in from taxation despite the fact that it is depleting foreign exchange reserves.”