A Kenyan startup is converting buses to run on electricity

Valentine Muhamba Avatar
Opibus Kenyan Startup

Opibus is a Kenyan-Swedish startup that is converting conventional internal combustion engine vehicles to run on battery power. The company has a wide range of conversions ranging from a Land Cruiser 70-Series and motorcycles all the way to electric buses. It is the latter that is the key here because transport (cars trains, freight, planes etc) is one of the biggest polluters contributing about 24% of carbon emissions globally.

This is especially bad when it comes to individual or private transportation which carries fewer people than public transport. Buses and the likes are a good way of offsetting every individual’s carbon footprint.

The situation has been compounded by the global demand for public transport. According to the World Bank, India’s passenger traffic grew by 25% between 1990 – 2017 and freight volumes grew by 16%. This trend tracks in developing countries where carbon emissions are sometimes outstripping GDP in terms of growth.

“In many developing countries, transport emissions are increasing at a much faster rate than GDP growth. Between 1990-2018, transport emissions grew six times as fast as GDP in Nepal, and twice as fast in, Iran, Croatia, Guatemala, Iran, and Nigeria. and decoupling has only taken place as an unfortunate consequence of dire conflict situations.”

Foster et al World Bank

The ideal scenario is that countries should grow and have a handle on transport-related carbon emissions.

Is Opibus’ model an answer to this?

What Opibus is doing is admirable because they are engineering everything in house. Additionally, their electric drivetrains are modular which means that they can be swapped into an array of vehicle types. This means that they aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel by designing everything from the ground up which is time-consuming and costly.

The way Opibus is operating has the African context in mind because in large part most countries try to maintain whatever resources they have. Furthermore, the lack of complexity of Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) means that the servicing is for a lot fewer components than it is for an internal combustion engine vehicle.

Opibus has launched an electric bus in Kenya, a first for the nation, and are looking to have more on the road with the goal of mass-market production for the continent by the end of 2023.

“Following this, the platform will be tested at scale in commercial deployment of 10 buses during the second half of 2022. In doing so, we ensure that we gather valuable feedback to continue the development of the product for an optimised market fit. It feels great to be the first movers in this very exciting space,”

Dennis Wakaba, project coordinator for public transport at Opibus. (via Disrupt Africa)

The bus on offer according to the company’s website has a 121kWh battery capacity, a top speed of 85km/h, 120km of range and seats 25 – 36 passengers. All of these figures are encouraging but…

Electric buses are great and all but there are some downsides…

An electric vehicle’s range is always an issue if you are working with battery power alone. According to Changing Transport, the average citywide trip in Nairobi Kenya is 9.1Km by public transport which means an Opibus vehicle can make about 13 trips on a single charge and then it will need to recharge. The fast charging time for the bus is an hour and a half which doesn’t seem like much but is downtime where internal combustion engine buses can refuel in a matter of minutes.

The second problem with electric buses is the cost to acquire one. Opibus retails its buses starting from US$60,000 which is pretty expensive in comparison to a conventional second hand 2018 Hino Liesse (seating 28) that goes for around US$46,000. The upside of Opibus’ conversion equivalent won’t drain the wallet when it comes to servicing what with the 8-year battery life and 5000 charge cycles.

However, the cost of entry especially for the independent operators who make up the majority of the transport sector in Africa is high compared to the alternative.

Trolleybuses kinda solved some of these problems

A number of European and “western” countries have trolleybuses and trams that are connected to a consistent power supply via overhead wires. This means that the bus is always active because most countries in these regions don’t experience blackouts as frequently as in some African countries.

Additionally, they don’t depend on a battery but might have one in case of emergencies. This results in fewer service intervals compared to BEV buses and their internal combustion engine counterparts.

The downsides are that a country would need to install electricity lines so the buses can function and they are pretty pricey. Some models can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars which is a massive investment compounded by the cost of the infrastructure they need, which most African countries are not in a position to meet.

However, if a country can afford to have them they are a really good option. But in the African context, this is far from possible right now across the board. Although countries have dabbled, our own local National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in 2019 reportedly built a prototype trolleybus.

Opibus will, for now, compliment existing fossil fuel buses

I would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater if I said what Opibus is trying to do won’t work in Africa. Electric buses could help meet the shortfall for transport in countries like our own Zimbabwe. The local operator ZUPCO has failed dismally to meet the transport demands and bus ranks are usually packed with people commuting to and from work.

Moreover, Opibus like our very own EV Centre Africa is working on charging stations this will most certainly help its cause as it spreads across the continent.

It might be a good while till we see trams and trolleybuses but electric buses meeting the shortfall is a good starting point. Plus they will assist in decreasing transport based carbon emissions.

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  1. George

    Enlightening video about electric vehicle. Thanks for sharing

  2. LITE

    Good article by the way but when it comes to adaptation of EV’s and BEV’s in Zim, we need to forget about that for quite sometime. Its not a trajectory which can be done by a one sector, we need so many sector to merge. Look at our roads, Electrical and Communication infrastructures, we need to improve on that and maybe, maybe we might “think” of it. Again let’s not put too much time and efforts in trying to do unnecessary things at Universities. Let’s do things which can drive the economy and create employment at large by using “mostly our own resources. Imagine having buses manufactured in Zim, who do you think can buy them. That when this saying comes – “LETS MORDENISE BEFORE WE DIGITISE”

    1. Imi Vanhu Musadaro

      Our “trajectory” does not need to follow others trajectories. Follow the trajectory that is best adapted to your circumstances, instead of basically doing nothing waiting for planets to align.

      If we manufacture buses in Zim, they ought to be bought by the same people currently importing them, isn’t it? You prepare for the future now, not when you are in dire need. 5 years from now we will be the same asking why we aren’t manufacturing EVs, as if its an overnight achievement. The production costs of EVs is only going to go down, so we shouldn’t dwell too much on the costs.

  3. AVM to EVM

    I’m curious; how legal are conversions in Zimbabwe? Can you register your build? How would taxes and insurance work etc. When I see stuff like this and channels like Rich Rebuilds and JerryRigEverything, I often think it would be cool to see here but in my ignorance and pessimism, i cant help but suspect it would go badly legal/regulatory wise.

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