In the realm of African urban mobility, the burgeoning number of cars projected to triple by 2050 poses formidable challenges, including strain on infrastructure, escalating congestion, and heightened carbon emissions. Addressing these issues requires innovative, localized solutions, a realm where African startups shine. Judith Adem Owigar, a UN Habitat mobility expert, asserts the pivotal role of startups in proffering context-specific solutions tailored to African cities' unique challenges. She highlights examples such as BasiGo, an electric bus company transforming Kenya's public transport, and WeTu, experimenting with electric motorcycles in rural areas. While acknowledging challenges such as funding constraints and limited data sharing, Judith advocates for collaboration, capacity building, and knowledge sharing among local innovators to fortify the sustainable mobility ecosystem.
The potential of local innovators is a mine gold for African cities
In Africa, urban mobility is a major challenge. The number of cars is expected to triple by 2050. This will put a strain on urban infrastructure and lead to increased congestion, air pollution, and carbon emissions. However, there is a growing movement of local innovators who are developing innovative solutions to these problems.
“When we're looking at innovative approaches to deal with the sustainable mobility challenge, we need to look at localized solutions to address local challenges and to be very honest, one of the stakeholders that have a good eye on addressing these challenges are the startups,” said Judith Adem Owigar, a mobility expert at UN Habitat.
Judith explains that “In many cases, African cities have different needs and challenges than other cities in other parts of the world. This means that imported solutions often do not work as well. Local innovators, on the other hand, are familiar with the local context and can develop solutions that are tailored to fit specific needs.”
She also emphasizes that local innovators are small and agile, which means they can quickly adapt to address problems. They can iterate rapidly and test out different methods to address these challenges. Additionally, when you consider that global challenges are represented differently in local areas, we cannot simply copy and paste solutions from other parts of the world.
African startups are pushing ahead to reshape urban mobility in Africa through collaboration and local-based solutions
“One of the local startups that are contributing to inclusive mobility in Kenya is BasiGo, the electric bus company. I believe that they are changing the public transport sector in the country by enabling public transport operators to have access to electric buses by working with Matatu saccos and other operators are able to see the potential,” adds Judith.
Judirh has also worked with WeTu, a social enterprise in Homa Bay, Kenya, that has been testing electric motorcycles in rural areas.
“This is an interesting experiment because the challenges experienced when electric motorcycles in rural areas are different from those in urban areas. For example, the load that motorcycles are expected to carry in rural areas is much higher than in cities,” Adem adds.
The tests conducted by WeTu have shown that electric motorcycles can be a viable option for transportation in rural areas. WeTu also found that electric motorcycles used in rural Kenya need to be stronger and tougher than those that are used in urban areas. This is because the roads in rural areas are often in poor condition. The tests conducted by WeTu will be valuable to other innovators who are developing electric motorcycles for rural areas.
A further and robust collaboration between local innovators across the continent and larger organizations like UN Habitat is really important to transform urban mobility. One example is ‘SOLUTIONSplus’ a partnership that can help to scale up innovative electric mobility solutions and bring them to a wider audience.
“As UN Habitat, we are positioning ourselves as the glue connecting the startups to the government by facilitating conversations between startups and government, and hosting stakeholder workshops where the startups can discuss different challenges that are affecting them and inviting government representatives to listen in to address them. This what we have been doing with our ‘SOLUTIONSplus’ project ,” highlights Judith .
SOLUTIONSplus is a project that brings together cities, businesses, researchers, and other organizations to develop and implement innovative e-mobility solutions. The goal of the project is to help cities transition to low-carbon urban mobility.
The project includes city-level demonstrations of different types of e-mobility solutions. These demonstrations are complemented by a comprehensive toolbox, capacity development activities, and replication activities. The project is currently being implemented in 10 cities: Hanoi, Pasig, Lalitpur/Kathmandu, Kigali, Dar es Salaam, Quito, Montevideo, Madrid, Nanjing, and Hamburg.
Judith continues to emphasize the importance of collaborations “Organizations UN-Habitat need to work together with entrepreneurs, policymakers and academia. All these different stakeholders need to work together, we can’t leave anyone behind.We also need to work together with different financiers and guide governments to provide them with incentives to invest in this market.”
In partnership with University of Nairobi C4D Lab, which is an incubator and accelerator for mobility startups, UN Habitat has been supporting startups in the mobility sector with funding, mentorship and access to policy makers through stakeholder workshops.
Local innovators still face funding and capacities challenges in developing sustainable mobility solutions
One of the biggest challenges local innovators face is lack of funding. "Access to funding and financing either from investors or from banking institutions is a challenge for many startups in rapidly urbanizing cities in Africa," says Judith. "Banks generally see this as a risky market, but it would be good if there were some kind of policy that would enable startups to access loans on preferential rates."
Another challenge is the high cost of importing components for electric vehicles and other sustainable mobility technologies. "A lot of components that are needed for the assembly of different electric vehicles need to be imported and are highly taxed depending on the country," Judith said. This adds to the cost of these vehicles, making them less affordable for consumers.
Lack of data is also a challenge. "There is a lack of data for what batteries work efficiently in the Africa, and what is the best motorcycle frame for the electric motorcycles in this market. There is limited data sharing within the ecosystem because it takes so much money for the for the startups to do this research as such most of them withhold that information,” she adds.
Judith also emphasized the need for capacity building and knowledge sharing among local innovators. She believes that this can help to build a strong ecosystem of innovators who can work together to develop sustainable mobility solutions.
“We need capacity building across the value chain. This is from the technicians to engineers to know what and how to build, to marketers to know what to sell. Like everybody needs to have a level of knowledge and knowledge sharing, ” she says.
Despite the challenges, the work of local innovators is making a difference. By developing innovative solutions and challenging policy makers to develop contextually relevant policies, local innovators are helping to make sustainable mobility more affordable and accessible in Africa.