Kenya: Start-up introduces electric fishing boat engines on Lake Victoria

Fishers can save about 25% on fuel costs with ASOBO’s electric engines.

ASOBO, the start-up co-founded by Laurens Friso in 2019 not only reduces emissions and pollution, but also offers a compelling business case and economic benefits for tens of thousands of fishers.

Explain your business in a nutshell.

ASOBO provides e-mobility on the water. That is, we provide daily and long-term rentals of our lithium battery-powered electric outboard engines – e-boarders – together with a complete maintenance and support package.

Currently, we operate from Mbita, Kenya, which is a starting point to reach the tens of thousands of fishers who fish on Lake Victoria, although we believe the service can be expanded across emerging markets globally.

How did you first get into the e-mobility business?

I always had the desire to start my own business but was waiting for the right idea. I had over a decade of experience in off-grid energy, having worked with companies like Greenlight Planet and Shell Foundation, which helped me build my network and understand what investors are looking for.

Through the venture-building firm Persistent Energy, I met Wolfgang Gregor (ASOBO’s other co-founder), who introduced the idea of electric mobility for boats. Compared to solar home systems, the asset value per unit was much higher and our analysis indicated it could work well from an impact and financial point of view.

Tell us about the problems you are trying to solve.

The primary issue for the consumers is cost, and fuel is by far the biggest contributor. Fishers have very little leverage when buying petrol or diesel. There is also a high degree of unreliability and maintenance expense that comes with traditional petrol or diesel engines, along with a high upfront cost. With our electric engines, the daily cost is on average around 25% cheaper, and our service model means the costs are a lot more predictable, which makes things a lot easier if, for example, there is a bad catch on a particular day.

Another general benefit of using renewable energy solutions for countries like Kenya is that it reduces the need to import fossil fuels and therefore has a direct beneficial effect on the country’s foreign currency reserves.

What is ASOBO’s unique value proposition?

I would say there are three key innovations in our business model. Obviously, there is the technology aspect; although, while we are always on the lookout for technological improvements and better products, we choose to source our engines from suppliers rather than develop them ourselves.

Arguably, the bigger innovation comes not from the technology but from how we deliver the product and service to the customers, which is quite different from traditional fossil-based solutions.

One of the differences is the fee structure. The upfront cost of the electric engines is still high so we currently offer them on a leasing model with time ranges between one day and one month, though we are looking to offer three- or six-month leasing plans and pay-per-use models as well.

We offer a full-service package. The fishermen go out at night which allows us to charge the batteries during the day using solar. This means we have twice daily interactions with our customers and allows us to get to know them well and quickly respond to any issues. We have a 24/7 helpline for all customers and include training on using the motors. There is a bit of a learning curve in order to get the best performance out of the engines. We offer an assistant captain for the customers’ first week of using our engines to help smooth the transition.

How do you convince people to use the e-boarders instead of fossil fuel powered engines?

We use a combination of traditional sales and marketing, along with in-person sales and word-of-mouth. Seeing people using the motors helps to convince others.

We have invested a lot in training sales staff on how to sell the product; the customers’ first question is always: how much is it? We try not to focus so much on the price and rather talk to them to better understand their needs so we can see which benefits would resonate with them as there are many benefits beyond simply the cost.

Most of the small-scale fishermen are used to working in an informal environment and we think it’s important that they deal with a professional, predictable service. We provide a lot of training and support to make the transition as smooth as possible for the customer.

What are some of the challenges you have faced with ASOBO?

One of the difficulties we face in our sales process is our customer is not one person; it is often a combination of the boat owner (which may be multiple people), the crew and a number of broader stakeholders. Each of these people needs to be convinced. What has helped is the support of local leaders; for example, the local beach management units.

Access to talent has also been a big challenge. There are lots of talented people in Kenya but they tend to congregate in the major cities such as Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa. When you are outside the main hubs, it can be difficult to convince people to make the move.

You don’t build the technology yourself. Is this something you have looked at?

We want to maintain a focus on one thing: electrifying mobility on the water. We made a deliberate decision not to become a technology company… not to become vertically integrated. The technology is still at a nascent phase and getting involved with research and development adds cost and complexity. That is something I learnt from my experience in the solar home system space.

Focusing on providing a service offers us a more sustainable business model that can easily be replicated in other locations. It also gives us the flexibility to monitor different technologies as they improve and select those most suited to our customers.

ASOBO CEO Laurens Friso’s contact information

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