Rwanda government pushes electric cars, bikes

Rwanda’s capital Kigali

Rwanda’s government is getting behind the “carbon neutral” movement by promoting electric cars and motorcycles. German automaker Volkswagen is demonstrating electric vehicles in Kigali, while a local company has begun selling electric bikes. But some ask whether the vehicles work in a city with a dense population and poor road system.

On a parking lot of the Kigali International Convention Centre, Rwandan Prime Minister Edouard Ngirente stepped into a Volkswagen electric car, and manoeuvred it around with no problems, like it was his own.

His short drive officially launched a pilot programme by Volkswagen. The company is putting four electric cars on the roads for Kigali residents to try them out through the Uber-like Move service.

If all goes well, the automaker will roll out another 50 electric cars, to be powered by 15 charging stations.

Ngirente said electric cars would be a step forward in Rwanda’s drive to become less dependent on carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

“Rwandans are increasingly aware that protecting the environment is a top priority,” he said.

Arrival of the e-cars follows the introduction of electric motorbikes in Rwanda. Because of a poor road system and dense population, 70% of Kigali residents rely on them to get around.

Kigali-based Ampersand is one of the companies hoping to see the public switch to electric-powered bikes. With their classy design, locals think they’re cool, and they are manufactured partly in India, partly in Rwanda. Their cost is around $1,500.

Ampersand CEO Josh Whale says that these e-bikes fulfil a need.

“The motorcycles are simply cheaper to acquire and cheaper to operate while they actually have more power or more performance than the current fuel-powered motorcycles people use,” Whale said.

The e-bikes use a battery that lasts for about 75 kilometres of driving. Despite the limitations, Emmanuel Dayambaze says he’s happy with his. He says he loves the electric bike because it’s good, it requires little maintenance, and he says that compared with a fuel-powered motorbike it saves him money.

Battery life is one of the challenges for Ampersand. They’re working on increasing the capacity and having more than the current two charging stations.

Rwanda’s Ministry of Infrastructure is monitoring the progress with the e-bikes. If found suitable, it will start promoting them, says ministry official Alfred Byiringiro.

“After realising the electric motorcycle can be used on our terrain, which is a hilly terrain, we just sensitise people on the advantage of using electric bikes and electric motorcycles,” Byiringiro noted.

Ampersand hopes to have 500 e-bikes on the road next year. But they might feel competition from the electric cars, according to Volkswagen sub-Saharan Africa CEO Thomas Schaefer.

“People are tired sitting on the back of a motorbike and having a bad helmet. It rains and the buses are sometimes full, so the take up is amazing,” Schaefer said.

While for now fuel-powered motorcycles remain king of the road in Rwanda, e-cars and e-bikes are gaining ground, and may lead the country to an electric, carbon neutral future.

This article was first published by VOA.