The rise of electric motorcycles in Africa: Interview with Spiro CEO

Recent analysis by McKinsey & Company suggests that as much as 35% of the fleet in sub-Saharan Africa’s five largest vehicle markets (excluding South Africa) will be electric by 2040. Electric motorcycles are expected to lead this transition since they are most representative of the transport scenario. However, the electric motorcycle industry in sub-Saharan Africa faces three major obstacles: Over 90% of sold units are imports from China and India which are often unsuited to African conditions; the region’s 48% baseline electricity access is insufficient for a reliable charging network; and early-stage African startups lack access to high-quality storage technology.

Spiro, originally known as MAUTO, is an emerging player in the electric motorcycle industry. Founded in May 2022, the company has established a presence in Benin, Togo, Rwanda and Uganda, with a fleet of over 7,000 electric motorcycles and more than 250 battery swapping stations. A considerable proportion of Spiro’s customers are motorcycle taxi drivers. 

How we made it in Africa interviewed Spiro CEO, Jules Samain, to learn more about the business. Below are slightly edited excerpts.

How does Spiro’s business model work, particularly in terms of battery swapping stations and the electric motorcycle exchange programme?

We have established a network of battery swapping stations strategically located in key cities. These stations allow our customers to easily exchange their depleted electric motorcycle batteries for fully charged ones, eliminating the need for long charging times. This approach ensures that our riders experience minimal downtime and can maximise the use of their electric motorcycles.

Our electric motorcycle exchange programme has been instrumental in accelerating the adoption of sustainable transportation. We offer drivers of [traditional] motorcycles in Uganda, Benin, Togo, and Rwanda the opportunity to exchange their vehicles for electric motorcycles. Through this programme, we make electric mobility accessible and financially viable for these drivers, creating a win-win situation for both the drivers and the environment.

We offer motorbike taxi drivers a subscription model, where they make a daily payment which combines the cost of battery swaps, insurance, and maintenance of the motorbikes. This daily payment works out more affordable than diesel costs. By providing drivers with the option to exchange their thermal motorcycles for electric motorcycles, we significantly reduce their operational costs mainly on the maintenance part and also daily fuel consumption fees. Additionally, our battery swapping system eliminates the need for drivers to invest in expensive charging infrastructure.

To further support the economics, we collaborate with various stakeholders, including government bodies and financial institutions, to provide favourable financing options and incentives for the drivers. These collaborations help to bridge the initial cost gap between thermal and electric motorcycles, making the transition financially feasible for the drivers. Our model is attractive to governments for a number of reasons, including the safety of our modern vehicles, the positive outcomes for lowering emissions, and the benefits of providing a legal charging network to reduce the reliance of some drivers on illegal, untaxed diesel.

What was the rationale behind choosing the initial markets of Benin, Togo, Rwanda and Uganda?

When selecting our initial markets, we considered several key factors. Firstly, we assessed the demand for affordable and sustainable transportation solutions in each country. We looked for markets where the need for efficient urban mobility was high, and where the potential impact of our electric mobility solutions would be significant. We also evaluated the policy environment and government support for clean transportation initiatives. Countries with favourable regulations and a commitment to sustainable development were prioritised, and this will continue to be the case.

Furthermore, we took into account the existing infrastructure and the readiness of the market for electric mobility. We aimed to select markets where the charging infrastructure could be developed and scaled efficiently – and of course it is important for us to consider the availability of green energy sources. We want to work in an environment where we have access to solar and hydroelectricity sources, rather than those that burn fossil fuels. Where these are not immediately available, we will look at options to enter partnerships to encourage the development of green power sources.

As we expand into new markets, we will continue to consider these factors, while also looking at factors such as population density, market size, and the receptiveness of local communities to embrace electric mobility.

What are the key lessons you have learned so far?

One key lesson learned is the importance of collaboration with local stakeholders, including governments, regulators, and community leaders. Building strong partnerships and engaging with local communities has been instrumental in overcoming challenges and ensuring the success of our initiatives.

We have also realised the significance of providing comprehensive training and support to the drivers during the transition to electric motorcycles. Ensuring that the drivers are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to operate and maintain electric motorcycles optimally is crucial for their long-term success.

We are now able to share knowledge between teams in different countries. So, for example, we have deployed some of our expert team from Benin to help implement our new network in Rwanda and we will do the same in Uganda. This allows us to hit the ground running and develop our charging networks at speed.

Another vital lesson is the need for continuous innovation and adaptation. Each market presents unique challenges and opportunities, and we must remain agile in tailoring our solutions to specific local contexts.

In light of increasing competition in the electric mobility sector across various African countries, what is Spiro’s approach to maintaining its market position?

We invest significantly in research and development to enhance our electric motorcycle technology, improve battery efficiency, and extend the range of our vehicles. We expect our assembly plant in Benin to come on line in Q4 of this year, allowing us to manufacture and assemble more of our motorbikes on African soil. Similar factories are planned for Togo and Uganda, where we have pledged to introduce 140,000 electric motorbikes into the market in the next five years.

Furthermore, we foster collaborations with local and international partners, including governments, NGOs, and industry players, to leverage their expertise and resources. By joining forces, we can collectively address the challenges and accelerate the adoption of electric mobility across the continent. We also prioritise customer experience and satisfaction. Providing reliable and convenient transportation solutions, supported by a robust network of charging and battery swapping stations, is essential to maintaining our competitive advantage. Lastly, we keep a close eye on market trends and emerging technologies, allowing us to stay ahead of the curve and adapt to evolving customer needs and preferences. By staying innovative, collaborative, and customer-centric, Spiro aims to remain at the forefront of the electric mobility market in Africa.