Mobility for Africa’s low-cost electric tricycles cater to the transportation needs of small-scale farmers in rural Zimbabwe. Tamara Thomas interviews managing director and founder, Shantha Bloemen, to learn more about the company’s business model.
What was the reason for starting Mobility for Africa?
The majority of people in rural African communities are small-scale farmers. They tend to live far from major roads and spend several hours a day – and up to 30% of their income – on commuting and performing chores like fetching water or transporting their goods to markets.
We created Mobility for Africa to help improve the quality of life, create economic opportunities and increase access-to-market for these rural communities.
Explain your business model.
Mobility for Africa is currently focused on setting up fleets of electric tricycles, called Hambas, with off-grid battery charging and swapping. We target areas where there is already access to the power grid, and build solar stations to supplement the existing electricity supply.
We have three different revenue models: farmers or small business-owners can group together to rent the tricycle on a monthly basis; we have a lease-to-purchase model; or drivers can use the tricycles to provide transportation and logistics services on a commission basis.
Who is your target market?
Our services benefit all those in the community, especially women. Use cases include smallholder farmers, taxi drivers, local healthcare workers, and service providers such as the police or Agritex (the Zimbabwean government’s rural intervention agency).
Our model is to build strategic partnerships with agribusinesses that rely on small-scale farmers as well as development sector organisations that are working to improve productivity. For example, we will be partnering with the Zimbabwe Association of Dairy Farmers and dairy producers to help small-scale dairy farmers transport their milk to the collection centres.
How much do your services cost?
The rental of the Hambas costs around US$80 per month, which is typically shared between three or four women.
For the lease-to-purchase scheme, the total fee is approximately US$2,200 (inclusive of one-year of servicing and driving lessons), split over 22 months. In the case of the dairy farmers, a subsidy from We Effect (a Swedish NGO) contributes US$1,600, and the farmers each pay around US$30 per month from their milk income over two years.
For our service model, the total fees for a trip vary based on the distance. The drivers receive a 30% commission.
Mobily for Africa retains ownership and management of the batteries. All of our customers pay a $3 fee for the battery swapping. A battery last around 100 kilometres on a single charge.
Could you provide more information about the company’s success in the dairy industry?
One of our most significant achievements is our partnership with the dairy industry. Land reform caused the industry to shift from big commercial farms to a larger number of small-scale farmers. These farmers carry heavy containers of milk on their heads up to 10 kilometers per day to central collection centers, where the milk is picked up by trucks.
We have made an agreement with dairy manufacturer Dairibord for their farmers to lease our tricycles to transport their produce and pay for it over time through increased earnings. This allows farmers to save time and increase their productivity from 20 liters a day to 60 liters. We believe this model can be applied to other agricultural products such as avocados, chilies, and horticulture.
Why is Zimbabwe an interesting place to set up a business?
Zimbabwe has a high-risk perception which makes it challenging to raise capital. But the country still has high agricultural productivity, and it is a dollarised economy, which makes it more bankable than, say, Nigeria.
What are some of the challenges you faced early on with the business?
When we launched in 2019 we were initially very dependent on grant funding from the likes of the Toyota Mobility Foundation, EEP Africa, and the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund. But we could not survive on grants alone and needed to demonstrate we could achieve financial viability. So we trialled a pilot programme in a rural community of 6,000 people. We set up a fleet of 50 tricycles, adding another 60 the next year, training women to drive the vehicles and testing our community-based sharing model to demonstrate to potential investors that the model could be sustainable.
Why did you choose to use three-wheeled vehicles and where do you source them from?
Our three-wheelers can carry loads of up to 400 kilograms – several times heavier than motorbikes can – are very easy to learn to drive, and do not require a licence to operate.
We import our tricycles from China but have a factory in Harare where we modify them to suit our market – for example better tires, shock absorbers, and mud flaps for off-road terrains. When we first used the vehicles, we found their batteries were not suitable for our needs because they were not built for driving for such long periods without charging, and quickly needed replacing. So we focused on sourcing lithium batteries that could drive over 100 kilometres on a single charge, and developing a modular battery swapping and charging system with a solar company called Zenergy. We’ve also invested in other technologies such as a USSD booking system.
Discuss your growth plans.
We have recently raised $2 million investment from InfraCo Africa, which will enable us to build out our charging infrastructure and reach more rural communities.
Over the next 12 to 18 months, we want to prove we can execute consistently by setting up 12 sites, and operate fleets totalling over 600 vehicles in Zimbabwe, across various industries.
We are also looking at how we can expand into neighbouring countries, and are already working on similar offtake agreements with small-scale farmers in Zambia and Mozambique. We will predominantly choose locations where we can work with partners that rely on small-scale farmers.