During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in Nairobi, Kenya, something improbable happened: a mountain appeared. To curb the transmission of the virus, authorities called on the city’s thousands of private bus operators to cease trading. “Within three days, the air completely cleared,” recalls entrepreneur Jit Bhattacharya. “You could see Mount Kenya … crystal clear,” some 90 miles away.
Bhattacharya also saw an opportunity. Kenya produces 90% of its electricity from renewable sources – mostly geothermal and hydropower – and has surplus grid capacity, yet it imports nearly all its petroleum fuels. What if clean energy could be channeled into the transport sector? Maybe it could help the city clean up its act. Maybe Mount Kenya could become a permanent feature for Nairobi once more.
The Kenyan capital is home to over five million people, and matatus, privately owned minibuses and shared taxis, “are critical to the way people in Nairobi get around,” explains Christopher Kost, Africa program director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. “In the city, we have 40% of trips on public transport.”
“The challenge that we’re facing now is that these matatus are stuck in traffic,” he adds. “People face delays, the service is not always reliable. Those are issues that we need to correct.”
Electric buses could help solve the problem. Today Bhattacharya is the CEO and co-founder of BasiGo, a mobility startup racing to electrify the city’s buses. The company is not alone. Swedish-Kenyan electric vehicle manufacturer Roam also has its eyes set on Nairobi’s mass transport sector. Both are rolling out fleets of buses this year that could mark the start of a new chapter for city’s famous matatu culture.
Nairobi's matatus in all their glory
Enabling a clean energy transition
BasiGo started by importing two 25-seat buses from Chinese electric vehicle giant BYD, and began a pilot scheme in March 2022. Operating on a fixed route in Dandora, a neighborhood in east Nairobi, the CEO says the two buses have carried 175,000 passengers and driven over 135,000 kilometers (84,000 miles) to date. “What’s most remarkable is that in that entire time, they’ve had less than two days of technical downtime,” he adds.
In the coming weeks, 15 more buses will hit the streets. These vehicles have been imported as kits, which are being constructed in the coastal city of Mombasa, creating jobs and reducing taxes, Bhattacharya explains.
Rather than operate its fleet, BasiGo is selling buses directly to Nairobi’s private operators through a “pay-as-you-drive” scheme. Bhattacharya says that in doing so, buyers can purchase a BYD electric bus for a similar upfront cost as a diesel bus of a similar size.
As part of the deal, drivers receive free bus servicing and maintenance, and free charging. The charging infrastructure – which taps into the national grid – is being deployed along busy routes at stations where buses typically stop overnight. (The aim, says Bhattacharya, is to transition to electric “with no behavior change” on the part of drivers.)
Read more: Why the energy transition is so tough for Africa
BasiGo’s buses have a range of 250 kilometers (155 miles) and recharge in four hours. Under the company’s model, BasiGo retains ownership of the bus’s battery (“as much as 40-50% of the value of the vehicle”), which means after eight years or 600,000 kilometers (373,000 miles), the battery is replaced and the old battery either given a second life in a non-vehicular application or recycled, says Bhattacharya.
The startup says it has received over 100 reservations so far. It aims to have 100 buses on Nairobi’s roads by the end of the year and 1,000 buses operating by the end of 2025.
Making electric a competitive alternative
Meanwhile, Roam is making plans of its own. The electric mobility startup formerly known as Opibus, an Earthshot Prize finalist in 2022, has two separate bus models designed for Nairobi’s needs.
The Roam Rapid can seat up to 90 people, has a range of over 360 kilometers (224 miles) and is designed to carry passengers along major corridors and on routes such as airport transfers.
The bus has undergone four pilot schemes and is currently being trialed on Thika Road, a major highway in the capital. Roam says it aims to have up to 10 Rapid models in private use by the end of the year. It is waiting on the results of a government tender linked to the city’s upcoming BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) network, which could result in a contract for up to 100 buses.
“We feel that we developed a product that is lovable and usable and bottom line functional,” says project coordinator Dennis Wakaba – and with prices starting at $245,000, the Rapid is competitive with diesel equivalents of similar quality, he argues.
The Roam Move is a smaller bus designed to compete with the traditional matatu market. Wakaba claims the bus will cost 20 Kenyan shillings ($0.16) to run per kilometer, compared to 50 to 60 shillings ($0.40 to $0.48) for a diesel equivalent. Through a financing model – the details of which are yet to be finalized – he says drivers could recoup the cost of the vehicle in four to five years. The Move is still in prototype stage, but Roam plans to have 10 units completed by October.
Read more: A pay-as-you-go electric truck is making deliveries on Rwanda’s dirt roads
For now, charging is only available at Roam’s workshop in the city, although Wakaba says permission to install publicly-accessible chargers on Thika Road has been granted, and Roam plans to install charging points along routes for top-up charging during the day and full recharging overnight.
Product and strategy chief Albin Wilson is keen to draw a distinction between Roam and its competitor.
“The biggest difference is that we design our products (ourselves),” he argues, tailoring battery size, bus size and other factors for the Kenyan market. “We’re working really in a different vertical,” Wilson insists.
The long view
Kost believes that while healthy competition in the private sector will ultimately benefit consumers, the public sector also needs to get involved. “It won’t be sufficient to just change the vehicles to e-buses. We need to make sure that there are improvements in infrastructure and operations and regulations at the same time,” he says.
“The ideal arrangement is where government is investing in the corridors, in the stations and the depots, and then the private sector is able to bring capital to invest in the buses,” he adds.
“Nairobi will be a much more efficient city if we have a decent public transport system that offers reliable, fast service,” Kost concludes, with potential economic benefits that could incentivize the government to get on board.
BasiGo and Roam are already setting their sights beyond Nairobi and Kenya. “We’re really excited to take this model for scalable electrification of the public transport system to other markets,” says Bhattacharya, naming Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia as potential countries for BasiGo’s expansion. Roam says it is looking for tenders for the Roam Rapid across East Africa, and plans to roll out the Roam Move across the region in late 2024.
In the meantime, both companies are doing all they can to win over the city’s drivers and commuters to their products. Electrification may not spell the end of the matatu, after all. It could be an upgrade instead.
“We want to make these accessible to all people across the city of Nairobi. Rich, poor, “it doesn’t matter,” says Bhattacharya. “I think passengers, once they go and experience (our buses), they’re not ready to go back.”