Known as the land of a thousand hills, Rwanda might not be the obvious place to launch electric vehicles.
The rugged, rural terrain would be tough for any car, but especially for models that have to lug heavy batteries around.
But the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, wants to transform the economy of this small landlocked country.
A key part of the plan is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the country’s dependence on imported fossil fuels, which account for 40% of the country’s foreign exchange expenditure.
Thus, the government has launched a series of incentives to encourage electric vehicles.
Electric cars, their spare parts, batteries and equipment for charging stations have been exempted from VAT, import duties and excise duties.
Meanwhile, electric vehicles can be charged at a heavily subsidized electricity rate. The government is also offering rent-free land for charging bays.
First offered around 2019, but held back by the Covid pandemic, the incentives came into effect in April 2021.
The German Volkswagen was one of the first beneficiaries of the government strategy. He launched the e-Golf model in Rwanda in 2019. The pilot project started with four of the cars and two charging stations in Kigali.
VW’s original plan was to expand the service to 50 cars and 15 charging stations, as part of its taxi app called Move.
However, three years later, only 20 of the cars are on the road and they have been removed from the ride-sharing service. Instead, they ferry guests from several high-end hotels, the international airport, and the Kigali Convention Center.
“The unevenness of the road infrastructure and the height of the speed bumps proved too difficult for the e-Golf, which has a relatively low ground clearance,” explains Allan Kweli, operations manager at Volkswagen Mobility Solutions Rwanda.
There was particular concern about damaging the underside of the car, where the batteries are.
Despite this misfire, VW remains optimistic about Rwanda. She plans to import her ID.4 electric car, which has higher ground clearance.
“The beauty of Rwanda is that the government has created a test case by which you can prove your work in an African setting,” Kweli said.
A glaring problem facing automakers is the lack of charging facilities outside of Kigali.
In a developing country like Rwanda, it is difficult to justify large investments in national charging infrastructure.
Nonetheless, in partnership with the government and energy companies, Rwanda’s EvPlugin Charging Network plans to build 200 public chargers across the country over the next two years.
Of these facilities, 35 will be suitable for cars while the others will be used for electric motorcycles.
Japanese Mitsubishi is dodging the issue by launching a gasoline-electric hybrid car in Rwanda.
He has 135 of his Outlander cars on Kigali roads – 90 of which are rented, while the rest are driven through a rental service.
“A hybrid vehicle eliminates range anxiety as it can switch to gasoline, which is relevant as we are still far behind with charging infrastructure in Rwanda,” says Joshua Nshuti, of Greenleaf Motors, the official dealership of Mitsubishi in Rwanda.
He says demand has picked up recently.
“While fuel prices have risen 60% over the past few months, we are seeing growing demand for the Outlander as it offers customers the opportunity to cut their fuel costs in half,” he said. declared.
Critics question the Outlander’s positive environmental impact because, in the hills of Kigali, it can only travel about 50-70 km (30-44 miles) on battery power alone.
This is not a problem for Paul Frobisher Mugambwa, who works for an international accounting firm in Kigali. His rented Outlander runs mostly on battery power, for his short 7km commute between his home and office.
He says petrol used to cost him $150 (£128) a month, but estimates charging his Outlander costs $40 a month.
Ideally, he would like to switch to a fully electric car, but worries about the lack of mechanics in Rwanda who would be able to service and repair such a car.
“If you buy an imported Chinese electric SUV, who will fix your car if it breaks down,” Mugambwa wonders.
Cost is perhaps the biggest barrier to developing an electric car market in Rwanda.
Although Rwanda has made economic progress over the past decade, about half of the population still meets the UN definition of poverty – living on less than $2.15 a day.
Although this makes owning an electric vehicle impossible, taking a ride on an electric motorcycle is within the realm of possibility.
The Ampersand company has already managed to sell more than 700 electric motorcycles in Rwanda, where motorized taxis are a very important mode of transport.
These so-called e-motorcycles, with a battery swap system, are extremely popular, in part because they cost less to own and operate than a traditional motorcycle.
Despite the challenges, many believe that Rwanda should continue with its electrification plans.
Michelle DeFreese, is a senior executive at the Global Green Growth Institute, which is assisting the Rwandan government with training and advice on an electric public bus plan.
She believes that Rwanda, which already produces 53% of its electricity from renewable sources, is in a good position to make the transition.
“The combination of transitioning to electric vehicles while investing heavily in renewable and clean energy resources is a powerful combination when it comes to reducing emissions,” she says.