Rwanda’s homegrown EV leader sets its sights on Kenya

Patrick Sakwa, a bike-taxi driver in Nairobi, has doubled his daily income over the last month.

He still works the same hours, but saves a lot on fuel expenses because Sakwa switched from a traditional oil-guzzling motorbike to a new electric bike in April. The only reason he could make the switch, he told Rest of Worldwas that he found a company that allowed him to buy a bike with a minimal up-front cost. “I’ve been trying to get some of my other friends who still use petrol bikes to switch,” Sakwa said.

Sakwa’s new bike is made by Ampersand, Rwanda’s largest EV maker, which entered Kenya in December. The company has already become a strong contender in one of Africa’s most competitive EV markets, where at least 12 local and international e-bike brands operate.

Ampersand’s bikes make up roughly 70% of all registered electric motorcycle taxis in Rwanda, one of Africa’s smallest countries. Its success can be attributed to government support, affordable financing plans, and a nascent market. The company is now trying to replicate this success in Kenya, and has already made a mark.

“Kenya is the big market for us when we look ahead five or six years,” Emmanuel Hakizimana, Ampersand’s co-founder and country manager for Rwanda, told Rest of World. “Nairobi as a city alone is equivalent to the entire Rwanda as a market. Kenya is also the hub of investment; the big investors are all in Nairobi. We expect that in the next two years, our Nairobi business will be bigger than Rwanda. We are also looking at Uganda and Tanzania.”

Founded in 2016, Ampersand started as an EV infrastructure company that built a network of 27 battery-swap stations around Kigali in its early years, CEO Josh Whale told Rest of World. In 2018, it started manufacturing bikes at a factory in Kigali, and also offered a financing plan for customers to purchase them in 24 monthly installments. So far, the company has sold over 2,200 bikes in Rwanda.

Ampersand has raised $34.4 million to date, with investment from a crop of African and international investors, including AlphaMundi and Total Energy Ventures. The company is backed by the Rwandan Green Fund, the government’s environment and climate change investment initiative.

Ampersand’s success is partly due to the support it has received from the Rwanda government, Whale said. In August 2019, just months after the company started selling its bikes, Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, declared that his government would work to replace gas-powered motorbikes with electric ones. In 2023, the government waived import taxes on EVs — the third African country to do so after Tunisia and Togo.

Competing in Kenya would be a bigger challenge for Ampersand, experts told Rest of World.

“Even a market leader selling 1,000 vehicles doesn’t scratch the surface, considering that there are over 2 million motorcycles in Kenya with a market growth of 250,000 annually by 2030,” said Andrew Amadi, an energy transition advisor at Independent Petroleum Dealers, a coalition of gas station owners in Kenya. “What will determine growth will be the business model.”

Ampersand has seen some early success in the new market. Since launching in December 2023, the company has sold 655 motorcycles in Nairobi — a fifth of what Kenya’s biggest EV player, Roam Electric, has sold since 2022.

The smooth start can be attributed to the financial partnerships the company has forged in Kenya, Whale said. The company either sells its e-bikes outright for $1,619, or partners with institutions like Jali Finance, Bboxx, M-Kopa, and Watu to allow customers to pay over 24 months.

Ampersand’s expansion to Kenya comes on the heels of rising gas prices, a cost-of-living crisis that has sparked protestsand a government commitment to electrify urban transport.

The company’s network of battery-swap stations in Nairobi allows EV owners to change their batteries in less than two minutes, said Whale. “We’ve now got a lot of battery-swapping stations around the city, and they’re in the right places because we work with TotalEnergies as a partner and investor,” he said. “They’re in convenient locations, and those locations are also very much driven by customer requests.”

Experts believe the investment in swapping stations will benefit EV companies in the long run.

“Growing EV adoption for motorcycle taxis is slow because it’s a hardware thing, (and) it’s not cheap to bring in a bunch of motorcycles and finance them when you don’t get that money back immediately,” Tom Courtright, an electric mobility consultant and research director at Africa E-Mobility Alliance, told Rest of World. “Most of them see that the real money is in the battery swapping … By the time (an Indian company like) TVS or Bajaj decides to enter the electric motorcycle business, they will ensure their motorcycle works with (their) battery-swapping network. That’s the real exit plan.”

As Ampersand moves deeper into Kenya, Whale believes the company’s experience in Rwanda and its focus on pricing will help it win.

“We started as a very small garage project in Kigali, and from the beginning, worked closely with the customers,” he said. “We’re now saving 35%–40% on operating costs — including fuel and oil changes and maintenance — versus a petrol motorcycle. Over the lifespan of the vehicle, that compares very favorably, (and) as far as I’m aware, we’re cheaper than anybody else.”

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