Electrifying Motorcycle Taxis in Africa to Reduce Emissions and Save Drivers Money

A motorcycle taxi driver uses a red Ampersand electric motorcycle to transport a female passenger in Rwanda.

Image caption: Ampersand builds affordable electric motorcycles and charging systems for the five million motorcycle taxi drivers in East Africa.  Image Credit: Ampersand.

Script by: Sophie Wenzlau Audio by: Alexandra Jade Garcia Blurb by: Elizabeth Sherstinsky

What are motorcycle taxis?

Motorcycle taxis are indispensable in East Africa and other developing countries. In large cities experiencing unplanned growth, agile moto-taxis can navigate congestion while transporting millions of people. In Rwanda, more than half of all vehicles on the road at any moment are motorcycle taxis. But gasoline-powered motorcycles are not cheap: fuel is expensive, maintenance can be expensive, and the motorcycles can cause serious air pollution and emit greenhouse gasses. 

What is Ampersand?

Ampersand makes affordable electric vehicles and charging systems for the five million motorcycle taxi drivers in East Africa, who are known locally as ‘motars’. Headquartered in Kigali, Rwanda, Ampersand grew from a tiny garage project into Africa’s leading electric vehicle company, with a team of more than two hundred people based in Kenya and Germany. Since launching in May 2019 with twenty electric motorcycles (known as “e-motos”), the company has put hundreds of e-motos on roads across East Africa. With gas-powered motorcycles, many drivers spend over $11 daily on fuel and vehicle costs, but make as little as $1.60 each day. Going electric can double a driver’s income by reducing fuel costs and drive Africa towards a zero-carbon future.  

Ampersand advertises its motorcycles as vehicles that have excellent driving performance, need minimal customer behavior change, emit 75 percent less carbon than gas-powered motorcycles, have zero tailpipe emissions, and save drivers over $500 USD a year—significant savings for a family of three in Rwanda.  

How does Ampersand work?

The Ampersand system works like this:

  1. A motorcycle driver purchases or leases an Ampersand e-moto.
  2. When the battery is low, the driver comes to an Ampersand swap station.
  3. Ampersand switches depleted battery for a new battery, while driver pays for the energy used by the depleted battery.
  4. The driver continues their drive, swapping for another new battery when needed.

Through this model, drivers do not incur the risk of buying a lithium battery pack or waiting for batteries to recharge, losing time and customers in the process. Each battery is high-range and so requires stopping at Ampersand stations less often than drivers would need to do if refueling with gasoline. 

Ampersand e-motos cost less than gas-powered motorcycles to lease or buy, and half as much to power. Using electricity from a fossil-fuel-powered grid, the e-motos produce 75 percent fewer lifecycle greenhouse emissions than gas-powered motorbikes. Using electricity generated from renewable energy sources, they produce 98 percent fewer lifecycle greenhouse emissions than gas-powered motorcycles. Ampersand batteries are assembled locally in Rwanda.

Who is Alp Tilev?

Alp Tilev is the Chief Technical Officer at Ampersand Motorcycles. He first came to Rwanda to join Great Lakes Energy, where he worked on remote monitoring for solar energy systems of health centers in off-grid areas. He worked for many years as a computer scientist at Microsoft, helping to make Microsoft relevant for hackers and startups in the New York City community. Tilev started his career in natural language processing and machine learning for Fast Search, a Norwegian software startup. Alp holds a BA computer science from the University of Aarhus and Istanbul Bilgi University.

Further Reading

Rwanda’s Electric Motorbike Revolution Speeds Ahead, World Economic Forum

Rwandan Electric Motorcycle Startup Ampersand Secures $9m Debt Facility, Disrupt Africa

East Africa’s Transition to Electric Vehicles, Local Source

The Love-Hate Relationship Between East Africa and Boda Boda Two-Wheeled Taxis, Bloomberg

Rwanda Goes Electric with Locally Made Motorbikes, BBC News


Transcript

Ethan:  I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break. Climate solutions in a hurry.  Today’s proposal: affordable electric motorcycles and battery swap stations that reduce transportation emissions in developing countries.  We spoke to Alp Tilev, the Chief Technical Officer at Ampersand, to learn more.

Alp Tilev: In most of Sub-Saharan Africa, the two-wheeler is a very, let’s say workhorse vehicle.  You’ll see almost anything being transported on the back side of a petrol motorcycle. These vehicles generally either do taxi service or delivery service.  They’re small businesses in a way. They’re all over the place. And they’re our primary customers.

Ethan: Ampersand lets these motorcycle drivers purchase or lease a pay-as-you-drive electric version and swap out depleted batteries for new ones at Ampersand swap stations. Drivers can then access recharged batteries on demand, saving them money and time, while reducing emissions compared to conventional motorcycles.

Alp Tilev:  We use an attendant who helps the driver get that battery off with some special tools. Then they’re making a cashless payment where they’re just charged for that amount of energy used in that ride with that battery pack, and then they get a fresh battery, and they’re off in less than two minutes. Normally most of these vehicles have the battery embedded in them in a way where it’s really difficult to take it out. So, we have to kind of design around the battery pack to ensure that it’s really easy to swap in and out of the vehicle. This battery swap network, it allows drivers to basically go electric really easily without worrying about range, without worrying about the upfront cost of the battery.  And without worrying about the longevity of the battery, so they can go electric from day one.

Ethan: To learn more about how electric motorcycles and battery swap technology can improve livelihoods and reduce emissions in Africa and around the world, visit climatebreak.org.

Electrifying Motorcycle Taxis in Africa to Reduce Emissions and Save Drivers Money