Picture: Reuters/Mike Hutchings

Solar minibus­es for Africa? Data seen as key to green trans­port switch

Solar-pow­ered elec­tric charg­ing points could be the solu­tion for African cities, researchers say — but to attract invest­ment, more infor­ma­tion is need­ed on infor­mal trans­port systems .

As emis­sions from African trans­port surge, gov­ern­ments need to find ways to encour­age a shift to clean­er, health­i­er elec­tric vehi­cles, espe­cial­ly among the minibus and motor­cy­cle taxis that dom­i­nate trans­port in many cities, researchers say.

Invest­ment in gen­er­at­ing more solar-pow­ered elec­tric­i­ty to charge elec­tric vehi­cles (EVs) could encour­age their use, cut pol­lu­tion and costs for pas­sen­gers, and help sta­bilise unre­li­able ener­gy sys­tems, they said in a com­men­tary pub­lished in Nature Sus­tain­abil­i­ty.

But most African gov­ern­ments lack the data on pri­vate­ly run mass trans­port sys­tems need­ed to make the case for finan­cial insti­tu­tions and devel­op­ment banks to put mon­ey into build­ing elec­tric charg­ing infra­struc­ture, they added.

Co-author Kather­ine Col­lett, a fel­low with the Oxford Mar­tin Pro­gramme on Inte­grat­ing Renew­able Ener­gy, described it as a “chick­en and egg” prob­lem. “Nobody wants to invest in elec­tric vehi­cle charg­ing before there are enough EVs to make it prof­itable. But nobody wants to buy an EV that they are unable to charge,” she said in a statement.

The Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford researchers not­ed that in 2018, car­bon diox­ide emis­sions from sub-Saha­ran Africa con­tributed only 2.3% of glob­al emis­sions. Less than 12% of those African emis­sions came from trans­port. But with pop­u­la­tions grow­ing, migra­tion to cities from rur­al areas accel­er­at­ing and the con­ti­nen­t’s mid­dle class expand­ing, demand for road trans­port in the region will increase, they said.

“Unless there is dis­rup­tion to busi­ness-as-usu­al, the relat­ed emis­sions will also increase,” the com­men­tary said, call­ing for “urgent action” to find ways of decar­bon­is­ing of trans­port in sub-Saha­ran Africa.

Trans­port emis­sions in Africa grew by 84% between 2010 and 2016, the researchers not­ed, cit­ing data from the Bel­gium-based Part­ner­ship on Sus­tain­able, Low Car­bon Transport.

From Kenya to South Africa, where both own­er­ship of pri­vate fam­i­ly cars and offi­cial pub­lic trans­port is lim­it­ed, the major­i­ty of urban jour­neys are under­tak­en using infor­mal pri­vate trans­port — often old and import­ed sec­ond-hand minibus taxis or two- and three-wheeled vehicles.

Most­ly, the dri­vers do not fol­low for­mal, fixed routes and many vehi­cles are not prop­er­ly reg­is­tered, mak­ing for poor­ly doc­u­ment­ed sys­tems and a “dras­tic lack” of data, the paper said. At the same time, many poor­er areas have lim­it­ed access to elec­tric­i­ty or strug­gle with fre­quent grid pow­er out­ages, which would make reli­able elec­tric vehi­cle charg­ing a challenge.

The best solu­tion in many places would be to install off-grid solar pan­els along­side charg­ing points, said the researchers, not­ing Africa’s abun­dant sun­shine, the need to curb plan­et-warm­ing emis­sions and the falling price of technology.

They also rec­om­mend­ed manda­to­ry vehi­cle reg­is­tra­tion and insur­ance, along with GPS track­ing for infor­mal trans­port oper­a­tors. Gov­ern­ments, mean­while, should pro­mote the use of cash­less pay­ments and mobile apps to bet­ter track and under­stand trans­port user behaviour.

Such changes would gen­er­ate data to demon­strate the mar­ket size and busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties for elec­tric­i­ty com­pa­nies, EV man­u­fac­tur­ers and oth­er firms that could, for instance, retro­fit exist­ing vehi­cles with bat­ter­ies, the researchers added.

“Clean­er air, cheap­er trans­port and sta­ble access to elec­tric­i­ty is with­in grasp for sub-Saha­ran Africa — we just need to mobilise the data and invest­ment to make it hap­pen,” said co-author Stephanie Hirmer of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford’s Ener­gy and Pow­er Group.