Building Africa's undersized EV infrastructure, a battery at a time

Erik Nygard, Founder and CEO of Accra-based Kofa, an e-bike startup, in-sights into alternative ways to support the continent's electric mobility transition

Building Africa's undersized EV infrastructure, a battery at a time
Battery swapping stations take centerstage

The drive-in of electric vehicles in Africa brings with it a promising shift towards cleaner, more sustainable mobility solutions. But, the revolution has a major obstacle course: the lack of charging infrastructure. 

Without widespread charging stations, EV adoption remains stymied, especially in bustling urban areas where the demand for such automobiles is ever the highest. For instance, only South Africa, where electric mobility is more pronounced, has up to 350 public stations in the continent. 

To surmount this hurdle, the limelight has turned towards the two and three-wheeler market. On the back of their affordability and accessibility, sector pioneers are leveraging these smaller vehicles to accelerate take-up. Targeting this segment helps stakeholders sidestep infrastructure constraints that have hindered traditional four-wheelers.

Innovating has led to solutions like battery swapping stations, although it is not peculiar to Africa. Battery swapping stations offer streamlined charging, allowing users to exchange depleted batteries for fully charged ones. This approach not only circumvents the need for extensive charging infrastructure but also addresses reliability and accessibility concerns. 

Erik Nygard is the Founder and CEO of Accra-headquartered Kofa Technologies, an e-bike startup pioneering Africa's first multi-use, swappable battery network. In this exclusive with, he offers insights into the challenges and opportunities inherent in the continent’s journey toward EV adoption

The EV revolution is revving into Africa, albeit slowly. Is the infrastructure aspect playing catch-up?

Erik: Yes, but Africa is not necessarily moving slowly. While EVs have historically been more expensive than traditional petrol vehicles worldwide, advancements in technology have led to decreasing costs, making them more accessible globally. 

Africa, with its growing economies and evolving infrastructure, is poised to capitalise on this shift and potentially leapfrog traditional growth trajectories. Infrastructure remains a critical consideration, particularly for larger vehicles like buses and personal cars that directly plug into the grid for charging. 

This necessitates significant investment not only in grid infrastructure but also in ensuring the availability of electricity to meet the demands of a growing EV fleet. This challenge is evident in many developed countries, where sudden surges in adoption strain existing grids.

Solving this issue in Africa will require time and investment, with potential solutions including bolstering the grid infrastructure and leveraging solar energy to alleviate pressure on traditional electricity sources. While this presents a complex problem, technological solutions exist, and with the right investment and government intervention, it can be addressed effectively.

However, the scenario differs for motorcycles, as in the case of Kofa. By implementing battery swapping stations, Kofa can manage the charging process efficiently without riders randomly taxing the grid. This approach allows for quick battery swaps when needed, bypassing the challenges associated with traditional grid-based charging models.

Overall, while there are challenges to overcome, Africa has the potential to embrace EVs and innovative solutions like battery swapping to accelerate adoption and drive sustainable transportation solutions.

Interesting. Tell us more about how this swapping system works and its impact on the grid. 

Erik: Implementing managed charging stations spread across the city provides a controlled environment for charging, minimizing sudden surges in demand when individuals return home from work. 

This approach allows for gradual charging over time, alleviating strain on the grid. Additionally, integrating solar panels into these stations reduces reliance on traditional grid electricity. While the alternative of individual solar panel installations on every home could achieve similar results, it imposes significant capital expenditure on consumers. 

Our battery swapping model offers a more accessible solution, where we manage the batteries and charge customers for their usage as needed. This approach serves as a transitional step, allowing for seamless integration into a more robust infrastructure as the grid improves and solar energy becomes more prevalent.

A structured roadmap is essential for this transition, ensuring that as the infrastructure evolves, it aligns with emerging technologies and market demands. Government support and alignment on this strategy are critical, and discussions surrounding these initiatives are underway across Africa, signalling a positive step toward sustainable EV adoption and infrastructure development.

Of all places in Africa, why did you choose Ghana as the pilot market for this business model?

Erik: Having spent my formative years here before pursuing higher education abroad, Ghana holds a special place in my heart. With nearly four decades of familial ties to both Ghana and Nigeria, it feels like home, albeit with a nuanced connection. 

Ghana, in particular, offers a favourable environment for my endeavours due to its relatively stable electricity grid and accessible energy compared to many other West African countries. Nigeria, in contrast, presents complexities in its energy landscape.

Given my upbringing in Ghana, I have a level of familiarity and comfort with the local landscape and cultures, which aids in navigating business operations here. 

Moving forward, it's clear that Africa, as a whole, faces significant challenges in terms of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, especially when compared to more developed regions where brands like BYD and Tesla have established extensive charging networks. 

While these brands have proliferated globally, Africa lags, highlighting the need for substantial investment in charging infrastructure to facilitate the widespread adoption of electric vehicles on the continent.

We have very limited charging infrastructure compared to other parts of the world. Is that why two and three-wheelers are the target? 

Erik: I completely agree with that perspective. Prioritizing two- and three-wheelers as the initial focus for EV roll-out across the continent makes strategic sense. From a customer standpoint, these vehicles are not only more affordable but also represent the easiest entry point for many individuals looking to purchase new means of transportation.

By centering our efforts on the two- and three-wheeler market, we align with customer preferences and address a significant segment of the population's transportation needs. This customer-centric approach allows us to tap into considerable potential and validate the viability of EVs on a broader scale.

Moreover, strengthening the overall grid infrastructure, particularly in urban centres like Accra, is essential to accommodate the eventual mass adoption of electric cars and buses. However, rushing into this phase prematurely may not be prudent. It's crucial to first establish a robust foundation through the successful integration of two- and three-wheelers into the market.

This way, we not only lay the groundwork for future expansion but also contribute significantly to reducing dependency on petrol imports. Therefore, focusing on the two- and three-wheeler segments presents a pragmatic and effective strategy for kick-starting the EV revolution while addressing immediate customer needs and broader energy sustainability goals.

How does an innovation like battery-swapping networks reshape the EV infrastructure, and what role do they play in electrification efforts?

Erik: One significant advantage of battery swapping is the elimination of upfront battery ownership costs for customers. Unlike traditional models where batteries are purchased along with the vehicle, our approach involves customers only paying for the motorcycle chassis, motor, and general electronics upfront. 

The battery swapping process, akin to refuelling a petrol vehicle, allows customers to simply exchange depleted batteries for charged ones at swap stations, mirroring the experience at a petrol pump.

This approach enables us to offer vehicles to customers at competitive price points while also providing cheaper energy compared to traditional petrol costs. Our energy pricing is approximately 30% lower than petrol at the pump, translating into tangible savings for customers.

Furthermore, the distributed nature of swap stations allows for centralized control over battery charging, mitigating potential strain on the grid. By managing how and when batteries are charged, we can efficiently utilize available grid resources, thereby avoiding spikes in demand that could overwhelm an inadequate grid infrastructure. 

This proactive management strategy is crucial for circumventing potential grid limitations and ensuring a reliable and sustainable charging experience for customers.

What bold policy measures should governments enact to accelerate the transition to electric mobility and spur the development of EV infrastructure?

Erik: The segment leading the charge in the electric vehicle (EV) revolution on the continent is lighter vehicles. These vehicles offer immediate impact to both individuals and businesses, with manageable infrastructure challenges. However, there are hurdles to overcome. 

For instance, electric light vehicles are typically more expensive than the cheapest petrol motorcycles, competing more in the mid-tier motorcycle market in terms of price and quality. To achieve significant scale, making these vehicles more competitively priced is crucial. 

One effective approach is to implement duty exemptions or tax relief, as import costs in many African countries can be prohibitive due to high tariffs and taxes. By reducing these costs, electric vehicles can compete favourably with lower-end petrol alternatives while maintaining mid-tier quality standards.

Removing such barriers could lead to a surge in sales, demonstrating the viability of EVs at scale. This success could pave the way for further transitions to electric buses and cars. Governments can play a pivotal role in this transition by providing short-to-medium-term support specifically tailored to lighter vehicles, without overly subsidizing the market. 

Like this, Africa could potentially become a global leader in two or three-wheeler EVs, instilling confidence in the broader market to transition to larger vehicles. Additionally, beyond cost savings, it's essential to emphasize the appeal of EVs through design and performance. Making EVs attractive, efficient, and suitable for various needs is crucial to enticing consumers to make the switch. 

Ultimately, fostering a desire to move towards EVs beyond mere financial incentives is key to accelerating adoption and driving sustainable change in transportation.

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