Chinese EV makers vye for front seat in Africa's electric mobility drive

In a bid to further rival the West's grip on the global electric auto market, China is aggressively exporting its competing EV brands, even to Africa

Chinese EV makers vye for front seat in Africa's electric mobility drive
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 / Unsplash

Electric vehicles are less popular in Africa than anywhere else, but a crop of Chinese manufacturers are contributing to a change of narrative as they look to rival the West's influence in the industry and take a front position in the continent's decarbonisation race.

BYD [Build Your Dreams], a Shenzhen-headquartered EV maker, is making an entry to Rwanda, as part of its plans to continue expanding business outside China and become a leader in the global electric car market.

In nearby Kenya, the company has, in the last few years, been making strides worthy of note. One of the East African country's pioneering electric transit services, BasiGo, sources its buses from BYD.

As of this January, it has delivered 19 of its K6 electric buses and set up three DC fast-charging depots along some of the city's major bus routes.

The buses are shipped in partially assembled conditions from BYD's line in Guangdong Province to Mombasa, where they are then completely pieced together at the Associated Vehicle Assemblers (AVA). The hall plans to begin from-scratch assemblage, but that has yet to materialise.

In July last year, BYD made inroads into South Africa—the largest EV market in these parts—with the debut of two variants of its Atto 3 model: the Standard Range and Extended Range. On the back of some lofty ambitions, it expanded from Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces to the Northern Cape in November.

At some point, it was in circulation that the South African government had entered talks with BYD to establish an electric car-making plant in the country. There is however no new information regarding those plans.

When Warren Buffett purchased a 10% stake in BYD in 2008, he did so with the belief that it'd become "the largest player in a global automobile market that was inevitably going electric". Over a decade later, his prediction is hardly a miss—and it is paying off big time.

Meanwhile, other Chinese EV makers, such as Geely, SAIC Motor, Great Wall, Dongfeng, Hava, and JAC are actively looking to catalyze uptake in other markets across Africa, by launching and selling their models in places like Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, Ghana, and Zimbabwe.

In 2023, China unseated Japan as the world's largest auto exporter, thanks to strong demand and a growing global EV appetite. In the year's first eight months, a quarter of the country's 2.3 million vehicle exports were electric.

Per recent estimates, Chinese automakers' share of the global market would double from 17% to 33% by 2030, and European rivals would see the biggest loss in unit shares as a result.

An International Energy Agency report states that over half of all the electric automobiles on the world's roads are in China, making it the largest EV market on the planet. In 2022, its EV sales accounted for 60% of global purchases, surpassing early exporting countries like America, Norway, and Germany.

For additional context, BYD sold more electric vehicles than Elon Musk's Tesla in Q4 2023. Tesla, on its part, is yet to set up an outpost in Africa, despite high expectations that it would have done so by now in South Africa—Elon's home country.

There is not much data to analyze the African EV space. But in the largest market here [South Africa] only about 1,000 of the 12 million four-wheelers on the country's roads run on electricity.

In Tanzania, where there are at least 10 companies involved in everything from assembling to charging, there are about 5,000 EVs in operation, while the count for Kenya sits down at 350 out of 2.2 million registered automobiles.

These vessels are hard to come by in the continent due to several factors, including affordability, lack of charging infrastructure, and slow policymaking.

At a forum in Morocco last year, Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), said the future of the global EV value chain—estimated to grow from a current $7 trillion to $75 trillion in 2050—depends on Africa chiefly because it is the largest source of the green metals used in developing such automobiles.

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