E- mobility route to green transition

The origins of public transport in Kenya can be traced back to 1934, when Overseas Transport Company (OTC), a British company, launched a fleet of 12 buses in Nairobi. Over time, OTC changed into Kenya Bus Services (KBS), which dominated Nairobi and its environs. The resilient company fought off stiff competition from the government-subsidised Nyayo Bus Service.

In 1986, President Daniel arap Moi launched Nyayo Bus, which had a fleet of more than 350 buses. A decade after its launch, only 14 percent of the fleet was on the roads. This inefficiency coupled with mismanagement, marked the beginning of the end of the Nyayo Bus era.

KBS, on the other hand, grew steadily. With this service came some innovative products like the famous bus pass and the Mega Rider. The bus pass provided uniformed students with a subsidised fare while the Mega Rider offered unlimited rides during off-peak hours. Indeed, the latter was the social network of those days.

The organisation of KBS was reflected in its strict schedules and designated bus stops. Indeed, schedules were displayed on the bus canopies and the bus was always on time. Commuters could easily plan their travel around the bus schedule. Further, KBS had efficient route planning and optimisation. Buses traversed the city, with hubs positioned at the Nairobi central business district and suburbs like Eastleigh and Kawangware. This hub-and-spoke model worked well for KBS.

The bus routes were well-planned, and fares escalated the farther a commuter moved from the hub. If you boarded a No. 36 at Ngummo Estate, it could take you to Buru Buru Estate, and a No. 46 would transport you from Huruma to Kawangware. The common transit point was the CBD.

During this period, standing passengers were allowed in buses. KBS flourished due to its ability to transport passengers en masse in a single bus trip. The unregulated matatu or mini-bus sector gained popularity in the 1990s. Matatus not only provided faster movement but also became a source of entertainment.

The final nail in the coffin of the KBS buses was when the government in Legal Notice 161 of 2003, introduced a raft of measures that included prohibition of standing passengers. This coupled with other challenges signalled an end to the use of buses and the dependence on minibuses and vans for transport within the city. It’s important to note that KBS still operates mini-buses in Nairobi.

The proliferation of the matatu business in Nairobi and major cities cannot be gainsaid. However, are they sustainable? What opportunities exist for us to reset our public transport space? What will the benefits be? What lessons can we learn from the KBS of the 70s and 80s? What aspects of the current matatu culture can we preserve?

More than 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from fossil fuels. Therefore, decarbonising the transport sector is a priority in our fight against climate change.

Two companies in Kenya have taken the challenge and are locally assembling electric buses. They are BasiGo and Roam Electric. On the sidelines of the Second E-Mobility Conference sponsored by Kenya Power, Mr Jit Bhattacharya, the founder of BasiGo, said the company has an order pipeline of 500 buses from public service vehicle players.

This coupled with an earlier injection of $3 million in equity investment by CFAO is a shot in the arm for the local assembler. The market is ready for the transition.

To mitigate the high upfront cost associated with purchasing an electric bus, BasiGo has implemented a pay-as-you-drive leasing model. In this model, there is a fixed charge per kilometre covered. The costs covered by BasiGo include routine maintenance and charging the bus at a designated depot. The common denominator across all classes of electric vehicles is the high cost of the battery.

Consequently, many companies prefer to offer battery leasing and even swapping services. This considerably reduces the cost and makes the product competitive. Since the bus battery is fixed and bulky a leasing service is practical.

For the transition to make sense, it must be just. A transition that gradually shifts from high-carbon activities to much greener activity must be promoted. This ensures no harm to workers, investors, and other players in the economy. Internationally, the 2021 UN Climate Conference reaffirmed this evolving concept that has gained momentum since the 2015 Paris Agreement. Kenya, being a signatory, owes it to her citizens to ensure the move away from fossil fuels creates more opportunities for the country.

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