On August, Kenya welcomed its first ever full electric mobility service after EkoRent, a leading Finnish electric mobility company operating under the local name EkoRent Africa, launched Nopia Ride.
In the first phase of the investment program, the company promised to give gasoline vehicles a run for their money and kickstarted the operation that will see the number of electric vehicles on Kenyan roads increase to several hundred by the end of the year.
Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa (BISSA) went onboard on one of the Nopia rides and had a chat with EkoRent founder and CEO, Juha Suojanen, about what to expect in this Kenyan electric cars post era characterised with clean and quiet rides.
Here are excerpts of our conversation.
BISSA: So before you became the CEO of EkoRent, where were you at?
Juha: I am an ex-Nokia employee. Going further back, I finished my university degree in the United States where I studied Telecommunications. Immediately after that, I worked for a tech company based in San Diego, that was the end of 1990s. By that time, Nokia was becoming the biggest phone manufacturer in the world, I saw that as an opportunity for me and so instead of staying in the US, I decided to go back to Finland and started working for Nokia.
I ended up staying with Nokia for 15 years. For the first 10 years, I was working for networks infrastructure mostly dealing with the mobile data. After that, I worked with mobile phones, first with Symbian phones and then with Windows phones. But after those 15 years, I was starting to get tired working for the same company. I loved Nokia but I had found another calling.
BISSA: Speaking of callings, how did you end up swapping phones for electric cars?
Juha: At that time I had already met my wife and we were married, we had kids and grandkids so there were other things in my mind more important than just working for a mobile phone company. The experience was nice but at the end of the day, they don’t really contribute that much to the society, whereas working with clean energy in the transportation sector has a bigger impact.
So with that at the back of my mind, I decided that electric vehicles are actually really a good deal. It's just that people don’t know enough of it because it is not mainstream and not many people are using it.
That analogy again came to light here in Kenya, when we launched Nopia Ride. There was not a single person who didn’t like it, everybody liked the car they just hadn’t heard of or seen it. They hadn’t thought about it. I think this invention has a bigger impact on the well-being of my grandchildren than working with mobile phones.
BISSA: So were you driving home one cold evening and then you had this Eureka moment and you realised maybe I need to venture into electric cars or how did it happen?
Juha: Well, I had actually started looking into clean energy for sometime because I was coming from that side. I wanted to somehow get into the clean energy business because in Finland we also have quite a large carbon footprint because we live in a colder country and the distance between towns and cities is huge so we travel a lot there.
So I thought about how we could somehow combine these two, clean transportation and clean energy. That’s what interested me and I started looking at what kind of electric vehicles are available in the market. I would say it was a little more gradual than one eureka moment.
BISSA: That is quite a ride there I have to say but let’s take a turn and head to Kenya for a bit, speaking about your Nopia Ride launch last week at Two Rivers Mall, Nairobi how was the experience and reactions from day one to the last day?
Juha: Yes! We were at the same location from Thursday to Sunday showcasing and test driving the car and the reactions were similar -- everybody loves the car and thinks it is a great idea.
Now, we need to make it clear to the public that what we were doing was a soft launch. That means in order to convince our own investors and potential new investors, we need to showcase that we have the charging stations, vehicles, mobile apps, etc. in place. For us everything was leading up to the the next step which we are taking now.
We have started talking to taxi companies and drivers who want to invest in electric vehicles instead of pumping money into gasoline cars.
BISSA: So let’s get technical then and compare the positives and negatives of investing in an electric car as opposed to a gasoline car?
Juha: If you think about it, you can buy a used gasoline car today say for Sh1.2 million and with it, you get over 60,000 miles. On the other hand, if you buy a used electric vehicle for Sh1.7 million like the ones we are bringing that have been driven under 30,000 miles, the difference is Sh500,000.
Let’s go to the next step, we asked drivers how much they spend on gasoline daily and they told us they spent about Sh2,500 per day so in a month that makes Sh75,000. However, when they come to our platform they don’t pay a cent more after buying the car, electricity is free for everyone who is on our platform.
So this is the deal, if you multiply Sh75,000 by twelve months that comes to Sh900,000 used for buying fuel. Money you will save if you were using an electric vehicle and It doesn’t even stop there. This equation is going to change for the better for electric car owners since fuel price, which today is about Sh130, will keep rising while electricity and solar will keep going down in future.
BISSA: Most African governments, including the Kenyan government, are yet to formulate policies governing electric cars and their use. With you being a pioneer in this space, what do you think African governments can do to make the journey for investors easier and simpler?
Juha: We are really much aligned to what the United Nations is driving and trying to get it done in Africa. If you look at the amount of used vehicles that are brought into Africa annually, it’s almost 78% or thereabouts, that is humongous and keeping in mind that most of these vehicles are old the harm they cause to the environment and the hole they burn in people’s pocket is huge.
But if, like the UN is proposing to Kenya and other governments, there was say something like import duty waiver for CO2 emission-free vehicles, that would make a huge difference because for a start, the price of electric vehicles would fall even further. In this case, the Sh1.7 million falls to Sh1.2 million and on top of that you don’t have gasoline costs to contend with. So, at that point, it doesn’t make financial sense to order for another car apart from an electric vehicle.
So, yes, I would love to see that done, my own government is not doing that but I hope Kenya and Africa can do that because in some sense Europe and the West have been built already. So, it can be difficult to change and introduce things.
Whereas countries like Kenya that are growing very fast at the moment, depending on who’s in the government and parliament, changes like these can quickly happen with a snap of a finger or not at all I don’t know. I am just happy that UN organisations’ like UNEP are driving this policies and trying to get African countries to move into this direction, which our planet will greatly thank us for one day.