In 2016, four entrepreneurs from different countries formed a start-up called Ampersand with a mission to transform Rwanda into a mass market for commercial electric motorcycles.
Josh Whale, Emmanuel Hakizimana, Olaf Lange and Alp Tilev, want to revolutionise the transport sector by introducing an alternative solution, believed to possess huge potential to disrupt the taxi motorcycle business.
Josh Whale, the company's Chief Executive Officer, said electric motorcycles--also known as the e-Motos--are gaining popularity worldwide.
Ampersand Rwanda workers in the garage. Photos by Sam Ngendahimana
The battery-powered motorcycle are credited by environmentalists for their low carbon emission compared to the ones that use fuel.
In a market like Rwanda where commercial taxi motorcycles rely on expensive fuel, e-Motos are seen as an option to reduce operating expenses and hopefully drive the decline in transport fares.
The owner of Ampersand Rwanda during the interview.
"We started in 2016 looking at using solar powers to charge bicycles and other opportunities to shift people from petrol vehicles to electric vehicles," Whale recounts the story of their journey to Rwanda, adding that these opportunities could come because the prices of batteries were getting cheaper every year.
Generally, the ideal market for electric vehicles is one where petrol is very expensive and where there is high density of vehicles that are running a lot of distances every day.
Josh says this is why they are focusing their attention on the Rwandan market.
"We are focusing on motors because they do 190 kilometres [on average] a day each. Fuel costs about $11 (Rwf9,766.6) a day on average. Definitely not the cheapest in the world," he says.
This argument resonates with Thierry Sangano, one of the Kigali-based taxi moto operators. He says that he spends Rwf8,000 to Rwf9,000 a day.
"On a good day, I can make between Rwf10,000 to Rwf15,000. I can pocket only about Rwf1,800 from this after removing the rent and other needs," he notes.
For two year, Ampersand has been carrying out research and development to ascertain the viability of its initiative in East Africa.
Company owners say they analysed the pricing, driver preferences, political and market conditions and they found out that Rwanda was more open to businesses like their own.
More than 50 taxi motor operators were surveyed in Rwanda, covering the cost of maintenance and how much rider spend fuel consumption, the company said.
On the technical side, they researched the type of common motorcycles being used, the engine size, the type of battery and what it could take to produce a motorcycle that can compete directly with the existing one.
"We found that motorcycles cover 43km on one litre of fuel. This is not too bad if you look at different scientific researches. However, if you take fuel consumption into account, this is very polluting," Whale.
Emmanuel Hakizimana, a Co-founder and Ampersand's Electrical Engineer highlights an important fact.
Most of the motorcycles on the Kigali streets are old imported bikes that are no longer used in other countries, he said.
He says that most motorcycles being produced and sold in other markets have to comply with Europe, American or Japanese standards. Imported vehicles, on the other hand, don't necessarily have to comply with similar regulations.
Both of them argue that most of these old imported motors are more polluting as they emit more toxic gases, including the visible smoke and invisible smokes like hydrocarbons, carbon-monoxide, and nitrogen oxide.
A quick trip into Ampersand's office gave us a glimpse into the future of electric motorcycles in Rwanda where there is an estimated 30,000 motorcycles in Kigali.
The start-up has a battery assembling unit at one of its offices in Kigali. The engineers are busy to catch up with a deadline to commercialise these motorcycles by early next year.
But on a lucky day, we get introduced to one of the models and how it operates. The engineer says that a battery in this motor can deliver around 60 km of range and will require swapping out less often than drivers commonly refuel now.
Before we could take a trip, he says that the speed of the e-Moto we are about to ride is rated at 80 km per hour. It has no noise pollution like the common motorcycle on the streets.
Ampersand's turnkey solution will feature motorcycles, a network of charging stations, financing, and after-sales service. Following design and system modifications, the e-Moto will be ready for commercial launch in Rwanda early 2019.
While the final pricing is confidential, proprietors say that the e-Moto will cost less than the current petrol incumbents.
The company says it has budgeted to finance more than 100 motorcycles in the beginning of the commercialisation phase, and they say that they are currently working with another start-up in Uganda that could finance nearly 1,000 bikes.
Factor[e] Ventures is the first institutional investor in Ampersand and is deploying its techno-economic modelling to refine the e-Moto offering and business model.
According to Coletha Ruhamya, the Director General of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority, there is a big study being undertaken to evaluate the viability of electric vehicles in the country.
"It is true we are currently doing a study on feasibility of the green mobility, of course that will include motorcycles and normal vehicles. Ampersand is therefore a good initiative that we are supporting," she says.
With the study, the government wants to be able to put an environment, including infrastructure and policies that can support investment in e-mobility.
Ruhamya notes that an assessment conducted on emission level indicated that the transport sector was more polluting than any other sector, highlighting a need to shift to green mobility.
The government also plans to launch a national transport policy on green mobility in the near future.