Africa can claim a simple formula for its recent economic success: falling costs, a rising middle class and tenacious faith in its own future. Uganda, one of the continent’s poorer countries, has little to show for that success, except one thing: a new, homegrown electric car.
The plug-in Kiira electric vehicle (EV) was designed, manufactured, and assembled in Uganda by students and faculty at Makerere University. The two-seater can maintain speeds of more than 60 mph and operate for about 4 to 5 hours before its lithium ion batteries need to be recharged. The bright green vehicle took its first official test run in November, inspiring government and university officials to proclaim it a symbol of Uganda’s ability to start solving its social and economic problems.
For Paul Isaac Musasizi, the university engineering professor who oversaw the project, the experience of Kiira’s first test drive was nothing like the thousand of similar events that happen in the developed world each day. “When I reflect upon that moment, I was actually speechless. For first time, I was seeing the first electric car being driven on a road in Uganda and I was the one driving it. It was quite fulfilling,” said Musasizi during a radio interview with The World. Musasizi and his team spent two years building the car with mostly local materials and expertise. “The first challenge is that we are not automotive engineers, and we can’t say we are experts in dealing with automotive technology,” he said. “That means there was very steep learning curve for the students and staff working on the project. But I’m glad we managed to pull it off.”
Critics have pointed out that irony of building an EV in a county where the likely price tag if it is ever mass produced–$10,000 to $15,000–would outstrip the ability of all but the richest to buy it, not to mention that electricity itself is not even assured. Across Africa, in fact, research and development budgets have been slashed as a flood of new students enrolling in universities have required comprehensive training and education, according to a 2010 World Bank report (PDF). So projects like Kiira, unless they’re funded with special grants or foreign aid, simply won’t get done often in places like Uganda.
Wouldn’t the money be better spent elsewhere? That’s hard to argue with from an economic perspective. A cost-benefit analysis of selling EVs in Uganda, let alone building and designing them there, is never going to make it far in a national budgeting process. But innovation is not always about accounting; it’s often about pride. The Kiira, of course, was never intended to be the world’s best electric vehicle. It is probably not even a very good one. Its likely intention was to be the best EV that could be made by Ugandans, for Uganda, proving that such a thing could even be done.
Now, Musasizi and his team will not stop there. Their next project is a 28-seater commuter bus called Kayoola that will be “a green public transport solution” for the capital of Kampala City.