There are more motorcycle taxis in Kigali, Rwanda—between 20,000 and 30,000—than yellow cabs in New York City, a city about 10 times larger. Right now, most of the motorcycles run on gas. But a handful of new electric cycles, made by a Rwandan startup called Ampersand, are now on the road. And the country plans to require the full fleet to make the switch to clean energy.
The new electric motorcycles, or e-motos, are designed to be cheaper than the gas alternative, particularly in terms of fuel, the driver’s biggest expense. “The drivers here cover very large distances every day, so they burn a lot of fuel,” says Josh Whale, Ampersand’s CEO. “After they’ve paid for this fuel and paid for their bike and other costs, it’s not much left at the end of the day.”
After spending around $5 on fuel and another $6 on leasing a bike, a typical driver, or “motar,” might only make around $1.80 a day. Because the new motorcycle is cheaper to charge than the old motorbikes are to fill with gas, the company estimates that drivers can save as much as $650 or $700 a year on fuel alone. “It’s one thing to save an American commuter $700 off their fuel bill every year, but it’s a huge deal to save an African motorcycle taxi driver $700 a year,” Whale says. (The median Rwandan lives on $1.73 a day—less than $700 a year.) If drivers lease the new e-moto, the cost is around $2 less than a gas moto taxi; for drivers paying upfront, the cost is the same. Drivers also pay for a maintenance plan that is designed to be more than $4 cheaper than what they currently spend each week on service and oil changes.
The motorcycles use off-the-shelf parts as much as possible to keep costs low, and the company builds a custom battery pack itself to optimize the total cost of the system. When the motorcycle needs more power, instead of charging the battery themselves, drivers pull into a small battery swap station. “It basically works like a Formula One or motorcycle racing pit stop,” he says. The stations, built inside recycled shipping containers, have attendants who bring out a new battery and quickly make the switch, scanning the old battery to measure how much power is left; drivers only pay for the amount they’ve used, in a model comparable to buying gas. The process takes less than two minutes.
In addition to saving money, the e-motos are more powerful than the gas motorcycles currently in use. The vehicles are also more comfortable to ride on long shifts—drivers often work 12 to 13 hours a day—with automatic shifting and less vibration and noise. (Like other electric vehicles, the motorcycles are so quiet that it can actually present some traffic hazards if people don’t hear them coming; the startup has added cheap electric speakers to try to alleviate this, and says that drivers like to play Kenny Rogers.)
The company first launched with a small number of drivers to test the system in May 2019, and it was soon so popular that the waiting list grew, solely by word of mouth, to 1,300 people. In August, Rwanda’s president announced that the government planned to transition the entire country to electric motorcycles, and the waiting list grew to 7,000 people. As in other East African countries, the electric grid in Rwanda has quickly grown, and there’s often a surplus of power. “They’re looking at this situation and saying, great, we have all this power, now let’s find something productive to do with it,” says Whale. “And meanwhile, these countries spend more on fuel imports than anything else.”
The government is still developing a plan for the transition, which will depend in part on how quickly Ampersand can grow. The startup, which has 20 motorcycles in Kigali now, is currently raising money to build 500 more this year. The government wants it to build 5,000. The startup plans to soon expand to Uganda and Kenya, where motorcycle taxis are also heavily used. It may eventually expand to other parts of the world but says that there’s ample opportunity in East Africa alone. “If you add up the amount that’s spent on fuel, motorbikes servicing, and financing at the moment for the existing industry [in East Africa], that’s a $14 billion a year industry,” Whale says.