Could electric-powered motorcycles (e-bodas) reduce air pollution in Kampala and other rapidly growing African cities?

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Kampala is one of the fastest urbanising cities in Africa, with an annual population growth rate of over 4% for the last ten years, a population of more than 6 million people living in the Greater Kampala Metropolitan Area (GKMA) and a daily influx of over 2 million commuters. One of the consequences of this population growth and flow has been the rapid increase of fuel-powered motorcycles (commonly referred to as boda bodas) as a primary transport mode. Currently, Kampala alone has over 400,000 motorcycles compared to 15,979 motorcycles in 2007

These fuel-powered motorcycles are in high demand as they offer time savings on heavily congested roads and better manoeuvrability through traffic, while providing opportunities for income generation. However, they also contribute to increased traffic accidents, congestion, increased noise and air pollution, crime potential, and regulatory challenges. 

Addressing challenges caused by motorcycles is complex and politically sensitive. The issue can provoke divisive attitudes among stakeholders, especially between ‘users’ and ‘non-users’. People who use motorcycles regard them as convenient, faster, accessible, essential for access to numerous places within the city and vital door-to-door services. People who do not use them tend to see them predominantly as chaotic, unsafe, dangerous and inappropriate means of transport that congest the city and should be banned.

Several interventions have emerged to tackle some of the challenges attributed to motorcycles. For example, to address safety concerns, motorcycle app companies like Safeboda, Uberboda, Bolt boda introduced safety standards training for riders, enforcing reflective jackets and helmets for the riders and providing helmets for passengers. To address regulatory challenges, some organisations register riders into organised groups with identifier numbers for riders to assist with managing and applying regulations, guided by the Traffic and Road Safety Act, 1998 (Amendment) Act, 2019 bill passed by Parliament on 29th January 2020. To tackle congestion, a new 3.5km Namirembe Road and Luwum Street Non-Motorized Transit (NMT) corridor accessible to only pedestrians and cyclists in 2020 by Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) is being implemented to decongest and decarbonise the city.

Of these challenges, air pollution, which is responsible for over 30,000 deaths in Uganda every year, remains one of the biggest threats to public health and climate change. In addition, exposure to air pollution causes several diseases ranging from asthma, acute respiratory illnesses, cancer, pulmonary illnesses and heart diseases. This burden of disease increases pressure on the already overstretched health sector. Air pollution also leads to loss of productivity due to people missing work when they are sick or taking care of their loved ones and spending money to treat illnesses. 

In Kampala, pollution levels are still over five times the WHO recommended annual limit according to U.S Embassy Kampala historical data. Whilst the air quality in Kampala continues to deteriorate due to many sources, including biomass combustion, industries, waste and automobiles, motorcycles contribute significantly to the overall emissions. The National Air Quality standards and regulations being developed by the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) in partnership with various stakeholders aim to provide a framework and guidance for emissions from mobile sources but there is a need to explore ways to reduce these emissions. 

One such intervention is adopting electric-powered motorcycles by converting the existing petrol-powered motorcycles to electric-powered and importing new electric-powered motorcycles. Switching to electric powered motorcycles in dense urban cities like Kampala can significantly reduce the air pollution caused by fuel-powered motorcycles, address noise pollution and reduce costs spent on buying fuel. Electric-powered motorcycles would not require fragile hardware such as a clutch, transmission, or internal combustion engine, minimising mechanical failure and expenses associated with the repair. 

Kampala could use a combination of hydroelectricity and solar to provide electric-powered motorcycles with pollution-free electricity. Indeed, a number of companies are already exploring the feasibility of electric boda adoption in Uganda.

That said, several factors need addressing to enable the shift to electric-powered motorcycles. One of these factors will be the cost of replacing internal combustion motorcycles with electric versions for existing motorcycles and the cost of a new electric motorcycle. Although they might be cheaper throughout the useful life and have minimal operating costs which might well offset the initial investment, consumers might forgo this long-term perspective in favour of saving money upfront. Businesses may have to work out a mechanism where the riders pay an initial less prohibitive fee, then complete re-payment based on the savings made by the motorcycle riders. Other factors include distance travelled on a single charge, ability to travel long distances, cost of a single order, and reliable energy to charge electric-powered motorcycles.  

It is vital to explore how Kampala could better integrate electric motorcycles into other urban public transport modes. The integration ensures clear benefits are achieved and gives customers, businesses, and policymakers an incentive to promote electric motorcycles, thus accelerating the transition to a healthier, more climate-resilient city.

Dr Gabriel Okello is a Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership Research Fellow in Air Quality and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and a member of the Global Diet and Activity Research group at the MRC Epidemiology unit, University of Cambridge, UK.  

Read more about work by Gabriel and other #UrbanBetter Disruptors.

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