A Zembo electric motorcycle boda-boda (D. Rupiny)
By David Rupiny
Uganda is “a boda-boda country”, what with over 600,000 motorcycle taxis and counting.
The leaps and bounds growth of motorcycle taxi, popularly known as boda-bodas, has been fueled, in part, by rapid population explosion and urbanization.
Estimates suggest that boda-bodas account for over 40 percent of trips in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Upcountry, boda-bodas account for even higher percentage of trips.
The importance of boda-boda relates to its affordability, ease of maintenance, speed, adaptability and navigation of traffic gridlocks.
The import is that the boda-boda industry has come of age and is contributing significantly to Uganda’s transport sector and the economy.
The significance of boda-boda to the economy aside, boda-bodas also pose a dilemma: most of them use fossil fuel and are, therefore, big emitters of carbon dioxide, a common greenhouse gas which is detrimental to the environment.
Solving a problem
It is this dilemma – boda-boda’s usefulness to Ugandans vis-à-vis danger to the environment that two engineers, Daniel Dreher and Etienne Saint-Serin, set out to deal with.
After researching and experimenting, they created Zembo, a startup that offers electric motorcycles to boda-boda drivers and recharges batteries in its solar stations.
The powerful, reliable and comfortable motorcycles use high capacity and rechargeable lithium batteries and, therefore, emit no noxious exhaust fumes, particles and noise.
Zembo Electric Bikes launched as a pilot in August 2018, and went commercial in October of the following year, 2019. It now has over 200 electric motorcycles serviced by 19 charging stations all over Kampala, and is expanding to upcountry locations like Masaka and Mpigi.
The startup employs and deploys 50 people from different technical backgrounds like solar, electrical and mechanical engineers, artisans, marketers, administrators, etc.
The Zembo model
Zembo looks at lithium battery charging as a service offered on a rental basis. A rider pays 4,000 shillings (a dollar) for a fully charged battery, and 2,000 shillings (50 cents) for a half-charged one.
The positive implication of Zembo’s battery swap model is that boda-bodas do not need to buy their own batteries, or wait around while they recharge. In under a minute a rider is served and gets on the move.
Another model Zembo employs is lease-to-own in which a rider starts by leasing a battery until he or she owns it after two years.
When a Zembo motorcycle gets a mechanical problem, they have got a well-equipped workshop for repair and other works. The workshop employs Ugandan technicians and is used for transfer of knowledge and skills.
Currently, Zembo imports the parts of the electric motorcycles and assembles them. Their long-term intention is to start making most parts of the electric motorcycles here in Uganda. This would create more jobs, reduce dependency on imports and allow for easy repairs.
Data shows that a Zembo electric motorcycle offers 30 to 40 profitability for boda-boda riders, making them more profitable than non-electric bikes.
In terms of CO2 emissions, a Zembo motorcycle has 95 to 97 percent reduction, in addition to being noiseless boda-boda electric bike rider.
According to Dreher, their business model aims at improving transport conditions, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality and increasing earnings of the riders, amongst others.
Role of Uganda Investment Authority
Starting Zembo was not easy. Dreher says their attributes their success in starting up in Uganda to Uganda Investment Authority.
“UIA really helped us when we had difficulties, including heavy taxation. We wouldn’t be here without UIA. We need you even more as we scale more e-mobility issues like standardization of our electric bikes, taxes and push for an e-mobility policy”, says Dreher.
As things are, Zembo, a UIA licensee, is on an upward trajectory.
Says Dreher: “We’re seeing a lot of movement and great excitement in the market”.
*Rupiny is Media Relations Officer of Uganda Investment Authority.