In October 2019, VW sent 50 e-Golfs for a pilot ride-haling service in Rwanda’s capital Kigali. The German auto giant already assembles ICE models in the country and hopes the project will be a step toward expanding EV sales throughout the continent. Photo © Cyril Ndegeya Xinhua News Agency/Newscom

Africa is not an EV hotspot, and even per-capita ICE vehicle penetration is less than other continents, with a motorization rate of 44 vehicles per 1,000 people compared with 484 in Europe as of 2018. Estimates have only three markets – South Africa, Algeria and Egypt – accounting for 70% of Africa’s entire vehicle fleet.

Since 2015, according to one source, only 600 BMW i3s have been sold on the continent, as well as a handful of Nissan Leafs and Jaguar I-Paces. In August 2019, motoring publication Europe Auto News described Africa as an EV dead zone, but said there could still be hope. Volkswagen Group, BMW and Nissan are among EV makers talking to the South African government about kickstarting greater EV sales. And early indications show the South African car industry is receptive. 

“The industry is preparing a unified stance on electrification to present to the government by the end of the year,” Mike Mabass, CEO of the National Association of Automobile Manufactures of South Africa, told Bloomberg.

Chief among its goals, Mabass said, was persuading lawmakers to reduce or drop a 23% import tariff on EVs to help boost South African sales. Even with the financially struggling state-owned power monopoly, the car lobby wants the government to invest in charging infrastructure. Mabass also said the auto industry makes up 7% of the country’s economy, one of the few industrial sectors growing in a nation beset by recession. 

Winstone Jordaan, CEO of South African EV infrastructure company Gridcars, echoed Mabass’ sentiment that the government needs to do more to invigorate the EV sector in the country. “The enabler would be first to equalize the tax, but secondly to remove the tax for just a period of three years or five years, as the rest of the world has done, and allow electric vehicles to get that foothold,” he told Lubes’n’Greases.

In 2019, Jaguar announced it will invest $2 million in Powerway, described as a future public charging network of 82 charging stations along South Africa’s major highways. 

The year also saw Egypt flirt with EVs, as the government showed signs the country is keen on promoting zero-emissions vehicles to reduce chronic pollution, decrease gasoline consumption and attract foreign investment to its automotive industry. It is still unclear how much headway the government can make. Across Africa and the Middle East, cheap gasoline prices, a lack of emissions regulation enforcement and scant infrastructure are all viewed as significant obstacles to EVs.

But Egypt has taken baby steps towards the sector. In January, the Egyptian Customs Authority eliminated tariffs on all imported cars from the EU and Turkey, leaving other duties totaling 18.5% in place. The Minister of Trade and Industry issued a decree that EVs less than three years old will be exempt from these duties.

The county’s Passenger Transportation Authority also inked a deal with China’s BYD for the purchase of 15 electric buses for the coastal city of Alexandria. The deal also calls for the instalment of 18 electric charging stations. In addition, a number of automakers, including BMW, said they plan to import EVs into the market.

The World Economic Forum thinks that EVs could help offset sub-Saharan Africa’s reliance on fossil-fueled transport. Investments in EVs and electricity infrastructure that harnesses the continent’s abundant renewable energy potential could stave off the growing economic burden of fuel dependency and combat chronic urban air pollution.

Finally, the prime minister directed the Ministry of Electricity and Investment to assess the technical and financial benefits of producing EVs in Egypt. In September 2019, Egypt’s Ministry of Military Production signed an agreement with Chinese car company Geely to manufacture electric cars. The agreement signifies the country’s hopes of localizing EV manufacturing. In September 2020, the government issued a decree meant to encourage local EV manufacturing by cutting duties on imported components.

But little action does not mean the continent can be written off. Several sources said Africa is ripe for greater sales of EVs. The continent is urbanizing at an average rate of 4% annually, the fastest in the world. This has increased demand for fuel sources to the point of scarcity in some areas. Even with government intervention to subsidize fuel, citizens of some countries spend 15% to 30% of their income on transportation.

This is where EVs come in, thanks again to the Chinese. Automaker BAIC opened an EV manufacturing plant in South Africa and an assembly facility in Zimbabwe. Initially, local media reports state, the company will produce gasoline and diesel models for those markets, but the move will allow the company to easily and quickly switch to EVs in the near future. Another Chinese model being assembled in partnership with local distributors is the Chery QQ. 

“But will EVs take off in Africa fast, or will it be the final destination of many old gasoline/diesel vehicles coming from Europe and other mature markets? I guess it will be a bit of both,” wrote Jose Pontes, a columnist for Clean Technica.