Unique challenges and solutions to sustainable transport issues in Africa

The transport sector accounts for almost one quarter of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is one of the main contributors to urban air pollution in most cities. African countries and cities are no different. They require a thoughtful approach that considers the tradeoff between economic growth and sustainable development.

Aiming to continue developing a roadmap for clean mobility in Africa, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and its partners, including the Global Fuel Economy Initiative (GFEI) and the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) Foundation, invited the ICCT to participate in Africa Clean Mobility Week at the UN Environment Headquarters in Nairobi, March 12–16, 2018.

The ICCT is an expert organization in developing policies and programs for improving vehicle efficiency and promoting clean transportation. We have been working closely with regulators from South Africa on exploring the possibility of adopting fuel economy (FE) standards for the passenger car fleet. We have also shared new approaches to adopting soot-free buses for public transport solutions, a relevant topic for many African cities. I’ve worked closely with regulators in various countries, such as Mexico, the U.S., Brazil, India, United Arab Emirates, to establish pillars for improving vehicle efficiency and air pollution. Africa Clean Mobility Week, however, exposed me to a greater range of challenges and solutions than I have encountered before.

Two examples of this is are the issues of vehicle fuel economy and electromobility. Some countries in Africa are developing fuel economy baseline analyses to better develop policies and programs for reducing fuel consumption and meet Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under global climate change agreements. Electromobility is also high on the list of options, as it improves fuel efficiency as well as urban pollution.

There is a stark difference between the baseline values for fuel economy in Kenya and Uganda. Kenya’s fuel economy baseline is 7.3L/100km or 170 gCO2/km, while Uganda’s fuel economy baseline value is 12.0 L/100km or 280 gCO2/km. This large difference is explained by current regulations for used vehicle imports. The age limit on used imports in Kenya is 8 years old, meaning a vehicle any older can’t legally enter the market, whereas Uganda has no age restriction. The result of this regulation, or lack thereof, is that the average used vehicle entering the market in Kenya is 7 years old, and in Uganda the average is 16 years old.

The lesson to be learned from Uganda is that by adding vehicle age restrictions, the average fuel efficiency of the used-vehicle market could improve by more than 60% through a single regulatory change. Not bad when compared to the years and sweat required to put a fuel efficiency policy in place.

Moreover, Africa’s whole vehicle market could flip the script of being an importer of outdated, inefficient technology and easily become an importer cutting-edge vehicle technology. Through favoring the import of used efficient vehicles, including hybrids and electric vehicles, it would improve overall fuel efficiency and reduce air pollution.

Policies implemented in Mauritius, a beautiful island nation located in the Indian Ocean, offer an example of what could be achieved in African nations. A shift to more efficient vehicles was attained by offering lower import taxes for used hybrid vehicles compared to conventional vehicles. The tax benefit amounts to a 30% discount for hybrids, which resulted in a fifty-fold increase in used hybrid vehicles imports between 2010 and 2017.

Mandating fuel efficiency standards for used-imports has the potential to increase the use of electric vehicles (EV). If you are thinking EV adoption requires strong coordination between utility companies and EV suppliers, you are not paying enough attention to young entrepreneurs in Kenya and Rwanda. In Kenya, a solar company turned electric vehicle startup is importing used Nissan Leafs (USD$6,000) and testing their performance on Kenya’s roads as a way to promote EV adoption. The lower speeds, stop and go traffic, and shorter distances make this type of electric vehicle ideal for Africa’s congested cities. In Rwanda, a country overcrowded with old dirty motorcycles serving as public transportation solutions, Ampersand Solar is field-testing electric motorcycles as a way to decrease pollution and an as an economic alternative to expensive petrol and cheap hydropowered electricity.

Most of Africa’s cities have very limited public transport systems relying on chiefly diesel-powered mini-buses and motorcycles, some of which use 2-stroke engines and are significant polluters. Their large numbers also imply these less-than-perfect public transportation systems employ large numbers of people – and in some cases they are the largest employer. A solution that could be adopted in parallel with developing better public transport systems is electrifying mini-buses and motorcycles – this would also require proper battery end of life management systems.

In order to improve vehicle fuel efficiency and reduce air pollution, we must listen to what Africa needs and recognize what is already proving to be successful there. The solutions seem to be outside-the-box tools combined with and regulatory methods used in higher income countries. This approach would turn the tide in their favor in reducing air pollution and GHG emissions in the region.