Solar E-Cycles for Africa: CEO Robert Christen’s Reply to My Article

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Yesterday I wrote this article concerning the Solar E Cycle, a project to bring solar powered electric transportation to Africa. Therein, I questioned the decision to use lead acid batteries. After reaching out to Robert Christen by email, he explained his reasoning to me (and I was given permission to reproduce his reply here).

Hello Alex,
Thank you for your comments on our project. It is great getting feedback. Thanks also to all others who have commented.

We definitely are looking at other battery options. Right now PbSO4 is really cheap. $100 instead of several thousand per vehicle.

We realize that LiFePO4 is probably more economical on the long run. It has many advantages, lower weight per Wh, more cycles, deeper DOD cycles, faster discharge and recharge. Then there are temperature issues that could be critical. Temperatures are in the 40degC in many parts of Africa. Lithium Ion can be unsafe in those conditions. Also I understand recycling catches 97% of the lead acid battery market. In the USA for sure. Maybe not in Africa.

In any event we will not fail. I have been at this for 4 years and not ready to quit. We are rolling out 100 vehicles in Nairobi this year. Doing a full field test so our vehicles can better meet client needs. And we want to be able to prove that this is not charity. Even at $2 a day the vehicle is a killer application (in the sense of software application, like Excel). A vehicle is a full time job. Selling transportation services or power. It should pay for itself. It is more an economic development tool than a vehicle or generator. At $2 a day the company should recover its investment in 18 mos and the client owns the vehicle in 3 years.

We have proven we can build a solar powered tricycle with 50km a day range at up to 35kph. For $1000.00.

This year we have pivoted with our project. When we compare our pricing proposal against just Solar Home Systems by M’Kopa for example we are 5 times cheaper.

We see there are 622 million people in Africa without electricity. 100 million families living entirely off-grid. 40 billion hours a year just hauling water by Women , boys and girls. The latter don’t get to school. Africa produces some 1,5m vehicles per year when it should be producing 10 million to meet the same level of demand as in developed countries. And get this. African population will grow by nearly 4bn people by end of century. That is half à the world population today. Will they use internal combustion vehicles. Not if I can help it.

Today our plans are to make our designs available to anyone as an open source project. Any small welding shop and there are millions in Africa will be able to make a solar powered light electric vehicle (SLEV) using bicycle components. We will put them in contact with component suppliers through our portal. PV panels, Motors, Batteries that can work with our vehicles.

Or, anyone will be able to get his SLEV delivered to his door disassembled in a box. Just like IKEA. Assemble your vehicle yourself. Videos on Youtube will show you how to do it.

Then we also want to create up to 15,000 business units to cover Africa. A of SLEV distributor every 50km. Operated by two people. A commercial agent who vets clients with micro finance techniques. And a mechanic for assembly and change out maintenance.

Now get this. All the vehicle data on speed, energy, temperature, V, A, position is uploaded through IoT. We can analyse how our vehicles are used and compare performance of components. Continuously improving our product to meet customer needs. This also allows to run a distributed business efficiently.

It makes so much sense when we apply the PAYGo business model approach (8 million customers in 5 years using this method for Solar Home Systems). After a small deposit, customers pay as they go over mobile money. If they don’t pay the vehicle can be immobilized. And we’ll know where it is.

We think that making this kind of low cost practical innovation available in an open source PAYGo business model approach, the only way to get to providing economic development for millions, yearly, with environmentally safe technology.

So there you have it. I personally believe the temperatures in Africa don’t exceed what a LiFePO4 eBike battery pack can tolerate, but I accept some of his other claims concerning the ease of recycling lead batteries in Africa versus recycling lithium batteries.

He has also made it clear this is a business, not a charity, and that the vehicles are rent to own so that there exists the possibility for families to pay one off over time, and thereafter have an ongoing source of free electricity for their home. The payback period is 18 months however by which time the batteries will be dead or nearly so, but the panel will still be fine.

How do I feel about it now, having gotten more info straight from the source? Better, honestly. There’s serious thought going into ensuring that this is a success, and because it’s a business rather than a charitable endeavor, Robert and his partner have a personal stake in ensuring it succeeds.

More to come as the story develops.

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