Rush hour in Nairobi, Kenya, and the streets are packed with columns of vehicles pumping out fumes, waiting their turn to inch through the downtown gridlock. Bursts of black smoke come from the tailpipes of idling buses, randomly engulfing unlucky pedestrians in a haze of pollution. Aged cars and inadequate roads ensure this scene plays out daily in Nairobi, a capital city that’s become notorious for having some of the worst air on the African continent.
Like many African megacities, Nairobi has seen massive growth in a relatively short amount of time. There are many side effects to urbanization, both positive and negative, but air pollution, caused primarily by an increasing amount of vehicles on the road, is one of the most evident issues.
Many see it as an unfortunate but unavoidable result of urban expansion and development. However, researchers increasingly argue that not only is air pollution preventable, but it actually impedes economic growth. It can now make more sense both environmentally and financially to utilize existing green technology to come up with transportation solutions.
On the south west side of East Africa’s biggest city, in the suburb of Karen, one man is trying to do just that. Juha Suojanen is the CEO and founder of EkoRent, which initially started as an electric car rental app in Helsinki. He’s in Nairobi promoting the firm’s new ride sharing company, Nopia Ride. Hailed as an ‘eco-Uber’, the service wants to break into the city’s competitive taxi market by offering zero-emission rides at lower rates.
“It’s important to shift away from a transport model dependent on fossil fuels and personal cars,” says Ariadne Baskin of the Electric Mobility Unit. “Nopia Ride is helping do that, combining both shared transport and electric mobility. Scaled up, this reduces the number of vehicles on the road, relieves congestion, and cuts back on energy use and emissions.” UN Environment works with governments around the world, including in Kenya, to promote the use of electric vehicles and encourage investments in non-motorized transport. At the heart of these initiatives lies the necessity to improve air quality and reduce the number of road casualties worldwide.
Explaining why a Finnish company chose Nairobi for its first international expansion, Suojanen says, “The city is growing really fast with huge transportation and congestion problems that cause more issues with emissions. So, it was a clear choice. Growth potential in Finland is quite limited. We saw that there’s a big business opportunity while also an opportunity to do some good for the environment by going to bigger cities outside of Europe.”
Central to Nopia Ride’s mission is that eliminating the use of petrol comes with a range of benefits. The use of electric cars allows the company to charge less, pay the drivers more and protect the environment. According to Suojanen, this win-win model will ensure that the company becomes truly competitive in the market once they start to grow.
“If you talk to any taxi driver they hate Uber, because it makes 12-hour work days. What is unique about our business model is that the drivers don’t pay for gasoline, so they’ll make 30 – 50 per cent more than with Uber or Taxify. So, we can ensure low prices for the passengers but also that the drivers are making a living,” said Suojanen. “This why drivers are saying they want to get on board with Nopia Ride.”
While Nopia Ride has only had a foothold in Africa since August of 2018, the company is now in the scaling up phase, building new charging stations and setting a goal of having 1,500 vehicles on the road by the end of 2021. Looking towards the future, Suojanaen is confident, “If we can prove the model here, then we can continue to expand outside Nairobi. We’re not stopping here. We want to go everywhere in Africa.”