In face of rising air pollution, Rwanda turns to electric vehicles

At a glance, you might mistake the three-stall, white and green EV Plugin station in downtown Kigali for a collection of petrol pumps. This, however, is a charging station for electric vehicles (EVs), one of nearly 200 in the Rwandan capital.

Capable of charging both cars and motorcycles, the station in many ways symbolizes Rwanda’s hopes of becoming an electric vehicle powerhouse.

The country of 13 million has in recent years introduced tax breaks for EV buyers, cultivated local electric vehicle makers and unveiled ambitious plans to electrify public buses. The changes are part of the country’s efforts to curb rising air pollution and cut down on the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change. 

“E-mobility is one of the transport decarbonization initiatives the government has undertaken,” says François Zirikana, an e-mobility specialist with the City of Kigali. “Other initiatives include Kigali bike share scheme as well as car-free zones and car-free days.”

Close to 900 locally made electric vehicles now ply Rwanda’s roads, including motorbikes from startup Ampersand. Major global manufacturers have also targeted the country, which was home to the first electric Volkswagen in Africa. As well, electric trucks  have been used to deliver essentials in rural areas.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has supported Rwanda’s shift to electric vehicles, working with government officials to speed the rollout of electric motorbikes and three-wheelers. The work in Rwanda is part of a broader UNEP effort to limit air pollution, which kills an estimated 7 million people a year, many in developing countries.

UNEP’s Electric Mobility Programme supports more than 50 low-and-middle-income countries with the shift from fossil fuel to electric vehicles through projects such as the SOLUTIONS+ project implemented by the Urban Electric Mobility Initiative.

“To meet the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement and to reduce increasing air pollution, it is essential that low- and middle-income countries are part of a global shift to zero emissions electric mobility,” says Rob de Jong, the head of the sustainable mobility unit at UNEP.

In order to accelerate the e-mobility uptake, the Government of Rwanda has put in place several strategies to serve as incentives. These include the introduction of lower electricity tariffs for electric vehicle charging as well as the exemption of duties for electric vehicles and their accessories.

“The government also plans to introduce a carbon tax to discourage polluting vehicles, impose a five-year age limit for imported second-hand cars and enforce existing emission measures to discourage the purchase of polluting vehicles,” says Zirikana. 

According to the Rwandan government, the cost of transitioning to e-mobility and the adoption of electric vehicles will be US $900 million. However, ​​transitioning to electric motorcycles alone, which is an important mode of transport, would save the Rwandan economy US $22 million in fuel imports every year.

It would also take a sizeable bite out of the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the climate crisis. According to the Rwanda Environment Management Authority, road transport contributes to 13 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

By 2030, Rwanda is aiming to have 20 per cent of buses, 30 per cent of motorcycles and 8 per cent of cars electrified.

Globally, the transport industry is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and is expected to produce more than 30 per cent of those gases in the future. It is also a leading emitter of short-lived climate pollutants and it contributes greatly to air pollution.

In collaboration with partners, UNEP is supporting African countries including Rwanda, Tanzania, Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa, adopt soot-free public transportation through the introduction of electric buses as well as two- and three-wheelers.

Building upon its successful campaign to eliminate leaded petrol and reduce sulfur levels in diesel fuels, UNEP is supporting countries in developing strategic roadmaps and conducting feasibility assessments to establish the groundwork for a low-carbon future for public transportation.

While Rwanda is among the first African countries to embrace e-mobility, Zirikana explains that the country is still facing challenges with uptake due to issues, such as the relatively high cost of new e-vehicles, inadequate public charging infrastructure and a technical skills gap.

“The government is, however, endeavouring to address these challenges through various incentives, such as tax exemptions, as well as working with local e-mobility operators to provide training to the youth,” he says.