EVs in Africa: No Place for Rich Boys Toys

By Vijay Jayaraj

Electric vehicles (EVs) are a poster child for the so-called green transition. Even in some of the world’s poorest economies, an unquestioning embrace of all things “green” on the part of political elites powers a push for the adoption of electric vehicles.

Africa — considered to be the least developed continent — is inundated with a plethora of programs and voices fervently promoting EVs as its nations struggle with a gazillion existential issues stemming from the cruel fact that nearly half the population lives in poverty.

EV advocates lobby for subsidies to manufacturers, retailers, and purchasers of electric vehicles with no apparent consideration of the continent’s extremely poor access to electricity. Neither is there acknowledgement that a majority of Africans cannot afford conventional cars let alone pricey battery-powered ones.

No Country for Fancy Toys

A report from World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme (ESMAP) states that “the power system infrastructure [in developing countries] especially continues to provide defective services and is vulnerable to external shock.”

“Grids, on both transmission and distribution levels, are, in many cases, unreliable because of inadequate capacity, lack of maintenance and reinforcement, and a host of other operational issues,” the report said.

The upshot is grids in a majority of African nations are not able to support EV adoption. It is estimated that sub-Sahara Africa experiences nine power outages every month, each lasting for more than five hours. This is hardly service sufficiently adequate to make EVs reliable for daily transportation.

Reuters notes that even Africa’s most developed economy, South Africa, is “facing its worst power crisis on record, with a persistent electricity shortfall necessitating daily scheduled rolling blackouts — known locally as loadshedding — of up to 10 hours, for the past 18 months.” It’s ironic that the home country of the world’s largest EV car company owner (Elon Musk) has a decrepit power supply system.

Those experiencing blackouts at least have some access to electrical service. There are many others who have none.

According to the International Energy Agency, “The number of people without electricity (in sub-Saharan Africa) is almost back to historic highs, increasing from 580 million in 2019 to reach 600 million in 2022.” In the Central African Republic, only 6% of the entire population had access to electricity.

As of 2022, less than half of the population in the region had access to electricity. IEA’s data suggests that 660 million globally are projected to remain without electricity in 2030, “of which 85% or about 560 million people will be in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

In other words, we are dealing with a population that is yet to have electricity for basic lighting and appliances. Moreover, the situation will not improve substantially any time soon.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s poverty is another major barrier to the region’s widespread adoption of electric vehicles. The cost of even electric bikes is generally higher than that of their gasoline-powered counterparts. For many prospective buyers, this is a major deterrent.

Even if we are to assume that buyers will save money on fuel, most Sub-Saharan Africans simply cannot afford the upfront costs of electric vehicles. For most people in this region, internal combustion engines are a more practical option due to their relative affordability, superior availability of spare parts and ease of refuelling.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the push for electric vehicles is a diversion from the region’s more urgent problems. First among these is the people’s well documented poverty followed by related challenges such as inadequate electrification, unreliable power service, and the urgent need to address basic sanitation, nutrition, freshwater access, conventional mobility and economic development.

With General Motors and Ford Motor Co. cutting back EV production because of slow sales in the U.S. — the richest country on Earth — the promotion of EVs to Africans looks all the more ridiculous.

This commentary was first published at Real Clear Energy on November 5, 2023.

Vijay Jayaraj is a Research Associate at the CO2 Coalition, Arlington, Virginia. He holds a master’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of East Anglia, UK.

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