In recent years, the market for environmentally friendly vehicles has grown substantially as an increasing number of consumers look to move away from gas-guzzling models. Now, every major automotive company from Hyundai to Tesla are competing to develop a mind-numbing variety of eco-friendly cars that use technology ranging from electric and plug-in hybrids, to clean diesel and hydrogen fuel celled vehicles. In this competitive market, a new contender out of Uganda has thrown its hat in the ring with Africa’s first home-grown hybrid vehicle called the Kiira Smack, a petrol-electric hybrid that can hit speeds of more than 60 mph while running for 4 to 5 hours on a full battery.
The Smack is the first commercially viable entry vehicle by Uganda-based Kiira Motors Corporation (KMC), a state-run company lead by students and faculty from the University of Makerere. The car is the fruition of a dream of creating a hybrid vehicle that began nearly a decade ago, when students from the university took part in a collaborative project called the Vehicle Design Summit to design a plug-in electric hybrid vehicle.
“The performance of our students [at the summit] was good,” said Professor Sandy Stevens Tickodri-Togboa, an electrical engineering professor at the university and head of the Kiira project. “So we announced that we would come home and build our own car.”
An African Solution
By November 2011, the team unveiled its first car, the EV Proof of Concept. The 2-seater, battery electric vehicle showcased a battery system that could be recharged from ordinary wall sockets at home. It was a huge breakthrough for the students, and though the vehicle was not without a number of weaknesses and limitations, the prototype was a foundation for the technology that they could be proud of.
“The first challenge is that we are not automotive engineers, and we can’t say we are experts in dealing with automotive technology. But I’m glad we managed to pull it off,” says Professor Paul Isaac Musasizi, CEO of Kiira Motors. “When I reflect upon that moment, I was actually speechless. For the first time, I was seeing the first electric car being driven on a road in Uganda and I was the one driving it. It was quite fulfilling.”
The EV Proof of Concept soon caught the attention of Uganda’s Ministry of Trade Industry and Cooperatives, which then set up the Kiira Motors Corporation to initiate commercial production of the car. Three years later, the company unveiled the Smack to much fanfare in Nairobi, Kenya. The much-improved vehicle is a 5-seater sedan powered by a rechargeable battery with a sleek exterior inspired by the Nile river.
As the first indigenously developed hybrid car, the Smack has much to prove that it can match industry titans with high-quality vehicles. The company has announced plans to manufacture 7,000 cars a year and wants to go to mass production by 2018.
But in order to do so, Kiira Motors estimates that it will need to raise at least $350 million, no small sum in a region where it is notoriously difficult to obtain funding. Another obstacle is that the demand for automobiles isn’t big enough in Uganda to meet the sales target of 7,000 cars a year, meaning that the company will have to turn its sights on neighboring markets such as Kenya, where the demand for cars is growing. Finally, there is the question of whether hybrid vehicles even have a market in East Africa, where only 20% of the population has access to electricity, making the $20,000 vehicle hopelessly out of reach for most consumers.
In spite of these formidable challenges, the Smack represents a major step in showcasing Africa’s potential for technical innovation and entrepreneurial activity. “It is very exciting to be part of a team that is going to transform Uganda because if you look at the automotive section, it’s not just about the cars themselves, but it’s going to develop the other sectors,” says Doreen Orishaba, a Kiira engineer.