by Ruth Aine - 02 March 2015
In 2011, all of Uganda was taken by surprise when we learned that students at the oldest and once revered University, Makerere University, had produced a car. The car, named by the students the Kiira EV, was unveiled in November 2011 and it made international headlines. The message given by the young people who worked on it, was that they wanted to demonstrate that Uganda was as good as the USA and Germany. And prove so they did. The only problem is that their demonstration was short-lived. They had designed and made a car alright, but it was not about to get onto the road. They needed to have everyone else on their side and behind them to get this car on the road for public use.
The dream for this car started in 2006 when 25 universities across the world took part in a project to design a ‘plug-in electric hybrid vehicle’. After about three years the students from these universities had made up to four hybrid cars run by solar, biofuels and human power.
In 2011, after the car had been unveiled, the government of Uganda ‘took over’. Uganda’s Ministry of Trade and Industry took up the Kiira electric vehicle project and improved the Kiira EV model. Kiira Motors Corporation (KMC) whose main intention was to actualize the commercial production of the car was also established.
This electric car is unique - it is not your everyday kind of car. It was made in such a way that it uses a simple electric rechargeable battery. It consists of an energy storage bank, energy converter and a rotary machine. The car is powered by electricity which is stored in the battery bank through repetitive charging. Brilliant idea, and we have to give it to these young college students who thought of this concept and worked hard to bring it to reality. But also, important to note, is that this is not necessarily achievable in Uganda.
Electricity in Uganda is one of those unreliable services in the country. That Ugandans would be able to buy these cars when they are finally on the market is something that I wait to witness. According to the engineers at KMC, production is supposed to start in 2018 and after that 840 cars would then be produced every month. However, the administration of KMC has indicated that $350 million is needed to set up the manufacturing plant. After production, the retail prices for these cars would each be sold for $30,000.
The Minister of Trade and Industry, Hon Amelia Kyambadde did promise that the government would link the corporation up with investors – because this is a capital intensive project. I do not know if the young college students who developed this car in the first place are still in the picture. I do not know if they are part of the lead administrators of KMC – my hope is that they are not forgotten. But as politics would have it, it is likely that they have been forgotten.
Currently the majority of Ugandan drivers import cars, mostly second hand, from Japan. I remember the first time my father and I ordered a car from AUTOREC – a Japanese company – it cost $1000 before taxes (in 2009 the dollar rate was at about UGX 2000). These imported cars are very old as well, reason being that the newer they are, the higher the taxes to be paid upon entry into the country.
So we are very hopeful that by 2018 electricity would be available cheaply and reliably to all that are able to drive. We are also very hopeful that the environment laws in the country would change so that we no longer have to take on Japan’s car trash, and that we but that time, have grown accustomed to the good things in life and would appreciate and could afford new cars. That is the only way that I see us being able to afford our own electric Kiira EV cars.
I would like to believe that KMC and the support being given to the original Kiira EV idea is in good faith. But we have seen brilliant ideas pioneered by young people die even before they start out. And I am very pessimistic because right now manufacturing is not a priority, nor something that we can pull off properly. If this project becomes successful it will be because it has political backing, not because our eco-system is able to sustain it.
In my opinion, industries and factories in Uganda should be developed around the idea of agricultural transformation – something that would employ more unemployed youth, but also help feeding the nation.
I am glad, however, that Kiira EV was originally young persons’ idea that was developed without anyone’s help. This goes a long way to prove that Uganda needs its young people and that they are invaluable to the economy. Given the right support they could really serve the country well.