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Electric Vehicles (EVs): A Green Solution for Africa or More Environmental and Economic Quandaries?

Electric Vehicles (EVs): A Green Solution for Africa or More Environmental and Economic Quandaries?

EV being charged _ Afrocritik

But while EVs have been advertised as the “next best thing” for the world’s transport industry, they are not without their shortcomings. One also has to consider how exactly these EVs are made.

By Michael Akuchie

In today’s world where climate change dominates global conversations, world leaders are considering employing strategies that will help efficiently manage the effects of global warming. Among those strategies is the possible mass adoption of electric vehicles (EVs), they have been acclaimed as being an environmentally friendly mode of transport and beneficial to combating the effects of climate change.  

The repeated production and usage of fossil fuels have become dangerous to the environment as they significantly contribute to air pollution through carbon emissions. While EVs leave some amount of carbon footprint during usage, theirs is comparably small when set side by side with what petrol or diesel vehicles emit. The World Bank wrote in an article that EVs are part of ongoing efforts to address rising carbon emissions in the world. In the same article, Cecilia M. Briceno-Garmendia, a Lead Economist at the World Bank said, “There is an urgent need to lower carbon emissions from transport. All decarbonisation tools – including e-mobility – are on the table. For developing countries,  the e-mobility transition is no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘how’ and ‘when.’” 

My first encounter with electric vehicles occurred in my teenage years. As an avid follower of the irreverent adult animated sitcom Family Guy, I made it a duty to watch as many episodes as I could. In one of them, Brian Griffin, the dog, owned and drove a car I would later learn was a Toyota Prius. I would also learn that the Prius was not a traditional EV, but a hybrid. Unlike EVs that, as the name suggests, operate using a battery that requires regular charges, hybrid vehicles use a combination of petrol engines and electric motors to move around. Interestingly, there is another variant of hybrid vehicles called plug-in hybrid, which comes with a larger battery that can be charged using a connector found at either a public charging station or at home.

EV being charged _ Afrocritik
An electric vehicle being charged. Source: Tekedia

On the surface level, EVs are described as vehicles that do not require petrol to operate. This is because they do not come with an internal combustion engine (ICE), otherwise known as a petrol engine. Tesla, a vehicle manufacturer owned by Elon Musk, is recognised as one of the most popular makers of EVs. Some of its creations like Model S, Model Y, and Model X have become household names among EV adopters. Here is an interesting finding: in May 2023, the Tesla Model Y became the world’s best-selling car, — the emphasis being on “car”, not EV. This means that the Model Y surpassed petrol cars which still command a sizable amount of authority in the market. To attain this huge honour, the Tesla EV dethroned a popular petrol model, the Toyota Corolla. One could say then that EVs represent the future of road transport,  and several people are beginning to see that. 

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Given that they are an unconventional mode of transport, it is logical for people to wonder what makes them special, and become curious to understand why they are gaining such momentum. What benefits could EVs possibly bring to the world, especially Africa? 

For one—and the most obvious—they do not rely on petrol. With the world exploring ways to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, EVs become a welcome development for the transport industry.  They also do not come with a petrol engine, and as such, they do not rumble when in use, a feature that makes them popular as low-noise level vehicles.  

More and more drivers are gravitating to EVs because of cost savings and low maintenance, two benefits that come with buying an EV. Owning a petrol car means drivers are agreeing to a life of petrol purchases coupled with maintenance and repair costs. In times when the cost of petrol increases, drivers of petrol vehicles are often the worst hit. Consider Nigeria for example, a country that is still reeling from the effects of petrol subsidy removal months after the announcement in May 2023. In East Africa, too, Kenya removed fuel subsidies as part of efforts to save its economy last year, a  decision that has prompted months of protests, claiming lives and properties. The government eventually restored the subsidy, albeit on a smaller scale. Given how matters such as the removal of petrol subsidies have divided many African nations, one wonders whether EVs could change the situation. If EVs were to be adopted in Kenya, for instance, the citizens would have no need to worry about petrol subsidies as they drive EVs. Not only would this be good for the country’s carbon footprint, but it would also help drivers enjoy major cost savings on petrol purchases and vehicle maintenance. 

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But, on closer examination, EVs are considerably costlier to purchase than petrol vehicles. However, that fact has yet to stop drivers in North America and Europe from buying them thanks to their robust economies and tax rebates. The economic situation of most African countries discourages any thought of owning an EV. Nowadays, even petrol cars have become more expensive due to increased import duties and the increased depreciation of the naira against the dollar. 

Kia Niro EV - Afrocritik
A Kia Niro EV. Source: Tech Cabal

Another significant roadblock to EV adoption in Africa is the dearth of infrastructure for charging these vehicles. Recall that EVs require frequent charges—like smartphones—to remain fully functional. Nobody wants to experience the unpleasant sight of an EV suddenly stopping due to a low battery and then having to push or tow the vehicle. In 2022, photos of a Tesla EV being towed on the popular Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos sparked conversations about EVs and whether they are right for the Nigerian market. If there were public charging stations at strategic locations, perhaps this would not have happened. However, building those stations costs money, lots of it. Given the current economic situation of many African nations, it is unlikely that the government would happily support such causes. 

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EVs may also have a rough time in Africa due to the lack of public awareness. A lack of awareness stands in the way of EV adoption, and unless it is smartly tackled, petrol cars may remain a mainstay of Africa’s transport scene for many years. Even if EVs were to be freely distributed, the government and other industry stakeholders would need to organise campaigns to enlighten people, particularly drivers, about what they stand to achieve by using EVs. 

But while EVs have been advertised as the “next best thing” for the world’s transport industry, they are not without their shortcomings. One also has to consider how exactly these EVs are made. Manufacturers require different kinds of materials to make these vehicles, but one valuable component is lithium. Given the growing interest in EVs, manufacturers have increased the mining of lithium to keep up with demand in the market. However, lithium is found in the ground, and the constant mining of the mineral also poses a serious environmental threat. As the world continues to prioritise EVs, and the seeming benefits are propagated in the media by manufacturers,  the world must also be made aware of introduced to the disadvantages. “Electric vehicles are already the largest source of demand for lithium – the soft, white metal common to all current rechargeable batteries. Mining lithium is a fraught business, and the rise in demand for EVs is contributing to a rise in social and environmental harms – and global supply chain bottlenecks,” says an article in The Guardian. The repeated extraction of lithium can cause various environmental disasters including air and water pollution, and soil degradation, and set the tone for groundwater atrophy. Ironically, the extraction of lithium also releases a sizable amount of carbon emissions. 

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There are also serious concerns about miners being exploited by their employers. A Raid article sheds more light on the unfair working conditions Congolese nationals are subjected to in cobalt mines—cobalt is another material used in EVs. Workers confessed to working long hours with low wages, under discriminatory and violent working conditions. 

Admittedly, EVs can largely reduce carbon emissions, save drivers tonnes of money, and reduce the world’s dependence on petrol. However, their manufacture also poses severe environmental damage. Although these vehicles have been dubbed as one of the answers to climate change, there is still so much to understand about electric mobility. One must then weigh the pros and cons of EV adoption closely.

Michael Akuchie is a tech journalist with four years of experience covering cybersecurity, AI, automotive trends, and startups. He reads human-angle stories in his spare time. He’s on X (fka Twitter) as @Michael_Akuchie & michael_akuchie on Instagram.

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