A group of eco-conscious LiU students has moved to Kenya and started a company devoted to electric safari vehicles. In less than a year it has grown to 28 employees, most of whom are Kenyan engineers.
Mikael Gånge, Filip Gardler, Johanna Alander and Filip Lövström moved to Nairobi in summer 2018 and started Opibus. Photo credit Anna Nilsen“Our aim is to deliver environmental benefits for a better future – but also more equitable development at the global level. Creating jobs here in Kenya is gratifying – and important”, says Johanna Alander, production manager and the only one in the LiU group who had time to finish the engineering programme Energy, Environment and Management, before they moved to Nairobi in the summer of 2018.
Photo from safari in Kenya Photo credit BrittakThe plan was primarily to focus on converting safari vehicles from diesel to electricity – and that’s what they’ve done. They’ve secured a workshop in a dusty industrial district in Nairobi, where diesel and petrol engines are removed, and replaced by pre-built boxes containing the entire electrical drive train. The premises are being renovated to better suit Opibus – the business’ name, which is Latin for “resources”. But the young owners can already see that they will soon have to expand. Demand for their services is huge.
“The safari parks generally have a lot of money, and they invest consciously in sustainability. Plus, they earn money on the electric vehicles. The vehicles reduce operating costs, they’re charged by solar panels, and the tourists love them because they’re so quiet. They deliver a far more intense experience of nature”, says Sales Manager Mikael Gånge.
The electric safari vehicles are in high demand. "The tourists love them because they're so quiet", says Sales Manager Mikael Gånge. Photo credit Anna NilsenSafari camps from all over East Africa are on the waiting list to have their vehicles converted. And parks from Botswana, South Africa and other countries have made enquiries.
Photo credit iStockBut Opibus’ plans include more than safari vehicles. They also want to address the chaotic Nairobi traffic.
“We want to start up a pilot project where we produce 30 new motorcycles with electric engines. And this autumn we hope to get started with the conversion of some of the 150,000 matatus, the local buses in Nairobi”, says Filip Gardler, one of the company’s two managing directors.
They have applied for permits to build up an infrastructure for charging stations, and they deliver solar panel solutions to customers. The plan is to kick-start the development of electric vehicles in East Africa and other parts of the continent.
Opibus recently received an order to install 300 solar panel systems at schools in rural Kenya, meeting the schools’ electricity needs.
“It’s amazing, we’re directly affecting the ability of students to get an education”, says Filip Gardler.
The group of young entrepreneurs doesn’t plan to stay in Kenya forever. Perhaps a few years. The objective is to build up a robust company that can subsequently be managed by the Kenyans themselves.
“We’re not trying to do the ‘Save the World’ thing. The idea that many parts of Africa need saving is already firmly established, and we don’t want to cement that further. We’re building a solid business, and this region has a large growth market that rarely receives attention”, says Filip Lövström, also managing director.
Filip Lövström, one of Opibus' two CEOs, speaks with Kenyan engineers Daniel Muugi, Esther Wairimu and Francis Njoroge. Photo credit Anna NilsenSkilled staff are already in place. From day one the founders have collaborated with the Technological University of Kenya, carefully recruiting individuals with the same drive and interest in sustainability as themselves, and with both theoretical and practical knowledge. Two of these are mechanical engineers Esther Wairimu and Daniel Muugi, who recently started at Opibus.
“The idea of converting traditional car engines to electrical motors is brilliant. I get to use all my professional expertise, and can take full responsibility for my work”, says Esther Wairimu.
They are both happy to work at a company where they are given plenty of freedom, and responsibility.
“It makes you grow, and everyone benefits from that”, adds Daniel Muugi.
Electrical engineer Francis Njoroge also has experience from the tourism industry, and was one of the first employees.
“I use every aspect from my professional training at the same time, I’m not used to that”, he says.
Teamwork is important. Together they are breaking new ground.
In the taxi returning from the industrial district, the driver says that yes, he has actually heard about that Swedish company that is into electric motors and solar energy.
He smiles in the rear-view mirror, nodding.
“They’re getting into the right thing, it’s cool, it’s the future.”
The five founders are Filip Gardler, LiU, Mikael Gånge, LiU, Filip Lövström, LiU, Kim Popp, Stockholm University and Rawlings Nechavava, Lund University.
Translation: Martin Mirko
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