Electric Buses Set To Transform Public Transport and Reduce Air Pollution in Kampala

Every morning, 40-year old John Kato scours through the pages of Ugandan local newspapers for updates about the imminent introduction of electric buses. It’s a ritual he does everyday ever since he dropped plans to leave his job as a bus driver in the city to try farming.

 “I am excited about the new electric bus, they are cleaner from old taxi vehicles that have made us sick,” says Kato. “I cannot wait to drive the buses; at least I know I will earn more since the cost of fuel will be out of the way”

The first electric bus locally known as kayoola EVS recently hit the streets of Kampala for a test drive part of the city’s efforts to go green and reduce motorized air pollution that has haunted the city’s 4 million residents for years. The bus is produced by a $40 million government-backed Ugandan start up, Kiira Motors Corporation KMC.

According to Paul Isaac Musasizi the chief executive officer at KMC, the bus runs exclusively on electric batteries and can travel for 300km on a single full charge. It has a sitting capacity of up to 90 passengers. In addition, it comes with on-board Wi-Fi connectivity, a battery that can travel some 900,000kms on only 3,000 charge cycles, more than triple capacity of a diesel engine.

Several recharging stations will be erected along Kampala’s busy streets, most of them right next to the existing petrol stations. The company plans to produce eight buses per month. The bus is positioned to provide low emission public transport.

The Kayoola EVS parked on Kampala Street

Air pollution is a growing challenge not just in Kampala city but across major cities in East Africa. A recent report by University of Birmingham experts published in Environmental Research Letters found that air pollution in Kampala city has increased significantly by 56% over the past 45 years.

This is mostly due to increased energy use, vehicle emissions and industrialisation. The study relied on visibility data for three capital cities in East Africa as a substitute measurement .It discovered a significant reduction in visibility in Kampala due to increased particulate matter emissions estimated to have increased by 162% since the 1970s to the current period.

“When you have an electric bus with zero tailpipe emissions that can carry many people, you’re removing a wide range of contaminants from carbon dioxide to fine particulate matter from the environment and reducing city congestion,” says Musasizi.

However, the project still faces a number of major risks to its commercial success. Limited availability and reliability of electricity due to the country’s poor energy supply, limited availability of skilled labour and production finance will keep manufacturing costs substantially high for KMC.

In Uganda, electricity generation is mainly from hydro-power sources with installed capacity at 925 MW. Currently all petroleum-based fuels are imported although plans to start oil production are underway with proven crude oil reserves at 6.5 billion barrels.

“We still have a long way to go ,but also we cannot work on the assumption that only Kayoola will be moving, we still have emissions from other cars,” says Paul Twebazze, a director at Pro Biodiversity Conservationists ,a local environmental group.

“We also do not know how many cars Kayoola will replace because what those cars have been emitting is what constitutes the reduction”

Currently, Uganda imports some 15,000 used vehicles annually which increase the air pollution levels. The consequences of this have been disastrous and range from health-related problems such as respiratory, poor heart conditions and changing weather patterns.

 “I have been excited by this project for years but it flies in the face of the current pollution in Kampala,” says Angelo Izama from a Ugandan think-tank, Fanaka KwaWote.

According to state environment agency National Environment Management Authority, the transport sector contributes about 88% of Uganda’s GHG emissions.

“We require adequate air quality monitoring and management systems,” said Tom Okurut, the Executive Director at NEMA. “NEMA is working with Kampala city council to develop tools to monitor air quality and pollution around the city”

During the recent state of the nation address, President Yoweri Museveni said that the lockdown had offered Ugandans a vision of what a clean emission free Kampala looks like. However as the lockdown has been eased, pollution levels have risen again.

The World Health Organisation estimates that globally 7 million people die prematurely each year due to exposure to harmful levels of air pollution with an estimated 1 millions of these deaths occurring in Africa.

For many years, Mr.Kato, who is asthmatic, has banked his hopes on a steady job as a bus driver and affordable fuel prices to support his wife and five children. But in recent years, fuel prices have stubbornly remained high on the local market, defying global trends and eating into his margins.  With his health ailing, he says a polluted environment is the least he needs. But some activists say that he might be overstretching his optimism.

“The electric bus is a great initiative, but manufacturers are also making petrol cars which will mean continued reliance on fossil fuels,” said Diana Nabiruma, communications officer at Africa Institute for Energy Governance, a local charity.

Diana Taremwa Karakire
Diana Taremwa Karakire is a freelance Journalist based in Uganda. She is passionate about environmental issues and writes on climate change, renewable energy, food security and human rights. Her work has been published by Equal Times, Africa Business Magazine, Biofuels International Magazine and the Earth Journalism Network. Find her tweeting @TaremwaD.