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'The opportunities add up': lessons from e-mobility in Africa

May 12, 2020

David Rubia portrait
Photo: David Rubia/UNEP

David Rubia is the Africa Program Management Officer for the GEF-supported Global E-Mobility Program. In an interview, he shared his optimism about the benefits of electrifying multiple modes of transportation in Africa (from two and three-wheelers to buses to airport ground-support fleets), and reflected on what the COVID-19 crisis has reminded him about the value of connectivity.

What is the Global E-Mobility Program, and what does it aim to do in Africa?

The Global E-Mobility Program is helping developing and transitional countries come up with the right policies to switch from fossil fuel-based mobility to electric mobility. By so doing it endeavors to cut carbon and other emissions from automotive fleets - mitigating climate change and reducing local air pollution. The local benefits speak for themselves: improved health, reduced transportation fuel costs, national savings on fossil fuel imports, opportunities for green job creation, and more.

Currently, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), with funding from several donors, is implementing or has had electric mobility projects in Botswana, Egypt, Liberia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Mali, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia. These projects range from assessments of fiscal incentives for electric cars, policy support and demonstration studies about 2 and 3-wheelers, and evaluations of technology options for clean soot-free bus fleets including electric buses.

Now with funding from the Global Environment Facility, UNEP, the International Energy Agency, and other partners, we will be expanding this work in new locations including Togo, Sierra Leone, Seychelles, Burundi, and Madagascar. GEF funding will also allow for additional electric mobility work in Côte d'Ivoire. The activities will revolve around supporting demonstration studies and developing policy frameworks to support electric mobility.

Is there someone you have met through this work that had a lasting impact on you?

I have had the pleasure and great honor of working with many interesting and motivating people within the electric mobility space and so the list to choose from is huge - the amount of innovators and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Africa and in Southeast Asia is very awe-inspiring. But were I forced to pick one it would have to be Dishon Kinyua, a second-hand shoe dealer in Nairobi’s Gikomba Market - the largest second-hand clothes market in Kenya. In one of his many visits to China for commodities to sell back home, Dishon came across an electric scooter, rode it around, and fell in love with it on the spot. He brought it back with him on that same trip. When he got back, he put it up in his stall in this informal market and sold it very quickly. To date, he has sold upwards of 20 such units and is a die-hard electric mobility fan. For me, that's an example of pure enterprise. Here was somebody who was able to spot the nuances of low-emissions electric mobility, see the economic opportunity, and jump on it. That's quite an endearing story. Now our challenge is to support these trail-blazing entrepreneurs by helping governments develop policies to nurture their spirit!


Dishon Kinyua, a vendor in Nairobi’s Gikomba Market, showcasing an e-scooter. Photo courtesy of David Rubia/UNEP

How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected your work?

I am telecommuting from home in Nairobi. Our team is staying connected; we have our weekly meetings on Monday mornings as we always did in the office. What I do miss is the personal interaction - getting up and walking into somebody's office and asking them a question and having a conversation without having to use a tool or an internet byte. That said, technology has shown that it can link people when we can’t be together. Going forward this could be an opportunity to reduce expenditures and emissions from travel if we are really serious about it. It has been a balancing act homeschooling kids - but I think it has brought families closer together. It has made us appreciate the little things that we did not have enough of before, such as indoor games, crafts, etc. Going forward I hope we can adopt some of the positive aspects of life mid-COVID, and toss most of the not-so-positive aspects of life pre-COVID.

When did you get into this line of work?

When I was finishing high school in Nairobi, my passion was to become a pilot. So, when it came time to selecting what degree to pursue at university, my first choice was aeronautical engineering. My second choice was environmental science. As fate would have it, I didn’t perform well enough to get my first choice (or there was an over-subscription of qualified candidates like myself - as I prefer to think) and so I ended up being selected to study my second choice at Egerton University in Njoro, Kenya. It was a most serendipitous decision as I took to environmental science like a fish to water and haven't looked back (or to the skies) since. Eventually I ended up obtaining a master’s in environmental engineering and working as an environmental engineer in the United States. After seven years of environmental engineering project management, I sought change and came across an opening in the Transport Unit of UNEP, focused on transport policy. I thought it was a good chance to try something different albeit still under the environmental umbrella and luckily, I was selected, thus commencing my current line of work.

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

Everything I have learned has taught me that the most important thing in life (work or personal) is our relationship with each other. All the science, all the hard work, all the vision, all the hope is all for naught if we do not connect people. Our best results will always come from how we are able to communicate and relate with each other, as well as how we are able to inspire and motivate one another.

You dreamed of being a pilot when you were young. Now that you are working in the transport sector, what do you think about the electrification of airplanes?

While there is some interesting research looking into electrification of short-haul flights, significant electrification of civil aviation as we know it is a long way off. But we are seeing a huge push for more efficient long-haul aircraft, hybridization, etc., as the aviation industry is interested in increasing efficiencies to reduce fuel costs. So, there is a lot that can be done to reduce emissions from aviation transport if we look at the whole industry as an ecosystem. For instance, we can reduce emissions from aircraft ground-support fleets, shuttles for passengers and flight crew, airport cargo transport, etc. A lot of these can be electrified as they are captured fleets with thin operating margins thus huge incentives for cost savings. COVID-19 is also asking us to rethink a lot of the travel that hitherto was considered vital. So, we need to look at where we can reduce emissions and take those opportunities, as eventually they all add up.