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Geofrey Mutabazi on Clean Mobility and Energy Access in Africa

In this episode of Viewpoints with Brenda, Brenda chats with Geofrey Mutabazi, the Founder and CEO of ChargeKo Technologies, an electronic charging solutions company based in Uganda, and a Global Shaper with the World Economic Forum.

Geofrey shares insights on the clean mobility industry in Africa and how Africa being richly endowed with the minerals that drive the clean mobility space, can leverage its position to lead the global clean mobility race. Geoffrey also speaks about why a decentralized grid is the best way forward to improve access to energy in Africa. 

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*The transcript below has been generated through software, and may contain errors. Viewpoints with Brenda is designed to be heard. We strongly recommend that you listen to the episode for context and speech emphasis before quoting the text below in print.

BN (00:21) I am delighted and very excited to introduce our guest, Geofrey Mutabazi. Geofrey is the founder and CEO of ChergeKo Technologies. If you’ve seen any phone charging stations in any of your favorite spots, that is probably something that has been provided by ChargeKo.  Geofrey is also a Global Shaper with the prestigious World Economic Forum and he is a passionate entrepreneur. I’m super excited about this conversation. We’re going to talk about the startup ecosystem in Uganda. We’re going to talk about clean mobility and energy access in Africa. Geofrey is passionate about all of these things, but I’m going to let him introduce himself. Geofrey, welcome.

GM (01:05): Thank you so much, Brenda, I was really excited when you reached out because I’m really passionate about sharing my story. To start with, my name is Mutabazi Geofrey. In a nutshell, we’re making owning and operating battery powered devices more affordable and convenient. Battery powered devices could include mobile phones. They could include power backup systems. They could include electric mobility solutions, like electric cars, electric motorcycles, electric bicycles, and other electric powered devices that use batteries. Pretty much.

GM (01:41): If you’ve had the experience of running out of battery, when anything you own that runs off of a battery, then you clearly know what I’m talking about when I say there’s a need for convenience in that particular application because you’ll definitely start looking around for a charger or you start looking around for a charging point. And then with all the inconveniences that you face while either charging or looking for that charging point, I mean, you definitely need someone that eases that. Look at moving around with a charger as someone having to move on with their own fuel tanker  behind their car or a fuel pump behind the car. It’s quite inconvenient. And you basically want to fill up your car anytime you’re out of gas. So why would you do the same for a phone? So we’re making that easier. We’re making that more convenient. We started in 2020, officially, but we’ve been running for close to two years now. I, as an entrepreneur, started my first business at 14, quite young been on and off entrepreneurship  for about close to 10 years now. And I’m looking forward to this discussion.

BN (02:48): I mean, your story is very inspiring. Geofrey, I like the concept of ChargeKo. I like the inspiration behind it. But what would you say has been your biggest challenge so far?

GM (02:58): I think challenges are part of business. One of the major things, I think has been I’d say funding. But it’s not just the access to funding, it’s access to right investors and the right funding partners. Not all money’s good money. You probably know that. And what we’ve actually faced is that — the right people to move forward with the right funding partners, the right investors. That has been a challenge. The biggest hindrance at the moment to our scale is we have too much demand and we can supply; it’s actually a problem. Because I for one desist at the moment from any form of b2b marketing, I would be shooting myself in the foot if I said, I need more locations to set up charging stations in because right now we have a full plate, we have a long waiting list. So that’s actually a challenge. We can’t go out and do any b2b marketing to get in more locations because we have more than we can service right now. Those of course the two major challenges.  Besides that is usual challenges, high taxes and importing products day to day challenges of customer support. Customers want you to move faster than you actually can afford to at times. And I guess that’s a good thing because customers are never satisfied. I like to quote Jeff Bezos who said “instead of focusing on competition, focus on the customer because the customer is never satisfied because you can’t beat the competition any day”. 

GM (04:25): Besides that, we also do face the challenge of having to innovate faster, because if you look at charging technology, it’s moving so fast that if you have a charging station that’s three years old, it is backward by about three or four charging standards. If you take an example of Quick Charge, particularly for mobile phones — we started that Quick Charge 2 in 2018, which was one of the most dominant charging standards and most people are comfortable with the charging speed thing. But then here we are in 2021 and the latest Quick Charge standard is Quick Charge 5, which at the moment, the most dominant is about Quick Charge 4, and Quick Charge 4 Plus, which were all released within the past two or three years. And customers are actually demanding for faster charging, not because they want a faster charge, but because their home plug with their home charger can handle much faster charging than our charging stations can. The expectations have gone up because of the kinds of phones that they are accessing. And of course, as you know, the turnover of phones is quite high, in particularly young and active people in technology are doing a lot of switching of phones. And that definitely brings in a challenge of you having to innovate faster to provide them with faster charging, amongst others. Those are I think the major challenges that we faced or that I have faced.

BN (05:51): That’s interesting, that the demand for your product is quite high. And just slightly related to that is the pandemic and what sort of effect it’s had when your business and how you’ve responded.

GM (06:04): This pandemic was sent from hell. I’d like to basically give you a background. Around December 2019, we talked to one of our contract manufacturers, and they were like, oh, we’re actually closing for a holiday for Chinese New Year if we are to manufacture anything, because we sent them design specifications. They were like, okay, if we were to manufacture anything for you, you’d have to place your order by start of January, or end of December. We discussed internally and say, You know what, order after Chinese New Year. The pandemic started around Chinese New Year, right around the time we’re supposed to close. We were actually closing a funding round of about $100,000 to get us to about 100 locations, 15 urban areas and 15 rural areas. The pandemic hit, and at first we thought it was you know, one small outbreak, and six months later, it’s going to be in control. We thought that was the case. And fast forward to a few months later, all our funding was basically wiped out. So we never got to close that funding round of $100,000, we had to shut down operations for many months, we ended up resuming on November 2020. 

GM (07:14): I mean, it’s been a nightmare operationally, because we’ve had to scale back on all the plans we had. Because our business ChargeKo Technologies thrives on public locations, you definitely don’t have people going into public places. You’re left with making do with a few customers you have in that particular location. People are not going out as much. With the curfew restrictions, even though they do go out, they go out much less.  So we had to make some hard choices, which were firstly reducing our expansion plans. Because that limited availability of capital. We had to shut down and scale down operations during that pandemic time. But then it also brought us to rethink most of the things that we were doing. The Green Revolution definitely accelerated much faster as we were looked down. And we definitely got to think about the electric vehicle opportunity on our hands a lot more. We did an ecosystem map during that time that’s currently informing most of what we’re doing, in terms of planning. 

GM (08:16): It’s been really interesting, just existing during the pandemic, because we then got to think much clearer and say, okay, what will the next pandemic look like? And definitely the next pandemic will probably be a climate pandemic. We got to think, how do we get ourselves on the right footing in case that happens, and basically went into preparation mode for the future. That’s pretty much it about the pandemic, but it also created a lot of possibilities. People are using their phones a lot more. We are going to write a much bigger wave during the recovery period. And we’re planning for that as well with new investment strategies, new scaling strategies, and with new products that, you know, leverage that increased usage of mobile phones. People use their mobile phone 70% more due to them pandemic and they intend to not reduce or not scale down that mobile phone usage. It’s also a blessing in disguise. After the pandemic, there’s going to be a lot more mobile phone usage and mobile phone dependence. That has been a blessing in itself.

BN (09:21): Geofrey, you mentioned the climate pandemic. I just want to focus a little bit on that and to pivot to clean mobility and access to energy generally. What do you think that African governments should be focusing on to drive clean mobility and focus industry towards zero emissions?

GM (09:43): That’s an amazing question. I would say the energy transition is happening whether we like it or not. So we first have to get with the program. Secondly, this is something that very few people do notice, but it’s actually a global battery arms race going on and the Western world is actually losing. China is leading this race because they developed the fundamentals of this industry. If you look at, for example, solar panel manufacturing, if you look at battery mineral processing, if you look at battery manufacturing, particularly what you call the Giga factories, there’s about currently about 200 Gigafactories being built across the world to make batteries for this entire electric vehicle ecosystem and clean energy revolution. Most of the things that we’re building are going to run batteries, or energy storage systems, or the solar panels need power backup, because the sun doesn’t shine 24-7. You also need batteries for the electric cars, you need batteries for the electric ships, you need batteries for the electric trains, you need batteries for grid backup, you need batteries for electric, bicycles, electric motorcycles, electric everything, electric planes always need batteries, or a certain form of energy storage. 

GM (10:59): Now who is making that energy storage? It’s definitely not Africa. Who is supplying the minerals for these energy storage systems? It is predominately Africa. Why? Because of things like dysfunctional ecosystems that are not working together, we are having to export battery minerals unprocessed. And this is something we’ve been doing for a long time as a continent. One of the things that governments need to do first, before anything else is to make sure that we are building processing capacity locally for these battery minerals. I’ll give you an example. It’s about 60% of the world’s cobalt supply is from DRC. But of the four cobalt refineries, none is in Africa, first of all, but only one is outside China. So that gives you a few. And then for battery manufacturing, particularly 200 Giga factories in the pipeline to be completed by 2028. Only one of those is in Africa. So that gives you a view of how we’re competing. 

GM (12:01): And now, besides that, all the other continents that are actually making batteries don’t mine a majority of their minerals onshore. So they import. They import from South America, they import from Australia. But Africa is the only continent with all the battery minerals, or majority of the battery minerals apart from high purity alumina, which is used in making separators for batteries in one continent. So we have lithium, we have cobalt, we have manganese, we have graphite, we have nickel, and all the other minerals that are used for making batteries. So why aren’t we making batteries or why aren’t we even making cathodes and anode materials? Why? Because we thrive off of hoodwinking ourselves into thinking that if you export minerals as Uganda, you’re making money for Uganda. But if you say, you know what, let Uganda, Kenya and Congo plus Tanzania work together to build a joint battery manufacturing ecosystem, and then add value to all the members that were processing, and maybe sign agreements where we don’t sell the minerals to each other, we basically co-process and then export as a region. Then that becomes a much better arrangement because it’s a meeting of minds, it’s a meeting of different strengths. 

GM (13:22): We need a lot more cooperation, we need a lot more competition to compete side by side with the rest of the world because all the countries in the West that we look up to are not doing well in this race for clean mobility and clean energy, because they’re not aligned to the strategy. They’re not moving as fast. And they still have a lot of legacy systems that are keeping them behind. I mean, if you look at for example, China. China is building a Giga factory every four weeks. And I think the US is building one every four months. So who is definitely going to win that race just by the numbers alone. It’s definitely Asia that’s best positioned. Second in line would be Africa if we woke up. 

GM (14:06): Lastly on that point, we definitely need to think local. Instead of looking at $35,000 cars and huge expense electric mobility solutions, which definitely think local and look at why not start with public transportation systems like buses and trains or these other mobility solution that can serve the African continent better. And micro mobility solutions, like motorcycles that are really popular in countries like Uganda, countries like Nigeria, countries like Kenya and Rwanda that are closer to home. Of which all these that prosperity with their ICE counterparts or internal combustion engine counterparts. It’s something we can definitely compete on. However, even with that, India is beating us. India is beating us because there are over 200 OEMs or original equipment manufacturers that are making electric two and three wheelers. They’re selling about 60,000 electric three wheelers and about 20,000 electric two wheelers. Even currently, they are selling the majority of the two and three wheelers in Africa. They are the largest manufacturers of those. Even in the things we can compete on, we need to double down our efforts.

BN (15:20): And related to that, and particularly in relation to mobility solutions, how do you see ChargeKo contributing to this in Uganda and Africa at large now, and in the future?

GM (15:34): Right now we are trying to build the right networks, because of the low number of EVs on the road, it really doesn’t make a very good investment case to invest in electric mobility infrastructure, because currently, with the current manufacturers, they’re handling just fine. But as their capacity grows, as the number of electric bikes and cars on the road increases, there will definitely be a larger need and a better investment case for electric mobility. So what we’re starting with is trying to lay the ground for that. We are actually having discussions with different manufacturers and saying — okay, you’re setting up charging stations fine. But are these charging stations inclusive for people, are they charging stations that can be used by everyone compared to you know, locking them to different apps that need to be on smartphones, that then lock out people who have electric vehicles, but don’t have smartphones. And this is actually a huge problem in, for example, the UK where they have terrible standards for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and you find charging stations or EVES equipment or electric vehicle energy supply equipment that are not wheelchair accessible, that require you having 10 different apps for you to be able to charge your electric vehicle all through the UK have 10 different accounts for each charging providers. So we’re trying to drive more collaboration and co-design for the ecosystem before we even get to rolling out charging infrastructure. 

GM (17:03): And then we’re also developing particular solutions that are still under an R&D stage where we can bring together most of the automakers or OEMs. To use one piece of charging infrastructure. It takes a lot to design something like that, because it means you having to collaborate and work with different people, which is quite slow, but it’s one of the things we are working on. And then lastly, really mapping the ecosystem having discussions like this, where we definitely interest more people into joining the electric mobility movement and getting into this industry. Because the more you are, the better it is. If you look at Europe, most of the OEMs actually collaborating on things like the drive trains their battery production. And it’s by working together that we can achieve our shared vision. We are fostering that collaboration. We are also mapping the ecosystem. And we are helping with bringing a more standardized approach to electric vehicle charging. 

GM (18:06): I personally, besides ChargeKo, would like to get into I would say battery processing, battery mineral processing. And that’s one of the things that I am passionate about, because I want to build more collaborative and regional systems. Even though I don’t get to build the factories myself, just fostering that discussion and getting people to invest in different regions, to build up their capacity to one day, be able to make batteries on the continent would be a job well done. For me that’s further down the line, because it’s a much bigger industry. It’s way more expensive than you think. So if you look at just the battery, mineral information alone could set you back about close to $5,000. Just put that information on, you know, the ecosystem and capacity and the different players and their capacity forecasts. Just that alone is quite expensive. So I’m basically building up to that, but building a lot of collaborations. 

GM (19:06): Just to add to that. Lastly, on the same question, I am also involved in a competition. It’s an e-mobility competition, and it’s organized by the first electric vehicle consultancy company and called Influenced Mobility. I’m the judge in charge of Africa. We have few other judges from across the world. What we’re doing is we’re getting electric vehicle startups to submit their stories and stand the chance to win $60,000 worth of consultancy PR and communications consultancy from the world’s first electric mobility consultancy based in the UK. Those are the kinds of discussions I’m trying to foster to get Africa on the map first and to get Africa to build a better foundation that then can build on top of as ChargeKo or anyone else that wants to get into into this industry.

BN (19:58): And where would you say the biggest support is coming from in terms of collaborations for this dream that you have for ChargeKo.

GM (20:06): I think the biggest support is coming from electric mobility and green energy enthusiasts. There’s definitely a lot of people that are pumped about electric mobility and see a lot of future in that. We’ve not seen a lot of government support currently, though, they’ve invested in a few electric mobility projects, particularly the government of Uganda, investing in Kira Motors. But we’ve not seen a lot of EV-driven or EV-specific support. It’s more manufacturing in general, and without particular focus on EVs. It’s particularly people who can see the vision and are looking into the future that are really getting onto this bus at the moment.

BN (20:48): Earlier on while speaking about clean mobility, you spoke about energy and how vital it is to development and also just to the dream that we have for zero emissions at some point. What new technologies can we embrace in Africa in relation to energy accessibility? Because I think right now, the biggest issue is lack of access. And you’ve mentioned batteries, and hopefully, you know, building towards improving access to batteries, or just building batteries in the future. What else do you think can be done by governments to improve accessibility to energy?

GM (21:26): I would think of government as an enabler. And I would not look to the government too much, because the government is supposed to enable the private sector drive this change. And it means that if the government is driving majority of the decisions and the work in the sector, then one, either that sector is very risky, and requires a lot of regulation as leading to a need for government to step in, or that sector is not moving as fast as a private sector, and it’s really lagging behind so the government is coming in to prop it up. 

GM (22:03): I really admire what is happening across Africa in regards to pay-as-you-go solar, with all these mobile solar solutions, smaller energy systems. However, I think the future for Africa is in decentralization, things like decentralization and creating things like micro grids, which are smaller versions of the power grid, powered by maybe small hydro solutions, geothermal, wind energy, solar panels, and using smaller solutions to provide energy at a community level. Why? Because this is a lot more sustainable, because if you need to increase the capacity, all you have to do is add more panels or add more capacity. However, with a large grid, if you needed to increase Uganda’s electricity generation using a more centralized approach — one you need to build a lot of power lines to evacuate that power from the dams, and if you need to increase the capacity, you need to build much bigger dams which cost millions and billions of dollars and have very long payback periods. That is definitely an outdated way of doing things. I think if every house had a solar panel and an energy backup system, we’d not need to have huge infrastructure investments, we’d build the houses with simple panels. And as our consumption needs grow, they grow with you know, as adding more panels. 

GM (23:25): But then on the flip side, the people who have no access virtually no access are in very remote areas. Evacuating that power to them, it costs about $2,000 for every rural electrification connection. That fund actually keeps on running out and keeps on getting replenished, particularly in Uganda. There’s things like free connections, which are then subsidized by government and donors, which are not actually sustainable because they keep running out of money to fund these free connections. 

GM (23:54): So how do we have a more community driven decentralized energy system that is driven by the private sector because the private sector moves faster than government, and also comes down to understanding people’s needs and providing for them. Things like just adding a charging station for mobile phones, and maybe adding a community power grid in a community that basically utilizes people’s roofs to generate electricity is a more sustainable approach in terms of scaling? And in terms of cost? I think there needs to be a lot more sustainable approaches by the private sector, particularly but the private sector cannot act alone. The government needs to come in with the incentives that enable the private sector to do all this amazing stuff. 

BN (24:37): Yeah, I agree with you. We definitely need government support, especially when it comes to energy access, particularly since most of the energy related activities are most times monopolized by governments. 

GM (24:50): Not to generalize too much, but majority of the African governments are not really showing signs of moving very fast on new technologies or new ways of doing things. I will definitely think of not the government, okaying this, but the private sector, leapfrogging government’s terrible and slow decision making and going straight to the people and telling the people — hey, if you use electricity for this, you could double your household income. And then people get to see value in that.  Now, I’ll give you, for example, in East Africa there’s about 3 million boda-bodas. Factoring in that some of these boda-bodas are ridden in turns, you could say that about four to 5 million people directly employed by these boda-bodas indirectly employ probably three times that number. Now, if you just told boda-boda guys, that switch to electric boda-bodas and you can charge them at home, and we are giving an incentive for anyone who buys an electric boda-boda not to pay taxes, you’re not going to pay registration taxes. That alone will drive so many people to a more productive asset. They will want to get a power connection to their home if they are charging by themselves.

BN (26:04): We’ve been speaking to Geofrey Mutabazi, who is the founder of ChargeKo, an electronic charging systems company about the startup ecosystem in Uganda, clean mobility and energy access in Africa. I think it’s been quite illuminating and it’s been educational. Geofrey, thank you so much for making the time. I really appreciate you coming on. And also thank you for agreeing to participate in a recorded conversation. I really, really appreciate it.

GM (26:29): Thank you so much for the initiative. None of us would be here if not for your initiative to set up this discussion. I definitely had my mind teased. This was great. Thank you so much for this and I look forward to seeing you along this journey.

BN (26:43): Absolutely. And you know, best wishes with ChargeKo and with everything you’re doing. And all of us, I’m sure are going to be following your story and cheering you on. 

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