54 percent of Bajaj passengers find Bajaj drivers not only dislikeable and rude but also unfair and driving dangerously. Men and women passengers who frequent this mode of transportation are concerned about the risks associated with bajajes, including the small wheel base, the relatively tall design, and the weak engine, which make for an unstable vehicle, especially on steep, bumpy, rural roads.
At the same time, most Ethiopians consider three-wheeled transport an indispensable component of rural transportation, much better than donkeys. Inhabitants use bajajes for everyday tasks. As one passenger noted, “If the bajaj is lost, then everything is lost. Without the bajaj, we cannot move.” In other words, a city without bajaj transportation makes it that much harder for people to move freely, socialize, and engage in commerce, curtailing the sprouting of cities.
Many government officials and government programs consider ugly, chaotic, and unsafe three-wheelers a public hazard rather than a public good. Still, bajajes are ubiquitous and extremely popular.
A recent random sampling of AATA in five sub-cities in Addis Ababa in 2017 showed that over 5,500 Bajaj are working in the city and carry approximately 635,000 people daily. Data from the Ministry of Transportation indicates that as of the last fiscal year, 14,793 Bajaj were legally working in Amhara, Afar, Harar, SNNP, and Oromia. Of the legally registered vehicles, 2,132 are working in Amhara, 2,302 in Afar, 536 in Harar, 4,671 in SNNP, and 5,152 in Oromia. If all the unlicensed bajaj are included, the number could be as high as 200,000.
Several experts estimate the total number of bajajes in Ethiopia in 2022 to be around one million. It would be safe to assume that each bajaj serves at least five people (the average family), and therefore we can say that the “bajaj industry” directly supports five million Ethiopians while servicing almost 120 million people as a universal, indispensable, and most affordable mode of public transportation. The only smart approach is to make it clean, safe, sustainable, and dignified, and this can be achieved with fully electric vehicles.
Bajajes are born to be fully electrified; they travel short distances, carry a relatively small load, and mostly operate in densely populated areas. The use scenario for urban three-wheelers is “hub-and-spoke”: drivers are waiting for passengers at the market square, then driving them to various residential destinations and returning to the market square. Such a configuration calls for electric transport with small swappable batteries: the duration of a trip is less than two hours, and vehicles return to the same location after each trip. This “fueling” process (replacing batteries) will take no longer than five minutes; compare this with the long hours that bajaj drivers spend waiting for their turn to get petrol, wasting precious work hours.
Electric vehicles are generally more reliable because they have fewer moving parts, a simpler mechanical composition, and simpler controls. Reliability is a big issue for rural transportation, as well-equipped service stations and necessary spare parts are not present in rural cities. The drivers will also enjoy substantially longer service intervals. There is no doubt that existing facilities that assemble foreign three-wheelers in Ethiopia can handle the assembly of electric vehicles in the same category, as well as their engineering, so that we can see locally made and maintained vehicles in this category.
Needless to say, electric transport has tremendous advantages over traditional, combustion-engine transport when it comes to environmental impact. Electric bajajes would not emit exhaust gases, lead, or CO2. This public transport will be quiet and odorless, improving the ecological situation. The charging of electric vehicles should be supported by solar energy. This way, we would be able to build charging stations anywhere in Ethiopia, including places where there is no regular supply of gasoline.
The most important question is money. Can we say that electric Bajaj will be cheaper than present-day petrol models? Certainly. First of all, the operation costs of electric transport can be 50–100 times less than those of traditional transport. Second, customs duties and the L/C regime will make electric bajajes cheaper at the moment of purchase. Third, banks and leasing companies are likely to finance buyers of electric three-wheelers equipped with GPS trackers and remote-controlled switches.
Ethiopia imports about USD 3.5 billion worth of oil products every year, and 70 percent of this amount goes to transportation. Oil logistics are troublesome, with many rural Ethiopian cities and towns getting a very limited supply of petrol that results in long lines and fuel surcharges. When the Bajaj fleet becomes electric, the country will be able to import less gasoline and oil, which will no longer limit the expansion of public transportation.
When Ethiopia replaces one million petrol three-wheelers with one million electric three-wheelers, it will achieve five important objectives: Ethiopian cities will be cleaner and greener, improving the health of inhabitants and protecting beautiful Ethiopian nature; the country will save at least half a billion dollars every year on fuel imports, moving towards energy independence in the transportation sector; and Ethiopia will develop its own vehicle industry, potentially exporting electric three-wheelers to other African countries.
Also, working conditions for one million Ethiopians will get a lot better, tens of millions of people will enjoy a smooth and quiet ride, and public transportation will be expanded to remote areas where gasoline is hard to come by. This will make it easier for rural Ethiopians to get to health care and other services.
(Mikael Alemu is the general manager and co-founder of “10 Green Gigawatt for Ethiopia,” an Ethiopian solar energy development company that builds solar energy installations from 50 kW to 50 MW. He can be reached at [email protected])
Contributed by Mikael Alemu