Solar-Powered Tricycles: Zero emissions while transporting thousands of people

In Nigeria, mass transit systems are chaotic and in many places non-existent; no Nigerian city has an intra-city rail system and only Lagos has a bus rapid transport scheme. Commuters have to rely on small buses (most of which are old and creaking), taxis and auto-rickshaws or tricycles (popularly called keke).

These tricycles which are capable of carrying up to 4 passengers ferry hundreds of thousands of passengers in towns and cities across the country, mostly across short distances. They have provided jobs for thousands of tricycle drivers. However, they are heavy air polluters and have been banned in countries such as India and Sri Lanka. Whilst India and Sri Lanka are using the force of law to outlaw smoking rickshaws, many other countries are voluntarily replacing them with cleaner versions running on compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LPG).

Despite the fact that there are no attempts in Nigeria to either phase them out or enforce higher standards on them, one entrepreneur is planning to change all of that.

Arthur Okeyika through his Arthur Energy Company has developed a tricycle that runs entirely on solar energy. The benefits are obvious: it is clean and non-polluting with zero emissions, and also doesn’t need fuel, the cost of which has been rising in Nigeria.

The solar-powered tricycle does not just hold an advantage over its conventional counterpart in how clean it is – it also trumps it in terms of performance. Possessing a 100 amps battery with a lifetime of 3-5 years, the solar-powered tricycle can travel distances of up to 170 kilometres on a single charge.

All of this translates into enormous cost savings for the tricycle operators: although a solar-powered tricycle costs N950,000 compared to the conventional tricycle which costs about N550,000, the absence of fuelling costs and the lower maintenance costs far outweigh the cost difference between the two models. 

”A conventional tricycle operator makes about N7000 daily and spends about N1500 daily on fuel. He also spends about N40,000 annually on the maintenance of his tricycle. When you take away the cost of fuelling and steep maintenance costs with the solar-powered tricycle, it gives him the power to earn up to N400,000 more yearly. This is almost the cost of a new conventional tricycle,” said Mr. Okeyika.

Mr. Okeyika who has set up an assembly plant in the town of Onitsha in Anambra State envisions that the solar-powered tricycle will create a value chain from the sourcing of components for its assembly, which is currently at 80% locally sourced, to solar charging and service stations for the tricycles – all of which will create lots of jobs.

Mr. Okeyika, who said he was inspired by his experience in electrical engineering and training in solar power, dreams of eventually making solar cars.

However, his current challenge is raising the financing for the assembly plant in order to meet his current target of assembly of 240 tricycles a month.

He has been knocking on the doors of commercial banks, the Anambra State Government, the Bank of Industry and the National Automotive Design and Development Council in order to access the needed financing via loans and grants.

 Nigeria has identified transportation as one of the priority sectors for emissions reduction in its low carbon growth strategy called the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which are part of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Although estimates for the number of tricycles in Nigeria are hard to come by, it is undeniable that large-scale adoption of solar kekes or even complete replacement of conventional ones can go a long way in achieving these NDC targets.

Conventional auto rickshaws (also known as keke) run on dirty fuel which results in emissions that can lead to major health risks. The pollution from these tricycles can cause serious health problems like lung cancer and asthma, which could be a major public health issue for densely populated cities across Nigeria. India discovered this on time, therefore, in 1998, the country passed a law that allowed only auto rickshaws running on compressed natural gas (CNG) to operate. Studies have shown that this transition from petrol to CNG has led to a significant reduction of air pollutants in the cities.  Nigeria could emulate this example and yet take it a step further with the introduction of solar-powered keke in order to cut emissions and improve air quality, which would indirectly reduce health costs significantly.

It is also encouraging that there are currently no regulations that will hamper the adoption of solar-powered tricycles. But governments can also encourage adoption through the use of deliberate policies:

For example, the use of conventional tricycles has grown in many states as a result of the banning of motorcycles for transport. In some of the states, the tricycles were subsidized by the government. Similar subsidies can be given for the purchase of the solar-powered tricycle.

Also, the National Automotive Design and Development Council which is responsible for the development of a domestic car manufacturing industry and funded by a 2% auto duty collected on each imported car could give grants to cleaner modes of transport.

Nigeria will not be the first place where a solar-powered tricycle has debuted – a similar one was developed by a Spanish startup early this year, while a hybrid tricycle that runs on a combination of electric, solar and pedal power was developed as far back as 2014 in the United States.

However, neither of these solar-powered tricycle models has gotten widespread adoption, especially in regions and cities that use it most for mass transportation. Thus, it potentially puts Nigeria in the position of being the first country to use such an innovation on a wide scale and being a leader in adopting renewable energy technology for keke transportation.