Kiira and Mobius: A long way to go

Saturday March 5 2016

The Kenyan-made Mobius II. PHOTO | FILE

The Kenyan-made Mobius II. PHOTO | FILE 

By JM Baraza

Patriotism is a good thing, but sometimes we may take it too far. Thus, jingoism — whose intentions may be good — is almost always counterproductive.

A war of words broke out recently on one of my social media accounts over two vehicles; but it had nothing to do with the brand loyalty that typifies such digital skirmishes. It had everything to do with nationalist pride.

This was taken to absurd levels whereby the horse that was being derided mere hours earlier now suddenly had the force of an entire republic behind it. The source of this altercation? Two different approaches by two different countries to the same problem: how to develop a homegrown automotive industry. In other words, how to build a car from the ground up.

Protagonists (the cars, that is)

The Mobius II is Kenya’s only functional claim to motor vehicle manufacture following the stillborn Nyayo Pioneer project of the 1980s. Mobius Motors has been operating in the country for just over a decade; just a little under the radar and has only recently put on sale a very rudimentary vehicle that is part Jeep and part Jeepney.

The vehicle has been billed as the transport solution for the penny-pinching rural dweller who still has a flair for the finer things in life and would opt for a brand new vehicle over a used imported one.


Mobius, Kenya's first low cost car. Regional
Mobius, Kenya's first low cost car. Regional auto assembly plants can now fully enter the Tanzanian market. PHOTO | COURTESY

It is a heavy little car, powered by a tiny engine borrowed from the Nissan NP200 pick-up truck. From a social perspective, it is a crowning moment in the country’s history — that a local entrepreneur could not only conceive an entire vehicle but actually put it into production and sell, is no mean feat. However, if you look closely there is plenty in it that goes against the automobile manufacturer’s guidebook and needs rectifying. This is not a car review, though, so we will revisit that aspect at a later date.

The Kiira EV Smak is Uganda’s foray into the world of concept cars; a world festooned with wild designs, impossible technology and subtle one-upmanship between car makers. However, the Kiira is not the result of a company flexing its innovative muscle; its history reads more like a passion project by highly motivated and inspired Makerere University students under the tutelage of the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Kiira EV Smack built by students of
The Kiira EV Smack built by students of Makerere University’s Department of Engineering on display at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre in Nairobi Kenya. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU

It is as contemporary a concept as one can possibly imagine: shying away from the soon-to-be-obsolete standalone internal combustion engine and instead opting for a plug-in electric powertrain. The Kiira EV Smak embodies the future of all motor cars.

The Kayoola Solar Bus project is the latest output from the same Makerere University project. Like the Kiira, it is a great leap forward in multidimensional thinking: a solar-powered bus (aided by a massive battery pack) solves many of the world’s current and most pressing environmental issues: Renewable energy, pollution and urban transport.

Kiira Motors' first solar-powered bus. The firm
Kiira Motors' first solar-powered bus. The firm now hopes to attract partners to help mass produce the bus by 2039. PHOTO | RACHEL MABALA 

Early images show it to be exactly what it is: A work in progress. Not much is known about how far along the powertrain in the 35-seater is (the target is a heady 240hp) but with an operating range of 80km with latent range extension possibilities created by real-time charging via the roof-mounted solar panels, there is still some way to go before it is ready for the showroom.

The current situation

Without passing judgment, let me lay out a kind of a score card. According to points raised in that online tiff mentioned earlier, Kenya and its Mobius car are one up on Uganda’s Kiira EV: At least the Mobius is a functioning vehicle that can actually be bought and driven. Uganda’s solar-electric vehicles are still in the prototype stage.

Second, the Mobius was developed cheaply (and it shows), which allows it to be priced relatively cheaper; even if sales figures are low.

Electric vehicles are by nature expensive to develop — apparently the university students applied for a grant to the tune of $150 million from their government and, given that they have results, they must have received it — and by extension these costs trickle down to the end user.

Given that sales of electric vehicles are still far below those of internal combustion engines, it means that the vehicle has to be priced even higher just for the manufacturer to break even. If and when the Kiira and Kayoola ever hit the dealers’ yards, their pricing will be a handicap in the market.

However, we live in uneasy times, and the longevity of oil supplies is always in question. That is exactly why electric/hybrid cars are slowly gaining traction in the industry, and it is in light of this that the Mobius is roundly outclassed by Uganda’s alternative energy concepts.

The Mobius is running on technology that was fashionable during the Second World War. “Barely there” does not even begin to describe the level of technological innovation that went into it. A small, simple engine borrowed from a pickup propelling a heavy vehicle with poor aerodynamics does not a paragon of fuel efficiency make.

Plus, should the world be plunged into an oil crisis like it was back in the 1970s, then makers of cars running on internal combustion will be left holding the baby long after the party is over and everybody has moved on to the house down the street. The Kiira EV and Kayoola bus are the results of inspired foresight on the Ugandans’ part since the thinking is in keeping with current affairs.

The implications

So, what now? The Mobius reception is evenly divided: Patriots extol the ingenuity and fortitude of Joel Jackson in actually developing and bringing to market a car that can rightly be called of Kenya, by Kenya and for Kenya. However, the vehicle is so outdated that developing it to 21st century standards is going to take forever and a whole load of cash.

The Mobius could be better and should be better, and this is the argument raised by those on the other side of the divide. The car is substandard and no discernible future is immediately clear when you think about it. How does one develop an automobile around an internal combustion powertrain when in future there may be no fuel to run it?

Second, Mobius Motors is a private enterprise. I have not interviewed the proprietor yet, but I have two surmises as to why he created Mobius: It was either to generate profit by selling cheaply built cars cheaply in large numbers or it was actualisation — the realisation of a dream that can probably be traced back to his childhood that one day he would own and run his own car company, or both.

Having said that, the funding for development will have had to be his own, and research and development costs for motor vehicles are horrendous. Back in 2014 there was talk of American billionaire Ronald Lauder giving the company fresh impetus through a much-needed cash infusion but it is unknown how that panned out.

This means, as realists, we shouldn’t really expect a ground-shaking revelation from Mobius Motors. More likely than not, the Mobius III will essentially be a II with more features and an “updated” shape. It also means that the whole thing could quite easily be summarily shut down with no qualms should the owner get tired or frustrated with it, and he will not be accountable to anyone but himself.

The launch of the Kiira EV in Uganda was so loud it was heard all the way across the border in Kenya. If you want to see a shameless sense of national pride, just take a look at the Ugandans and what they think and say about their concept cars. It seems like the whole country is behind it, right down to the government under the Ministry Of Trade, Industry & Co-operatives.

The Kiira Project was even allocated land to the tune of 100 acres at the Jinja Industrial & Business Park. The premise behind the Kiira and Kayoola, as stated earlier, is the outcome of forward thinking: The world is headed in the electric-hybrid direction, so that would be a good place to start. That puts Uganda squarely and relevantly in the automotive game.

As for Mobius, their relatively secretive style of operating makes it hard to say in what direction exactly they are headed (as of today they still have not offered a motor vehicle for a test drive or review).

Real world outlook

As things stand, it seems unlikely that either country will see the kind of sales volumes that global giants like Volkswagen, General Motors and Toyota generate. Kiira Motors COO Albert Akovuku’s plan is ambitious, but a realist would quietly point out to him that annual sales of 10,000 units may be leaning just a touch towards castles in the sky.

The $30,000 price-tag on the EV is very attractive for what it is — electric/hybrid vehicles are quite expensive — as is the five-year financing plan, but this is a market heavily saturated by unregulated secondhand imports from Asia and Europe. Uganda has no cap on the age limit of vehicles that can be imported. For the same outlay, one could get a lightly used high-end German car or even a hybrid.

The matter is not any easier for the Mobius, and its biggest problem is the self-same gray import market. For the rough equivalent of $10,000, the variety of ex-Japanese and or ex-European small commercial vehicles and pseudo-jeeps may not be that wide, but what is available is miles ahead of the Mobius II.

(JM Baraza is a motoring columnist with the Daily Nation. Next week: The recommendations and what countries in other regions have done.)