The year 2018 was meant to be a turning point for Uganda. The country was supposed to release the Kiira EVS, becoming the first in East and Central Africa to manufacture an electric vehicle for the mass market.
Thus, there was excitement in Kampala and Mbarara last week when on Tuesday, the car was test-driven to Kisoro in the west, and back, covering nearly 1,000km in total.
Wherever it went, curious members of the public milled around it. Similar scenes were witnessed in Kampala in January when the car was driven around town.
But the project that could put Uganda on the global map of car manufacturers has fallen behind schedule due to challenges linked to funding and technology. Now the government says the timelines have been reviewed, with production set for later this year.
The lack of skills and an elusive search for a reputable vehicle manufacturing partner have compounded problems of the project, with three prototypes so far being showcased: The green hatchback mini, a bus and the latest black coupe, which was test-driven this week.
Kiira Motors Corporation, the company incorporated to lead Uganda’s leap into vehicle manufacturing, has the Kayoola solar-powered bus, the Kiira EV Smack, a hybrid electric vehicle and the fully electric Kiira EV POC as concept vehicles.
Now, KMC says it plans on “going to the market as a bus builder and progressively expand the product portfolio to include pick-ups, light and medium duty trucks and passenger vehicles.
A series of meetings with different international car manufacturing companies have been convened to seek partners for the project.
The Minister for Science, Innovation and Technology, Elioda Tumwesigye, confirmed that the government is looking for a partner, but declined to give details.
“It is confidential, but we are holding discussions. The issue is that we want vehicles produced from here and we will do this in collaboration with an international manufacturer,” said Mr Tumwesigye.
The EastAfrican could not independently identify the companies government is talking to, but in May 2016, when former South Korean president Park Geun-hye visited Uganda, a team from car maker Hyundai held talks with local technocrats on a possible partnership.
KMC’s business development manager Allan Muhumuza, confirmed that talks were ongoing, with the aim of identifying a manufacturer whose supply chain Uganda could harness while developing local capacity.
“We are talking to several players. Not just Hyundai, but we are bound by an oath of secrecy so we cannot talk about it,” he said.
The supply chain will include car parts that the country will not be producing.
Meanwhile, construction works on a vehicle assembly plant has begun in Jinja, with only earthworks ongoing. The works are expected to take four years.
The Parliamentary Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation, which visited the site on January 29, described it as, “a bushy place that should at least have a foundation.”
The Cabinet, in April last year approved Ush149 billion ($40 million) for the plant.
“In that period, we expect to have a fully-fledged vehicle manufacturing plant and suppliers for vehicle parts that cannot be produced locally,” said Mr Tumwesigye.
The facility will have an estimated annual production capacity of 5,000 units, and is expected to employ about 14,000 people when full production starts.
“We have estimates of units that will be produced which make business sense, and we believe we can achieve those levels by just targeting the Ugandan market,” the minister added.
But Mr Muhuuza said that a delay in releasing funds by the Finance Ministry and approval of site designs by the Jinja Municipal Council are a setback.
The site was handed over to the contractor on January 9 and, according to KMC, only utilities like water and electricity have been made available.
With no plant in place, KMC hopes to work on specific orders in “convenient places” — like their offices in Ntinda in the capital Kampala.
When The EastAfrican visited the offices, a group of engineers were working on the new Kiira EVS vehicle that went on the road test drive in January. The Kayoola solar-powered bus was parked under a shed in the compound.
The company plans to start producing buses first, which are expected on the roads this year.
Mr Muhumuza said that the buses are easier to make since their bodies and other parts can be sourced locally, unlike saloon cars that need more sophisticated machinery.
“We shall not stop doing the business development because there is no plant, “ Mr Muhumuza said. “If, say, a school makes an order for a bus, we shall make it here on these premises.”
A pilot of the Kayoola buses will offer transport in Kampala and Entebbe.