We need Ethiopia’s boldness or Congo’s desperation to innovate

Monday February 12 2024

East Africa should look at Somalia and DR Congo to boldly start application of new clean energy forms until Kenya steps in to make them commercially viable. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH NYAGAH | NMG


Almost three decades ago, when I was the Kampala bureau chief of The EastAfrican, I always had the luxury of working from home on Saturday up to midnight, while my boss in Nairobi had to remain in office as we communicated on phone. Reason? I had a mobile phone and he didn’t.

Kenya’s economy was far bigger and more advanced than Uganda’s, and that was the “problem”. Smaller, less advanced economies tend to take up new technologies faster than bigger ones, for they have nothing to lose by trying.

At the time mobile telephony was being developed, Kenya had one million landlines while Uganda had about 50,000. But, even then, Uganda wasn’t the worst off in the region, so it wasn’t the first to embrace mobile technology.

Read: BUWEMBO: Our fathers and mothers who art in Arusha, deliver us from evil

Zaire (later Democratic Republic of Congo) and Somalia (without a real government then) beat everyone in the region to wireless telephony. They had almost no telephone system to replace.

Given their crude transport infrastructure and poor banking systems, Zaire and Somalia were also the first to innovate mobile money. Yes, they would send airtime codes by SMS and the recipient would sell these in their locality for cash. Then, in its good time, Kenya developed modern, effective, efficient and profitable mobile money.


The world today has embarked on the crucial energy transition that is intended to save the planet from the effects of global warming.

East Africa should look at Somalia and DR Congo to boldly start application of new clean energy forms until Kenya steps in to make them commercially viable.

As at now, Kenya has far more cars on the road than any other country in the East African Community, and is making safe, solid profits from the vehicle and fuel trade. Not surprisingly, therefore, its steps towards clean, electric mobility are still lukewarm.

Even its wonderful “new” standard gauge railway service between Nairobi and Mombasa commissioned a mere six years ago is diesel-powered!

Read: BUWEMBO: Nsenene kept away, now we need to rear our own

You don’t overtly feel the government in e-mobility on the ground in Kenya, unlike Ethiopia, where the light electric railway carries a fifth of a million passengers a day around Addis Ababa.

There are even impressive baby steps to clean mobility in Kenya’s neighbourhood by governments like Tanzania, which is taking revolutionary steps to electrify its railway system, and in Uganda, where the government is the 100 percent investor in manufacturing electric vehicles.

In Rwanda, they have mouth-watering incentives which include free land for those wanting to invest in charging stations. (To its credit, Kenya Airways is already moving to bio - Sustainable Aviation Fuel SAF, which is clean and friendly to the environment.)

Well, for those who still think the move to e-mobility is just a fad, Ethiopia has taken the “mad” step and simply banned the importation of fuel vehicles. That is a first in the world, with European countries still talking of 2035 as the deadline to cease the making of internal combustion engine vehicles.

So, Ethiopia has slammed shut the door to those who intend to dump unserviceable Internal Combustion Engine cars in Africa a few years from today.

Fine, Ethiopia is not a desperate state that Somalia and Zaire were when they innovated mobile money. And it is not yet in the EAC. So we need the have-nothing-to-lose brothers in the community to take the lead and do something like Addis has done. If you have seen a viral video of passengers who spend weeks on a ship that has no toilets on River Congo, then you know this is not a disparaging description.

Read: BUWEMBO: We aren’t disciplined enough to take on anyone

We need Ethiopia’s boldness or Congo’s desperation to take the steps that in any case will have to be taken someday.

It will be clumsy at first, but Kenya’s capitalist nose will smell the coffee, mobilise the requisite finance and the entrepreneurial machinery to make clean energy mobility a profitable undertaking in East Africa.

Equity Bank, where are you?

Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]