How a localised motor industry could transform Africa

The Pan-African economy is booming. Yet for millions of Africans, poor roads, disparate communities, low incomes and inadequate vehicles make even the simplest journeys arduous. Now one entrepreneur is starting to reimagine the continent’s transportation system.

Africa’s transport challenge

Joel Jackson founded Mobius in 2011 to build a vehicle for Africa, in Africa. He was motivated by a need to overcome the transportation challenges that Africans face. Jackson explains: “For every 100 adults in Africa, less than five people actually own a vehicle. Public transport is available, and in countries like Kenya, it’s often run by local entrepreneurs. But in most rural areas, it’s fragmented and unreliable. In more remote areas without transport, people have to walk, typically tens of kilometres, to get to school or collect clean drinking water.”

But what about the people who do own a vehicle? Over 90 per cent of Africa’s passenger cars are imported. They are often used cars, and not designed for Africa. Add high import duties to the mix and for most people vehicles are either too expensive, unreliable, or both.

Not a helpless continent

What Jackson also identified was a massive disconnect between these transport challenges and the booming Pan-African economy, with a combined GDP of over two trillion dollars.

Delving deeper, he discovered that manufacturing was being overlooked. Car makers are focused on international exports, instead of fuelling the growth of local industry.

Reimagining the car around the customer

Mobius was Jackson’s solution. The idea is simple. To build a car around the customers’ needs that would be durable and affordable, putting it within reach of those who need it most.

Their first generation model, Mobius II launched in 2015.

“It was designed as a really rugged, low-cost SUV, able to handle heavy loads and rough terrain reliably,” says Jackson.

The company focused on essential things – like a rugged suspension and sturdy steel frame – and removed any nonessential features. As Jackson explains: “We simplified or eliminated components like parking sensors and automatic windows wherever we could, to keep costs low and sell this at half the price of a five-year-old SUV in Kenya today.”

A more connected and prosperous Africa

Although Jackson believes that vehicles like Mobius II are vital in transforming the future of Africa’s transportation, the company is also exploring a broader solution to the continent’s immobility.

Jackson argues that Africa’s shared economy – the minivans, auto rickshaws and sedans – aren’t effectively or efficiently connecting people across Africa. Through Mobius, he wants to strengthen the public transit network and empower local entrepreneurs to operate these services more profitably and more widely.

“We're taking human-centred design a step further and developing a transport platform model, which enables owners to plug in different modules, like a goods cage or ambulance unit, and run other services like goods delivery or medical transport, as well as public transport,” says Jackson.

Growing a localised motor industry

But the path hasn’t been easy. They have faced a shortage of skills and suppliers. In both these areas, Jackson saw an opportunity to offer employment and personal growth to Africa’s ambitious and hardworking people.

Indeed, their first employee in Nairobi was Kazungu, an odd-job mechanic. He had a thirst for learning and the work ethic needed to step up to the challenge, and he now leads a group of mechanics.

“In our experience, it is possible to build a skilled workforce, and we plan to hire hundreds more people using this approach,” Jackson explains.

Similarly, with limited industry demand, the small number of suppliers with little impetus to grow, was an issue. Mobius are working hard with these suppliers to develop the components they need, which not only helps keep costs down, but in turn helps grow the suppliers’ business.

The creation of just one vehicle is starting to weave a localised motor industry into the fabric of the growing African economy. This has huge potential for trade, social services, education, healthcare and employment.

And Mobius is only just getting started.

As Jackson says, “We’re not just reimagining the car, we’re reimagining our entire value chain. Frugal innovation offers a path to economic acceleration across many industries, and the future of this continent depends on it.”

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