Beyond Bicycles: Will E-Bikes Revolutionize Transport In Africa?

Written by Dana Sanchez

Henry Gold has cycled across six continents and 60 countries on a regular bicycle. He’s spent exactly five minutes on an electric bicycle.

Long before Gold was running transcontinental bike tours, the entrepreneurial Czechoslovakian-Canadian engineer-turned-activist-turned-documentary-film maker was working on ideas for getting cheap bikes into Africa. In 1991 or 1992 Gold attended a show in Taiwan to look for bicycle manufacturers, and that’s the first and last time he tried an e-bike.

“I got on it, got off it and said, ‘This is the future,'” Gold told AFKInsider. “I was on it five minutes. Lots of years have passed but I still think this is the future.”

Do a Google search of “e-bikes Africa,” and not much comes up. They’re big in Europe, huge in China and growing in the U.S.

An electric bicycle or e-bike has an electric motor that uses a rechargeable lithium battery. Some e-bikes can travel more than 28 miles an hour. They are the electric motor-powered versions of motorized bicycles, which have been around since the late 1800s.

Gold abandoned the idea of getting low-cost bikes to Africa and instead created Tour d’Afrique. He has been operating an annual Cairo-to-Cape Town bicycle expedition for 14 years. A few years after the first Tour d’Afrique, he started the Silk Route bike trip across China, then added more expeditions. You can check them out at TDAGlobalCycling.com.

Cycling has changed significantly in Africa since Gold started the tour. Cities have changed and there are many more bikes in Africa.

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Henry Gold, right, in Tanzania on Tour d’Afrique. Photo provided

At around $1,500, e-bikes enable people to move at a fraction of the cost of cars. The technology improves from week to week. It’s a natural progression from bicycles to e-bikes, and Gold said he’s already seeing perceptions changing in Africa.

On average, an e-bike gives you more than 60 kilometers of travelling distance, IndependentOnline reported:

The battery can be recharged overnight. The bike comes with a charger pack, which looks like a laptop charger, and you need to charge it for between three and six hours, depending on the type of bike.

E-bikes are quiet and emit zero emissions. They cost less than 50 cents in electricity for every 100 kilometers traveled. Compare this to the fuel consumption and pollution caused by vehicles, and you can see the advantage in terms of savings, carbon footprint, and health benefits.

Your first instinct is to pedal, but you soon get used to twisting the throttle, which can make the bike go as fast as 32 km/h. You should pedal on the upslopes, because it takes the strain off the battery and you get in some exercise, but you don’t have to.

Transport is getting smaller

Transport is getting smaller, pollution from emissions is out of control in Africa and climate change is creating incentives for clean, human-powered assisted transport like e-bikes.

In Africa, e-bikes will enable farmers to transport produce without having to depend on cars, Gold said. The batteries are getting smaller, e-bike tires are getting better and that’s important in a typical African setting, where roads can be bad.

In Holland, retailers are selling more e-bikes than regular bikes, Gold said. In China e-bikes have completely taken over. Jerusalem is now an e-bike city. In Switzerland if you want to cycle in the mountains there are battery stations where you can exchange batteries.

Projected data for 2016 shows U.S. e-bike sales will be around 152,000, according to Electric Bike Report. That’s small compared to the 1.6 million projected sales this year for Western Europe. AAA auto association of Northern California has launched a pilot program in San Francisco offering e-bike-delivered repairs for problems such as flat tires, jump starts and car lockouts, rather than having to send a tow truck that would likely get stuck in traffic.

When Gold set out on his inaugural bike ride from Cairo to Cape Town in 2003.
he wanted to bring cycling tourists to Africa, change the perception of the continent in the developed world and improve its economic potential. He also wanted to know if he could make a living operating transcontinental bicycle tours.

The 15th edition of the Tour d’Afrique begins Jan. 13 through May 13, 2017. Gold now runs bike expeditions in five other continents.

Now his dream is to find investors for new or better human powered vehicles, he told AFKInsider.

The Cairo-to-Cape Town route has become an iconic goal for global adventurers, Gold said on his website. People have tried to complete the route on every kind of transport imaginable. The 2003 inaugural Tour d’Afrique cycled the entire 11,500 kilometer (7,145-mile) journey and established a Guinness World Record for the fastest human-powered crossing of Africa.

The Tour d’Afrique takes four months and includes 90 riding days, 29 rest days, and 10 countries — Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa.

Cairo to Cape Town on an e-bike anyone?

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Group photo at the start of the 7,145-mile Tour d’Afrique, Sphinx, Giza, Cairo. Photo provided

 

Gold said he’s looking at integrating e-bikes into his transcontinental tours as a business option. Technology and logistics have presented challenges.

“The technology hasn’t been there for rough terrain and long days on bikes,” Gold said, “but I have been talking to potential suppliers. The problem is you can’t take the batteries on passenger planes. There are some issues with flammable material.”

On rare occasions, an electrical short circuit develops inside the cell of lithium batteries, according to Battery University. This has led to recalls. Occasionally, random events occur that do not point to a design flaw. This may be a stress event like charging at sub-freezing temperature, vibration, or a fluke event.

“The batteries are getting better,” Gold said. “It’s just a matter of some entrepreneur showing the way. Elon Musk is going to have an impact all down the chain. It may not happen in a year or two but it is happening. Addis has a significant middle class. Nigeria  — once they see the opportunity they’re going to invest in (e-bikes).”

Overcoming the logistical challenges of e-bikes could involve “working with a manufacturer to bring the batteries wherever we are,” Gold said.

And where Gold’s cyclists are is just about everywhere in the world. In addition to Africa’s Tour d’Afrique, TDA Global Cycling operates the following expeditions:

Bike Tours and long distance cycle expeditions TDA Global Cycling
Bike Tours and long distance cycle expeditions TDA Global Cycling

 

E-bikes and boomers

Gold predicts e-bikes will be particularly attractive to an important segment of his market — baby boomers. “With the boomers who are getting older, they still want to do things but it’s no fun climbing 2000 meters a day,” he said. “They need some help.”

Baby boomers — those born in the post-World War II baby boom between 1946 and 1964 — are now 52 to 72 years old. They’re the ones with the most financial resources, Gold said. TDA customers from the Americas and Europe are often boomers, and they’re good prospects for e-bikes.

“The younger ones are more interested in much tougher adventure,” Gold said. “In Africa we camp most of the time. If you’re 65 you may not necessarily be keen to do that day in day out.”

A four-month biking expedition across Africa isn’t cheap. Cyclists, especially the younger ones, save up for years, Gold said. It costs about $16,000 for a four-month Africa tour (about $150 a day) including food and accommodation (mostly camping). Airplane tickets are extra.

When Gold first started talking to his clients about e-bikes four to five years ago, “they were very reluctant,” he said. “It takes a while to introduce a new concept. Nobody’s doubting it anymore.”

There’s a whole range of electrically assisted, pedal assisted e-bikes and a spectrum of products continuously being developed for e-bikes, Everyone is trying to find out what’s cheaper. “But if nobody buys it, it’s just a beautiful machine,” Gold said.

TDA is planning to experiment with e-bikes and how much appeal they will have with the general public. People have asked if they can bring one along on his TDA expeditions. But first he must figure out how to deal with the logistics.

“I think e-bikes will be just like the cell phone revolution,” Gold said. “The cell phone came and bypassed the challenges of putting land lines (in Africa). I see e-bikes the same way. Solar is getting cheaper — being able to go home and charge your e-bike. I think the combination of solar and e-bike is really going to make an impact, particularly in Africa. The combination of transport and sun — nobody talks about it. I’m going to talk about it.”

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Henry Gold, founder of Tour d’Afrique. Photo provided

 

Africa is urbanizing and motorizing faster than any other region in the world, says Rob de Jong, head of transport for the U.N. Environment Program, in a report in The Guardian.

De Jong advocates the widespread introduction of e-bikes in Africa: “In China there will be 300 million of them by 2020,” he said. “There is a massive opportunity for Africa to go down another road.”

Half the world’s population growth over the next 30 years is predicted to occur in Africa. The number of cars in Nairobi alone is expected to double in the next seven years.

“The number of cars in Africa is still relatively small, but the emissions per vehicle are much higher (than the rest of the world),” he said. “Its pollution is not yet level with New Delhi or Beijing, but it is getting there quickly. Respiratory diseases are now the No. 1 disease in Kenya — and that is directly linked to air pollution.”

TDA Global Cycling has two new projects planned in Africa — a cycle tour in Madagascar in 2017 and a new West Africa tour, Dakar to Cape Town in 2018. The Tour d’Afrique is mainly a North-South trip that doesn’t include West Africa. The West Africa trip is “a very different route and different cultures,” Gold said.

Read more about Henry Gold and what it’s like to cycle from Cairo to Cape Town in this AFKInsider report.

 

Group photo with table mountain in the background
Group photo at the end of the 7,145-mile Tour d’Afrique with Table Mountain in the background, Kreeft Bay, Cape Town. Photo provided

 

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