Verdi automobilisti d'Africa

Alternative fuels for African motorists

by Nicholas Newman
6 min read
by Nicholas Newman
6 min read

Africa, with 16% of the world’s population and rapid economic development relies on cars, trucks, vans and buses to keep people and goods moving. Sales of new buses, trucks, and light vehicles in Africa reached nearly three-quarters of a million in 2014. The transport sector here, as elsewhere, predominantly relies on petroleum. Road transport accounts for 13 % of world CO2 emissions and it is this that is driving interest in developing cleaner alternative fuels. An alternative fuel vehicle has an engine powered by compressed natural gas (CNG), Autogas, Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG), biofuels or by hybrid power such as electricity and diesel rather than “traditional” petroleum (petrol or diesel). However, the market for such vehicles is still in its infancy with sales of alternative powered vehicles reaching just over 6.6million worldwide in 2014. In Africa, alternatively fuelled trucks and buses are being trialled by some fleet operators in the larger cities, in particular, Johannesburg and Edo City…

Africa, home to about 16 percent of the world’s population, remains largely rural, with only 36 percent of the population urbanized, yet is still heavily reliant on cars, buses, vans and trucks to keep people and goods moving across the vast continent.

Road transport accounts for 13 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions and the recent high cost of oil imports is driving the development of cleaner engines powered by alternative fuels, including batteries, compressed natural gas (CNG), Autogas (LPG), and a variety of biofuels or hybrids such as electricity-diesel. Currently, the market for such vehicles is very small, with sales of just over 6.6 million worldwide in 2014. By contrast, sales of new, conventional petroleum-fueled vehicles across Africa amounted to just three-quarters of a million. Nevertheless, alternatively fueled trucks and buses are currently being trialled by some fleet operators based in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

What is driving the interest in green fuels?

For motorists, there is the promise of potentially significant running-cost savings from greener engines. According to a 2015 study from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, running an all-electric Nissan LEAF for 30,000 km (18,641 mi) a year would cost R18,000 ($1,234) less than a petrol version of the Ford Focus. However, the purchase price of the Nissan LEAF at R499,800 ($34,206) is more than double that of the Ford Focus at R219,000 ($14,995). But there are other benefits "Natural Gas Vehicles have lower maintenance costs", states Lovell Emslie, a technical expert at the Vaal University of Technology. “Because natural gas burns so cleanly, it results in less wear and tear on the engine and extends the time between tune-ups and oil changes.”

South Africa is the 12th largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world and is responsible for nearly half of CO2 emissions on the African continent, attributable in the main to coal-fired power generation, mining and transport. Johannesburg, the biggest city in sub-Saharan Africa, is the seventh most polluted city in the world. But changes are on the horizon. The country has taken a lead in adopting a climate plan, pledging to peak national emissions by 2025, and the transport sector will make a major contribution to improving the environment. Lisa Seftel, executive director of transport for Johannesburg, states that by mid-2016, the city will have had delivered 190 “new fuel” buses. The conversion of the existing bus fleet is also ongoing.

The adoption of alternative fueled buses and trucks would significantly reduce CO2 emissions alongside particulate matter (PM2.5) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx), bringing significant health benefits to the 7.8 million people living in and around the city, according to the World Health Organization. To support this objective, the African Development Bank has pledged $175 billion in support of sustainable transport projects in Africa over the next ten years.

There are two factors driving the development of a greener transport sector: first is the need to boost energy security and the second is to save on imports of oil. Like many African countries, fossil fuel imports priced in dollars, already place a significant burden on the country’s foreign exchange reserves and balance of payments — this is likely to increase with rising populations and consumer demand.

Obstacles to widespread adoption of alternative fuels

As in Europe, the adoption of new alternative-fueled vehicles has been slow, for without the benefits of economies of scale, prices will remain high and beyond the reach of the mass market. While South Africa is the current market leader in running alternative fueled buses and trucks, there is growing interest from Nigeria, Kenya and Equatorial Guinea. To advance from trials based largely on converting existing vehicle engines, progress will require significant investment in infrastructure, ranging from a reliable network of electricity charging stations for dual-fuel engines and a ready supply of gas, alongside investment in a network of gas filling stations. South Africa is currently investing in a nationwide grid of charging stations in anticipation of the widespread operation of clean buses and trucks by fleet owners.

As for the future, Scott Shepard, research analyst with Navigant Research, predicts that “although gasoline and diesel will still account for the majority of vehicle purchases in 2022, EVs, fuel cell vehicles, and natural gas vehicles will present a growing number of buyers with appealing choices.”


The author: Nicholas Newman

Journalist who regularly writes about agriculture, aerospace, business, energy, engineering, rail, shipping, technology, transport for clients worldwide.