Entrepreneur Christopher Maara poised to ride on the e-mobility wave by designing electric motorcycles
By Joseph Macharia
With a sharp business eye, he spotted electrical mobility as an industry that was emerging and decided to venture into it. Eloquent and articulate, Christopher Maara, founder and chief executive officer of Kiri EV has been working towards ensuring Kenya transitions to clean energy, while also building a strong enterprise. His company, Kiri EV is an electrical mobility startup based in Nairobi. The firm is dedicated to making e-mobility a reality to Kenyan riders. It is among the first startups in the e-mobility space in the country pioneering a new way of mobility. Kiri EV designs two and three wheelers as well as the battery charging infrastructure.
How did it all begin? You might expect that his academic background was anchored in STEM (science, engineering, technology and mathematics) but no! Maara is a self-taught electrical engineer. After completing his high school studies at St. Andrew’s School Turi in Molo, he joined Loughborough University in Britain for undergraduate studies in economics and finance. He later enrolled for a masters degree in finance and development from the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Maara returned to the country and started working in the renewable solar industry in 2014. He mainly dealt with small hydro systems, back up solar and solar heating.
The birth of Kiri EV
While still in the solar industry, competition became cut throat as bigger players joined the fray. It is this competition that prompted Maara to start looking around for a new market niche. “At that time, there was a lot of competition and we therefore ended up moving into e-mobility, we were looking for a new space and e-mobility was coming up. It was similar to solar since it’s still renewable energy,” remarks the Kiri EV founder. He further adds that no one was actually making electric bikes in the country. Being an entrepreneur, Maara spotted an opportunity in that field and immediately hit the ground running.
The journey began in 2019 after he met some exhibitors at Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) at an auto expo. He quickly got into a deal with them which saw him import nine electric bikes to use as prototypes for testing and building his own version of electric bikes. Afterwards, he bought more bikes, then went to India and China to visit the manufacturers and formed a partnership with them. The partnership was majorly about securing components which are not locally manufactured in the country.
The company, Kiri EV was formalized in January 2020. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, they ran tests on their first version of the bikes for twelve months. The tests involved giving the bikes for trials to selected individuals for free or at a small fee. After getting feedback and learning what needed to be changed and adjusted, Maara and his team started working on the second version of their bikes. To accomplish this, they imported ten more bikes, fine-tuned and made improvements on the version. They then ran tests for eighteen months before commercializing their bikes. “The second batch was actually for paying clients. We were testing them, receiving feedback and consequently released the bikes. It is in those eighteen months that we built our bikes,” Maara explains.
The process has been intense and arduous with rigorous testing and improvements. Product cycle takes some time before you create a final workable machine. “In terms of building the business, it has taken us time to research and develop the product. Unlike software, in electrical engineering, you have to test for months to see what the faults are and what breaks down,” Maara explains observing that it has been a good learning experience for him.
The company is now working on the third version of the bike which will be launched this year. To cement their position in the e-mobility industry, they are providing three different motorcycles for different market segments. They have the normal boda boda which is the most common type; they also design scooters which is for personal commuting and finally sports bikes targeting high end customers. In the three -wheelers segment, they design both tuktuk for passengers and loaders for carrying cargo.
In addition, they have developed a battery swap infrastructure so that bike owners can come and swap a battery in minutes. To actualize this plan, they are looking forward to franchising their systems to partners and distributors across the country. They will have a network of charging points where people can have their batteries swapped or charged. The batteries take two hours to charge and can cover seventy kilometers on full charge.
One of the biggest hurdles they have encountered is importation of components. Raw materials, wires and metal parts have to be imported mainly from China and India which continues to be expensive due to the weakening of the Kenyan shilling against the dollar. In effect, it becomes difficult to place a proper value for their bikes. However Maara estimates that an electric bike will cost roughly about Kshs. 240,000 with one battery and a portable charger. You can charge your battery from anywhere as long as you have electricity connection.
The e-mobility industry is capital intensive. Importing parts and creating a team to create a product requires heavy capital outlay. Raising money has been tough for them, it has not helped that the global economy is struggling. It makes economic sense when you are importing in volumes. One, you get a lot of tax breaks because the government wants entrepreneurs to import more and two, you employ more people.
Since electric bikes are new in the market, regulation and taxation has been difficult. When Maara was importing the first batch of electric bikes, regulators didn’t know what the tax code it fell under. It resulted in the bikes being registered as petrol motorcycles because there was no category for them. Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) had offered a ten percent tax relief on electric bikes but because there was no clear category, he had to pay full taxes.
However, necessary policies related to regulation of e-mobility industry have started to be formulated. Notably, relevant agencies have effected a zero tax rate on most of the components used to make electric bikes to help the industry grow. Kenya Power on the other hand has introduced an e-mobility tariff which means one can get a special meter for charging electric batteries. “We have had to work with all these different stakeholders in order to create awareness among them and to formulate these policies that will help the sector grow,” says Maara.
The road ahead
The African Climate Summit 2023 created awareness about e-mobility as an ingenious solution to tackle climate change. The president drove himself to the historic event in an electric car which demonstrated the government’s commitment to the take up of e-mobility by Kenyans. “The summit has brought demand for electric vehicles and bikes a year forward, we were expecting this demand towards end of 2024,” hints Maara noting that it’s a boost to the industry and places Kenya in the fore front of the e-mobility revolution.
As a startup Kiri EV is looking forward to capitalizing this revolution and scaling up their operations. Currently, they are in talks with financial institutions on how they can partner in financing their customers , besides providing capital for their inventory. The team has been working on building a classy sports electric bike for enthusiasts who love speed.
They have also created an outreach programme to train mechanics as well as realign all the spare parts with what is locally available. As a way of giving back to the community, they are training and helping transition existing mechanics to new systems of e-mobility. They expect this programme to help the company reach all parts of the country. His final word to youth: “It is a tough job market, whatever you are doing persevere, be flexible and be willing to learn. Acquire the basic skills in your expertise and build on them.”
Christopher Maara at a glance
Typical day: Wakes up at 6 am, prepares for the day, catches on emails, watches news, takes breakfast and gets to office at 8 am. Works all day then winds up the day at 6pm.
Hobbies: Watching sports and catching up with friends.
Favourite books: The lord of the rings by J. R. R. Tolkien & Game of thrones by George R. R. Martin.
Highest moment: “My best moments are when a product works how we envisioned it.”
Dream car: Electric Ford Ranger.
Marital status: Single.
Parting shot: “To anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur, be ready to put in the hard work, people in business aren’t lucky it’s something you prepare. Success looks like luck but it isn’t.”