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Electric Mobility in Developing Countries: Can It Promote Inclusion and Accessibility?

A Conversation with Vishant Kothari of the World Resources Institute
July 27, 2023

During the Freedom of Mobility Forum 2023 debate, Måns Nilsson, Executive Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, broached the topic of electrification and highlighted the fact that the benefits depend “on the context and the geography people find themselves in.” He cited experiences in Europe – in particular in Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands – where there are “price incentives of different kinds, tax breaks, support for public transport and charging stations.” In contrast, electrification is less widely incentivized and adopted in developing countries.

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We interviewed Vishant Kothari, Manager of the Electric Mobility and Electric School Bus Initiative at the World Resources Institute to learn more about specific challenges relating to the electrification of transportation in developing countries. 

What are the main challenges related to electric mobility today in both developing and developed economies?

There are a variety of challenges related to transportation electrification in most geographies, but we can highlight three main factors that are widely known and understood: limited charging infrastructure, the price of electric vehicles, and the dependence on fossil fuels.

Developing economies face limited electricity access and reliability, particularly in rural areas: 67% of people living in rural areas in the least developed countries have no access to electricity. The second challenge in developing countries is the dependence on informal transportation, which often does not meet the official safety criteria and emissions certification requirements. Getting the informal transportation sector electrified and formalized in equitable ways is therefore important.

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Source: UNCTAD calculations based on data from the International Energy Agency and UNCTADstat - July 1, 2021

Why is access to and availability of electricity limited in developing countries and how can these challenges be overcome?

There is a fundamental limitation in electrical grid capacity. In developing economies, the electricity grid is not designed to cope with the growing influx of electric vehicles, although charge management and renewable energy generation are currently booming. Reliability of the electrical network is also at stake in many developing countries largely located in the tropical belt as they often have power outages during summertime peaks. This is exacerbated by frequent and intense climate change-driven heatwaves around the world. The grid adaptation to local conditions of heat and humidity is a big challenge, particularly in urban areas of developing countries, and therefore more investment is needed to upgrade and digitize the network and make it more reliable throughout the year.

In rural areas across many regions, including Southeast Asia, Africa, and parts of Latin America, the limited grid infrastructure is a major barrier to accessible and reliable electricity. We are starting to see new solutions, such as micro-grids and off-grid solutions, to help overcome these barriers. Battery swapping, especially for two- and three-wheelers, is gaining momentum in India, across the African continent, and in China. To date, this represents the most successful and scalable solution.

What trends have you seen emerging in electric vehicle markets across the developing world?

Broadly speaking, we are currently seeing the domestication of battery supply chains in many different countries and higher levels of government spending being redirected towards the electrification of transportation and the clean energy transition.

From an individual perspective, we are seeing increased adoption of electric vehicles, which aligns with the long-standing mindset that one’s social status is directly tied to car ownership. The global increase in wealth and economic activity is another factor in rising car ownership rates. The cost of electric vehicles has dropped significantly over the past decade. This price decline is expected to continue as batteries are produced more efficiently, at scale and locally. Consumption patterns are emerging – such as “as a service” models for fleet, battery, or charging – that are allowing more low-and middle-income people to participate directly in electric transportation.

Informal transportation is an important dimension of transportation affordability in developing economies. Is it also on a path towards electrification?

Today, the informal sector is seeing the benefits of electrification – a better driving experience and lower maintenance and operating costs. For instance, one of the big informal transport modes in the Philippines, “jeepneys,” are being electrified. However, there are some safety challenges due to the lack of certifications and training of vehicle owners. Another issue for the informal sector is the use of vehicles that are disposed of by developed countries and sent over to developing countries. This export market is very robust as many thermal vehicles in developed countries are being withdrawn from the fleet in favor of electric ones. This has created a dependency in developing countries, which have to bear the brunt of air pollution from the use of these older buses and cars. The UN is currently tackling this issue by setting fuel efficiency standards for exported second-hand vehicles.

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Traditional Jeepney in downtown Manila

Would retrofitting make electric mobility more affordable to a large part of the global population?

Retrofitting means retaining the body of an internal combustion vehicle but changing the internal circuitry and components to make it electric. It is one of the main solutions to transition the existing fleet to electric in both developed and developing countries. Electrification of school buses in the U.S. is a good case in point. By repowering buses rather than purchasing new electric vehicles, the cost is driven down. However, the cost savings from a retrofit operation are limited, in large part because batteries make up most of the cost of an electric or repowered vehicle. The big hesitation from a consumer standpoint to purchase retrofitted vehicles today are safety and warranty.

How far do you think we are from the promise to citizens that freedom of mobility will be affordable to the majority of people, especially in developing countries?

There is a collective effort made by society to be more inclusive, but we must do more. Investments are being prioritized in communities that have historically been left out, and job opportunities and training are being made more accessible. By making sure that in our denser cities we use smaller, shared vehicles, we are giving more people a chance to experience the benefits of electrification, and by extension, more freedom of mobility. For example, in the U.S. the “Justice40 Initiative” aims to direct 40% of all public spending at the federal level to disadvantaged and marginalized communities. 

Financing institutions such as multilateral development banks (e.g., the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, etc.) will play an important role, too, as they are starting to fund more public transport, transportation electrification initiatives, and walking and biking schemes.

Public transport is an important factor in affordability. When there are fewer users of public transportation, the cost per mile goes up and that total cost must be passed on to the remaining users of the service. Part of the answer to ensure its affordability is to engage in activities to increase ridership in public transportation. One such solution is to have a larger number of smaller public transport vehicles to lessen the wait time, limit congestion and therefore incentivize people to use this type of service.