Sunday August 10 2014

Look out taxpayers, Makerere’s electric car could hit you - Part I

By Alan Tacca

There is nothing more maddening than listening to a university professor saying things that you believe are so removed from sober reality. But, with due respect, newspaper reports leave the impression that Prof Sandy Stephens Tikodri-Togboa thinks the “commercial production” of motor-cars is like making yogurt in mom’s kitchen and selling it to your neighbours in the Ntinda area; Ntinda, where the dubiously famous Kiira EV Smack electric car project is at present apparently based.

Culture check: We are told that many Ugandans have been making a pilgrimage to Mityana Road, just to see and touch a distressed small aircraft that made an emergency landing in the area! Rather like children, our people are so fascinated by transport machines that they often measure the success of their fellow Ugandans almost exclusively by the cars they drive.

It is in this environment that a group of engineering teachers and students at Makerere University put together a very crude car powered by a maize-mill diesel (or petrol) engine about five years ago. Later on, they put together a small battery-powered vehicle they named Kiira EV. And they talked of making an electric bus to solve all Ugandans transport problems!

Any reasonably equipped polytechnic or university engineering department can build one or two cars. Indeed, a small group of dedicated mechanics in Katwe can produce an “original” car. After the drawings and parts list are done, one can start with a disused frame that roughly meets the needs. You can even painstakingly design and fabricate a completely new frame and floor pan, with lots of unpredictable results.

As far as I know, Uganda has no specialised equipment for stamping, punching and folding sheet metal into car shells; so the Kiira EV body-shell must be another improvisation job. After cannibalising, scavenging and scouring around for used and new parts, tinkering with the frame by boring holes here and welding bits and flaps there, our “scientists” at Makerere University or mechanics in Katwe will bolt everything in place and have a car that works – in a fashion.

I don’t want to belittle such achievements. The Makerere product is a praiseworthy practical student/teacher project; a Katwe product would be testimony to the amazing ingenuity of our less (formerly) educated people. But this is also the point of my departure. Such vehicles are generally not viable for commercial production; nor is there a market out there eager to embrace them.

Prof Tikodri’s team has put the cart – indeed many carts – before the horse. Technically, the Kiira EV is almost certainly very sub-standard, no matter how much gloss paint and other pretences they have put on the car to impress Trade minister Amelia Kyambadde and President Museveni.

Various newspaper articles (Daily/Sunday Monitor, July 12 and August 3, and New Vision, July 14) reflect a confused and increasingly worrying picture of things around this car. In July, the project’s chief engineer, Paul Musasizi, talked of producing 300 cars per month. Two weeks later, Prof Tikodri talks of initially producing 20 cars per year, the output to increase (or fall?) depending on demand.

Which number is correct? In any case, both output figures are very far below the number where setting up a plant makes any economic sense, unless each car is to be priced in millions of dollars.
Yet, by the extremely optimistic and high-sounding timeline (Sunday Monitor, August 3), we will see the plant going up from April 2016 to February 2018, with market trials for the car in the first half of 2018!

Impressed? Well, there is more. Musasizi was quoted (New Vision, July 14) saying their team would develop 19 model vehicles by 2018. Did he mean 19 prototypes of the Kiira EV, or 19 prototypes of 19 different models?

It is a crash programme. According to Tikodri: “It is our time to go to our own moon, and this will be our economic transformation (sic).” That is a prophecy, or it is plain nonsense. What if Musasizi’s 300 cars per month (or Prof Tikodri’s 20 per year) turn out to be a fiasco?
To be continued next Sunday.

Mr Tacca is a novelist, socio-political commentator