Friday, November 11, 2011

Uganda's first electric car proves the potential of Africa's universities

Uganda's first electric car proves the potential of Africa's universities

In an age of technological marvels, it may not be earth-stopping news that young engineers at Uganda's Makerere University have made an electric car. But, as a university professor reminded me, this is big news for Uganda.

Last week, the College of Engineering Design, Art and Technology at Makerere conducted a 4km test-drive on its Kiira EV, a two-seater vehicle that runs on rechargeable lithium batteries instead of petrol. Its makers say that in motorway conditions, the Kiira EV can attain a speed of 100km/h and cover 80km (50 miles) before it needs recharging.

Although the technology has been around for decades, this is the first time anyone in Uganda has been able to part-assemble and part-manufacture a purely electric car, conspicuously green in colour to symbolise its environmental credentials.

However, despite this achievement emanating from one of the world's poorest countries – Uganda ranked 161 out of 187 countries in the 2011 human development index – it has not been without its sceptics and critics. Questions have been raised about priorities, viability and the possibility of prestige projects that have little impact on the lives of the majority.

Nevertheless, at a time when academics and the World Bank continue to urge states to put research at the heart of the African university, Kiira may be a reminder that given the right conditions, great things can flow out of Africa, just like the river Nile, after which the car is named.

"Our training in institutions of higher learning has not brought out a lot of research products. I think this vehicle is a manifestation of a changed paradigm of training in our institutions, to go beyond just lectures and laboratory experiments," said Sande Stevens Togboa, an electrical engineering professor who is overall head of the Kiira project.

Togboa, a deputy vice-chancellor of the university, said the idea for Kiira EV came out of Makerere's participation in the Vehicle Design Summit, an inter-university initiative to build the car of the future. Led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the summit culminated with the building, in 2008, of the prototype Vision 200, a hybrid fuel-electricity car, in Turin, Italy.

"The performance of our students [at the summit] was good," Togboa told me from Kampala. "So we announced that we would come home and build our own car."

But, now that the car has been built –at a cost of $35,000 – what happens next? One of the obstacles to Africa's universities churning out solutions to the continent's many problems is lack of funding, which has stifled ambition. In the case of Kiira EV, it took a combination of that "paradigm shift", and a visit to the university by President Yoweri Museveni two years ago. At a follow-up meeting, Museveni announced a grant of around $10m for the college's research projects over five years. If it had not been for that grant, Togboa said, Uganda's green car might have stalled at the design stage.

"Our funding situation is very poor; funding is the largest part of the problem," Togboa said of the university as a whole. "Another problem is the generations that have gone through university without active research; the younger generation needed to be reoriented."

With nearly 40,000 students, Makerere university's official research budget is about UShs 1.4bn ($540,000) a year, half of which goes to running the school of postgraduate studies, the professor said. However, specific projects in areas such as health sciences, food science and technology, and agriculture are currently benefiting from $3.1m research grants from donor countries such as Norway and Sweden.

According to a 2010 World Bank report, financing for research in Africa has plummeted over the decades. As enrolment in universities has surged, priority has shifted to bottom-line teaching, enough to see one cohort through the gates so another can come in.

"The inadequacy of funding has limited institutions' ability to offer adequate remuneration or to invest in infrastructure, research facilities and equipment, thereby hindering overall research capacity," the report says, pointing out that many universities are steadily losing senior research-oriented staff like Togboa to the private sector.

Some countries, among them South Africa, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Ghana, have supplemented conventional state funding for universities with competitive grants earmarked for research.

For Uganda's ambitions to be sustainable, however, it will require a well thought-out policy, rather than the personal curiosity of a leader, as happened with the electric car.

Some critics have questioned the rationale for spending research money on an electric car in a poor agrarian country with an ailing public healthcare system, and where electricity outages are the norm. One cartoon showed the Kiira being pushed by two men apparently because there was no electricity to charge it.

One commentator wrote in the Sunday Monitor newspaper of "white elephants", suggesting the car may be just another prestige project. Makerere will be out to disprove that. It is reportedly already planning to produce a 37-seater electric van.

Another charge is that the Makerere team may simply have got parts and assembled them, which would raise questions of how much of the car was actually made in Uganda.

Togboa admitted that "standard components" like the headlights, wheel, motor and batteries were imported, but, he explained, the chassis was designed and produced locally, as were other parts, such as the firmware, which controls the computerised vehicle's operations. As Makerere's vice-chancellor said at its launch, the Kiira EV is a sign of the university's great potential – making the case for long-term research funding.

• This article was amended on 11 November 2011. In the original, a sentence in the last paragraph read: "Togboa admitted that 'standard components' like the headlights, wheel, mortar and batteries were imported". This should have read "motor". This has now been changed.

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