Last week, my enduring request to visit Uganda’s nascent automotive industry in the eastern city of Jinja, finally came through.
My desire has always been to find out what exactly is this story about Kiira vehicles- from the source!
In recent months, I have been seeing and reading about some of the new products coming out of Kiira Motors Corporation, the state co-owned automotive company under the National Enterprises Corporation of the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces.
And since late last year, I have been seeing two pure white buses plying the Entebbe – Kampala route, almost daily. I got to learn they are in the business of picking and dropping Civil Aviation staff. They are called Kiira EV buses meant for City transportation and airport shuttling.
Then, two months ago, I encountered a huge and very imposing dark grey coach- the Kayoola Bus; powered by a diesel engine bus and one of the Kiira Motors Corporation stables designed for long distance travel. This one caught my attention and I decided to place the call.
Eng. Allan Muhumuza, the Marketing Manager at the Corporation came through and promised he would let me ride it. Last week on Friday, he made the call inviting me over with a couple of friends to take the ride up to Jinja.
My specific objectives were to find out if, indeed, the vehicle plant is progressing at the industrial park, establish if our own Ugandans were in charge and ask about the claim that Uganda is only assembling and not building vehicles.
The exquisite 47-seater coach took us through the Gayaza- Kayunga- Galilaya- Jinja route. It is a unique piece of machine that I haven’t seen anywhere in this region. It has leather seats fitted with magazine holders, swivel armrests, footrests, foldable tables, cub holders, a LED saloon and Reading lights, USB charging points, overhead luggage bins, 24V radio, CD/DVD/MP5/Amplifier, two 19 LCD monitors, internet connectivity, onboard bus toilet, a refrigerator and automatic sanitizer dispensers, among other specs. It is, in other words, a moving aircraft cabin on the road and a perfect competitor to the long- distance coaches we often encounter on our roads. It has so far covered 66,000 kilometers during its on and off road testing since late last year. Everywhere we stopped, ordinary citizens took selfies and demanded to be allowed to inspect it. Allan allowed me to take charge and I gave a guided tour to a number of them explaining a few things in broken Luganda.
True to its promise, the ride was smooth and took us about one hour to the Jinja Industrial and Business Park off the road to Bugembe where Kiira Motors sits on a 100 acre piece of land. A huge four storied structure in the shape of a bus is imposingly moving to the finish line. It is going to house the vehicle building and testing area, located on the ground floor. The other floors upstairs of the four storied structure will accommodate offices and other related service spaces. Adjacent to it on the western side is another huge warehouse where raw materials are housed. About 70% of works so far have ensured both structures will be finished by June this year.
Once the main structure is done, and the assembly line installed, it will be in a position to produce 22 buses per day, 5,000 buses a year, creating 14,000 direct and indirect jobs to Ugandans. The Administrator, Lt. Col Wilbrod Muhwezi, whose staff is mostly composed of UPDF and Ugandan civilian engineers and fabricators, told me by end of this year, 1,030 buses will have been built, 50 of them electric, to support mass transportation needs in Kampala City and its environs.
I was able to establish that the market demand for Kampala city alone for the medium term, that is; between this year and 2024, is around 7,000 buses. If Kiira, probably the largest vehicle building and assembling plant, positioned itself so well, it would tap into the promising East African market that will need around 630,000 vehicles per annum by the year 2032. The African region, in the same year, will need about 10 million vehicles.
This story of Uganda’s nascent automotive story is amazing but also a very complicated one. It is facing too much negative energy from the public, a cynical clique of social media noise makers who dismiss it as another white elephant in the making, constantly dashing the hopes of the young Ugandan engineers who are working tirelessly to see a self-sustaining Ugandan automotive industry.
This sad part of a promising story reminds me of a book titled: Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle by journalists Dan Senor and Saul Singer which I read in 2010. It is about the economy of Israel and how a nation of 7 million people was able to reach such economic growth that at the time, some 63 Israeli companies were listed on the NASDAQ, more than those of any other foreign country. The book has several stories about different Israeli startups. Particularly, the one that intrigued me is the story about a young Israeli computer scientist named Shai Agassi who had dreamt of electric vehicles two years before and was knocking at every door of the top leading car manufacturers in the world to buy his idea. He was predicting that by 2030, the world would be switched into electric cars and would abandon fossil fuels. Many turned him down except two. The ones who rejected him thought he was crazy and that fuel fossil- powered cars are going nowhere.
Although he managed to convince a few and rolled out fewer cars than anticipated, eventually running his company into bankruptcy, his idea, though way too ahead of time, has inspired companies like Tesla owned by Eron Musk to deliver half a million electric (clean energy) cars in targeted markets around the world by close of 2020. Others like Geely (China) have done 1,903 units, Hyundai: 2,569 units, Chevrolet: 3,432 units, BMW: 3,662 units, ZD (China): 5,824 units, Zotye (China): 6,638 units, BAIC (China): 10,903 units, Tesla (USA): 20,142 units and Renault-Nissan: 26,248 units between January and March, 2021.
If technology and clean energy are the future, Kiira EV buses, SUVs and Pickups are on the right track. It is a matter of time and that time is not far away from now.
In the second part of this series, we answer the question whether Uganda is manufacturing or merely assembling these vehicles.
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