In the fresh air of Finland, even in its biggest cities, it can be difficult to relate to the air pollution issues that growing metropolises around the world are facing. However, EkoRent founder and CEO Juha Suojanen found himself constantly pondering over topics such as clean energy and transport, alongside urbanisation and traffic congestion.
“In many megacities, traffic jams and air pollution are real issues,” Suojanen says. “Although Finland might not struggle with them on the same level, air pollution doesn’t stop at borders. Solving these global problems benefits everyone.”
EkoRent offers electric car rental and ride sharing services in Finnish cities, enabling people to get on the move without owning a car or using petrol. The concept has caught on: after being launched in 2014, it has been awarded a Climate Solver Company prize by WWF, and named the Best Company in Consumer Cleantech at the Cleantech Venture Days.
Suojanen wanted to take the idea of affordable electric mobility international and began eyeing East Africa, particularly Kenya and its capital Nairobi.
“People tend to say that if you want to do business in East Africa, you should start in Nairobi. If the idea flies there, its neighbouring cities and countries will want a piece, too.”
From horses to e-cars
Earlier this year, EkoRent’s subsidiary EkoRent Africa began piloting a service known as Nopia Ride in Nairobi. There’s no car rental element; instead, Nopia Ride is similar to the world-famous ride hailing service Uber, but all cars are electric.
As much as possible of the electricity is produced from renewable and eco-friendly sources, according to Suojanen.
Suojanen sees the service as a perfect fit for a city like Nairobi. For example, for many taxi drivers the high price of petrol means that their profit margins are near zero. The running costs of electric cars make Nopia Ride an appealing alternative for many drivers, leading to more affordable prices to consumers as well.
Some say that electric cars aren’t necessarily by default eco-friendly, as a lot depends on where their energy comes from. This works in Kenya’s favour, too; Suojanen points out that the country gets plenty of sun, so solar panels are abundant, and has also worked hard to make us of geothermal energy.
“In fact, Kenya has already implemented more renewable energy than for example Finland,” he tells.
The network of charging stations is also growing quickly. Suojanen tells that when doubters tell him that the lack of stations in Nairobi would hinder Nopia Ride’s expansion, he responds with two photographs.
“One of them shows Fifth Avenue in New York City crowded with horses and carriages and only one combustion engine car in 1900. The other shows the same road 13 years later full of cars and without a single horse. Changes like this can happen really fast, and in recent times new technologies have been adopted faster and faster.”
Setting an example
Initially, the biggest challenge to Nopia Ride was to convince investors. Suojanen says he’s lucky to have found a few courageous ones besides Team Finland, but, in general, not many Finnish investors seem to understand the immense opportunities that lie in the rapidly developing and digitalising African cities.
“Of course, investing in Africa looks riskier than doing the same in Stockholm, but the potential is also tenfold.”
Now, the goal of the pilot in Nairobi is to show everyone that Nopia Ride doesn’t only work in Suojanen’s presentations, but in real everyday life. First, the company aims to grow in one city, and then take it further.
Currently the drivers are employed by Nopia Ride, but in the future they will be working, again, similarly to Uber. Nopia Ride will function as a platform and offer a network of charging stations.
“Our slogan is that we go places with clear conscience,” Suojanen explains. “Inhaling the polluted air isn’t great, so our cars do their bit to make cities more liveable.”