Roam Electric’s localised and user-centric vision for e-mobility

Roam Electric, formerly called Opibus, is an electric mobility company forging sustainable transportation solutions tailored to the Kenyan market. The company embeds localisation and flexibility in their business model to adapt to the unique environments and needs of specific markets, an essential approach as they expand across Africa.

The growth of innovation in the e-mobility sector is happening at a time when the removal of fossil fuel-powered vehicles is increasingly urgent. In African cities, motorcycle taxis, commonly known as boda bodas, largely use older internal combustion engines (ICE) that are often poorly maintained due to high maintenance costs. These inefficient motorcycles rely on expensive fuel, which both contributes to air pollution and climate change, and reduces the already-squeezed profits of the boda boda riders.

Rider on a Roam Electric bike demonstrating e-mobility

Roam Electric’s localisation ethos is built on understanding those challenges and listening to their customers. Their teams live and work amongst their customers in Kenya, extensively studying how transportation is integrated into daily life. Grassroots insights have driven designs like the Roam Air electric motorcycle, purpose-built to meet the rigorous performance demands of boda bodas and delivery fleets. By carefully analysing mobility patterns, infrastructure realities, and economic contexts at the local level, Roam Electric creates e-mobility products that align with existing transportation systems and improve lives within the community.

The Energy Catalyst programme sees the huge potential for innovation in the e-mobility sector and supports a number of e-mobility projects as part of its portfolio. In that context, Roam’s pioneering user-centric approach stands as an inspiring example to other companies of what can be achieved in challenging markets. To gain insights into the evolution of their approach, Energy Catalyst spoke to Masa Kituyi, Micro-Mobility Product Owner for Roam Air motorcycles, their leading e-motorcycle model, who expands on how they developed their business model, lessons learned and their recommendations to emerging e-mobility players.

Q1: Could you describe Roam’s business model and highlight its differentiators compared to other approaches?

A: Our localised and flexible business model addresses the unique mobility needs and challenges encountered across diverse landscapes. For example, Roam Air, one of our electric motorcycles, is particularly well-suited to Kenyan roads as it can carry heavy loads over long distances, navigate potholed roads and rugged terrain, and offers an exceptional range to enable journeys across remote areas. To achieve that, we invested heavily in developing a robust electric powertrain and chassis purpose-built to match or exceed the capabilities of gasoline motorcycles under these demanding conditions.

Our key differentiator is the home charging model. We recognised that building battery-swapping station networks across Africa’s vast and varied geographies would be extremely capital-intensive and impractical in the short-term. So, our removable battery packs can be charged using any standard electrical outlet. By plugging it in at home like a mobile phone, we’ve eliminated reliance on scarce public charging infrastructure.

As for passenger mobility, Roam’s electric buses are a good example of our localised product strategy. We collaborated closely with local manufacturers and suppliers to develop electric buses incorporating regionally sourced components. These components are optimised for withstanding the African climate, navigating road infrastructure challenges, and meeting practical maintenance requirements on the ground, such as spare parts.

Q2: What have you come to understand about the local cultural, geographic and economic context and how has that informed your approach?

A: Living and working locally enables our teams to understand how the ubiquitous boda-bodas and high-capacity buses keep the workforce on the move and the wheels of commerce turning. We also know these transport services operate on shoestring budgets with minimal financial runways. For boda boda riders crisscrossing Nairobi each day, their motorcycle is their principal tool for earning a livelihood and feeding their families. Any new mobility solution we introduce must enhance, not disrupt, this socio-economic dynamic woven into the fabric of Kenyan society. So our solutions are designed to deliver compelling cost savings and ROI to justify their adoption.

Our engineering teams must also account for geographical factors like steep inclines, scorching temperatures, and bumpy road surfaces that would be non-issues in many other markets, but are make-or-break factors in many of the tough Kenyan operating environments.

The approach is not a static one. Our local presence offers users an iterative feedback loop. We continually gather real-world performance data and capture the evolving needs of users through surveys, interviews, and direct observation. Such inputs enable us to rapidly prototype, pilot, and refine our product designs.

Q3: What challenges did Roam face converting customers to e-mobility, and how did you persevere through setbacks?

A: Shifting customer perceptions around electric transportation was one of our biggest hurdles. They held deeply ingrained doubts and scepticism about battery range, performance, maintenance requirements, and the long-term durability of these new technologies which had never been tested at scale in such rugged operating environments. Vehicle aside, the general absence of any developed battery charging ecosystem and infrastructure also created range anxiety.

For  drivers earning a low income, the high upfront cost of new electric vehicles was also an extremely tough sell initially. The need to prioritise short-term cashflows over greater long-term cost savings is an economic reality for many of our customers.

At Roam, we employed a multi-pronged strategy to overcome these barriers. We provided proof-of-concept through extensive real-world demonstrations across key performance criteria like range, acceleration, hill-climbing, and load hauling. These allowed boda boda and delivery riders to experience first-hand how our electric motorcycles could meet or exceed their needs.

We also launched “ride-along” pilot programmes in which boda boba operators were invited to test and use the bikes within their day-to-day routines for extended periods. This allowed them to vet the bikes’ durability, understand the charging times, and see how well the bikes fit into their work requirements, all whilst still generating revenue.

Roam also provided training programmes directly to the riders and operators to ensure their transition to electric vehicles was successful. The training taught the drivers techniques for managing the batteries, such as adhering to a charging schedule to maximise the battery life and fit around their work duties. Participants also learned how to get the most range and efficiency out of the electric powertrains, and training ensured they could inspect, diagnose, clean and lubricate components themselves as part of a basic maintenance regime.

To address the cost challenge, we partnered with financing providers like M-Kopa to offer affordable lease-to-own and pay-as-you-go plans that drastically reduced the upfront capital cost. Being able to pay for the bikes through small, incremental instalments from their ongoing revenues, rather than upfront lump sums, was a game-changer for boda boda riders

Through transparency, hands-on experience, financing assistance and training, we were able to systematically overcome scepticism and demonstrate the economic and performance benefits achievable with our solutions. This generated a steady buildup of trust and demand.

Q4: With hindsight, what have been the most vital lessons for Roam?

A: Early on, we assumed that maximising battery range would be the top priority for our electric motorcycle design. However, through extensive user interviews and observation periods, we discovered that low lifecycle operating costs and ease of battery swapping were more critical needs for boda boda drivers constantly traversing the city. This prompted us to pivot our battery architecture towards smaller, lighter, and more affordable removable packs, optimised for at-home charging as well as swapping at charging stations.

Rather than relying on assumptions or traditional market research, we learned that directing our resources into agile, user-centric development cycles was a better investment. That allowed us to rapidly prototype product concepts aligned to demonstrated mobility use cases, pilot them in the field, gather feedback, and quickly refine designs to meet the specific demands of our customers.

We also learned the value of building close and collaborative working relationships with local suppliers, manufacturers, government agencies, industry associations, research institutions like M-Kopa Labs, and other community stakeholders.  That put us in a much better position to navigate market complexities, access vital resources, co-develop technologies, secure policy support, and integrate into existing mobility frameworks. Our partnership with Kenya Vehicle Manufacturers (KVM), for instance, allowed us to strengthen our supply chains with regionally sourced components and local production.

Q5: What does the future hold for Roam? How does the company plan to further innovate and scale its mobility solutions?

A: Our continued focus on the voice of our customers will directly inform our strategic product roadmap for the years ahead, as we plan to expand our range of locally-tailored electric vehicle solutions beyond our motorcycle offerings.

This expansion will reflect the need for product diversity suited to all environments: from compact “micro transit” options manoeuvrable around dense city centres and robust delivery vans, to larger bus services suited to suburbia and rural towns. In cities, micro transit solutions that offer on-demand shuttle services are more affordable, efficient and eco-friendly than personal cars for short-distance mobility. In more remote areas, shared services such as community EVs and mobility subscriptions can bring clean transportation to underserved communities in flexible, scalable ways.

So looking ahead, you can expect to see our metropolitan and rural mobility portfolios spanning a wide array of electric vehicle classes and mobility models. Tailoring such solutions to meet the unique needs and frictions found in specific markets will be the key to catalysing sustainable transportation across the continent.

To support this ambitious product expansion and enable scaled regional production, we have invested in strengthening our manufacturing capabilities and supply chain networks. Our new Roam Park facility in Kenya features cutting-edge automated assembly lines and localised supply chains, minimising our reliance on imported components. This production approach not only unlocks significant cost efficiencies, but will also continue to create jobs and help drive industrial development across Kenya. Roam plans to expand to at least three more cities in Kenya by the end of 2024 and enter the wider East African market in late 2025, with Rwanda and Uganda at the top of our list.

We are set to dedicate extensive R&D resources towards continually advancing battery technologies, charging infrastructure solutions, and other core innovations, to enhance the total cost of ownership, range capabilities, and accessibility of electric mobility. Like we already have in place with KVM and M-Kopa Labs, we will continue to forge partnerships that push EV charging and energy storage systems forward. We will also work closely with industry associations, government transportation agencies, and regional economic commissions, to shape EV-supportive policies, regulations, financial incentives, and common standards.