Eco-friendly vehicles offer quieter, cleaner safaris in Kenyan reserve

Sylvester Mukenye, a tour guide at the Emboo River Camp drives an electric-powered safari vehicle during a game drive at the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Narok County, Kenya July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

In Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, the Toyota 4×4 Landcruiser of tour guide and driver Sylvester Mukenye glides silently past a herd of grazing elephants, then past a pride of lions lying in the grass.

The animals are completely unperturbed by the proximity of the vehicle because its diesel engine has been replaced by an electric one that eliminates the rumbling noise and, just as importantly, reduces the emission of diesel fumes.

“If you drive here silently, you will of course get much closer to animals, especially the elephants that we are next to right now, because there are no vibrations on the ground and there are no fumes that they get the smell from like in other cars,” Mukenye said.

His vehicle was converted by Opibus, a Nairobi-based Kenyan-Swedish company founded in 2017. It is, for now, the only company in Kenya that converts off-road safari vehicles from diesel and petrol to electric power.

Founded as a research project at one of Sweden’s top technical universities, Opibus has a vision of a world where electric transport is more accessible, more cost-effective, and easier to deploy to a broader market. Opibus maximises their impact by focusing on vehicles that emit the highest CO2 levels, like public transport, fleet vehicles, and motorcycles.

Giraffes stand together in the open plains at the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Narok County, Kenya July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi
Antelopes are seen at the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Narok County, Kenya July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

Opibus operates in emerging markets where there are an excess of used vehicles, most of which have the chassis to hold up for years. They take these existing vehicle fleets and introduce electric powertrains, giving them a second life that is cleaner, more fuel-efficient, and far more climate friendly, all without compromising the performance of the vehicle. This approach combines the best of the past with the best of today, and creates an eco-friendly solution for sustainable transport that has become the standard for electric mobility in Africa.

Off-road vehicles are a common sight in Maasai Mara, world-famous for the annual wildebeest migration but these are the first in the usually carbon-heavy business of safari tours to be entirely powered by electric batteries.

Wanjiru Kamau, an electrical engineer at Opibus, said the company had so far converted 10 vehicles used in Kenyan game parks, including three in the Maasai Mara.

With multiple vehicles launched, Opibus has proven that their vehicles can withstand some of the harshest terrains in the world. In doing so, they’ve also proven that deploying electric vehicles makes environmental sense, as they reduce CO2 emissions—an increasingly important factor as we navigate the accelerating global climate crisis.

As well as being more environmentally friendly than diesel engines, the electric motors cut operating costs by half, Kamau added.

“In Kenya our fuel prices are always rising… Why not save on that?” she told Reuters at the Opibus workshop, where assembled vehicles were in various stages of electrification.

Kamau says that Opibus uses 35% locally made materials, as their process focuses on using and reusing vehicles that are already on the market. She shares that their eventual goal is to use entirely local materials, introducing a circular system will reduce emissions and waste and create a cleaner, more positive environmental impact for generations to come.


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