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Mustapha Gajibo and the dream of building the Nigerian electric vehicle

After some discussions on the encouraging story of a young entrepreneur in our Barewa Old Boys WhatsApp group, a couple of classmates and I decided…

After some discussions on the encouraging story of a young entrepreneur in our Barewa Old Boys WhatsApp group, a couple of classmates and I decided to visit Mustapha Gajibo to better understand his engagement in renewable energy and the project of the design and production of Nigerian electric vehicles. We were all impressed with his vision, drive, ambition, and above all, his commitment to seeking modern, workable solutions to Nigeria’s challenges. From his base in Maiduguri, he has been producing electric cars since 2017.

Recall that in 2017, there was no electricity in Maiduguri because the supply line had been blown up by Boko Haram. What audacity to think of producing electric cars in a city that did not even have electricity at the time I asked? His response was that precisely for that reason, it was important to seek solutions, and if the city had no electricity, it had a lot of sun that could be harnessed to charge the vehicles.

The restless Gajibo had opted out of his University of Maiduguri mechanical engineering course at 300 level because he considered the curriculum to be outdated and did not adequately cover his passion and interest in modern technology and renewable energy in particular. At that time, he already had successful businesses he was running. He had, for example, designed solar-powered phone charging stations where he was beating the competition by charging phones at 30 naira each, while the competition, who were running generators, could not go below 50 naira.

While in secondary school, Mustapha Gajibo discovered the intricacies of solar power because his father had bought solar charging lamps to provide light in the house. He started studying how it worked and decided that, in addition to the light, he could use it to power an electric fan. He studied how fans operate and designed and produced a fan himself, which he linked to the solar panel to provide him some relief from the heat in Maiduguri.

All his life, he has been studying how things work and designing and producing them out of interest. Increasingly, however, his interest in entrepreneurship grew, and his vision from his teenage years had been how to invent and produce original products for industry.

His vision was focused on what meets the eye in Maiduguri and other cities—the omnipresence of tricycles, or Keke Napep—as the dominant form of urban mass transit. He considered the keke very deficient as it was unstable, leading to many accidents in the city, with hospitals establishing special wards to care for the numerous accident victims that are brought in daily.

His first decision was that he was going to ensure that these vehicles were eliminated from Nigerian roads to be replaced by an electric four-wheel version he would design to replace them. Secondly, he was very conscious of the high level of pollution they produced and decided that by transiting to electric vehicles, city residents would be able to breathe fresh air.

The third issue he considered was the design of the tricycle, which made it the preferred form of urban transit. It is cheap, and its basic design of an open vehicle without doors that people can easily jump in and out, fits the pockets of the teaming poor in our cities, so the vehicle he decided to design should be as cheap and simple so that there is a huge market to tap into. The electric vehicle he decided to invent that fits the political economy of our urban centres does not exist anywhere in the world, so he decided to invent it and make a lot of money from the process.

He started by building a prototype of a 16-seater vehicle that can go 200 kilometres on one charge. He was also converting  Keke Napep to electric vehicles and fitting them with solar panels to add to the charge from the vehicle’s rechargeable battery. The problem, he explained, is that they are not designed as electric vehicles and are too heavy to run with the battery and solar panel.

Having been working on so many prototypes since 2017, he has finally designed his electric vehicle for mass production. It is a 7-seater vehicle that has a high clearance, open doors, and good suspension. This is the upcoming replacement for Keke Napep. He would have loved to produce it in Nigeria, but unfortunately, the country has no iron and steel base and no cheap electricity to produce the components, so he has patented it in China and found a partner there that would produce it.

The vehicle will be called Kaandi, “Ours” in Kanuri, and the first 700 are currently being produced. The production would rise to 5,000 units annually. They would come in as completely knocked-down parts (CKD) and then be assembled in Nigeria. He complained that there is no financing for start-ups in Nigeria, and he has had to finance his passion for the electric car by running other businesses.

The major economic activity he is currently engaged in is converting petrol vehicles into compressed natural gas (CNG). He is scaling up the business and establishing a factory that can convert 100 petrol to CNG vehicles daily. A 15kg CNG tank costs only N4,500 and can run for 300 km, making it cheaper than petrol in this era of no fuel subsidy. As he continues to pursue his ambition to drive out petrol vehicles from Nigeria, CNG is the transition mechanism. He is currently building two CNG filling stations in Abuja.

This 31-year-old entrepreneur is full of brilliant ideas and has over 30 prototypes in his kitty. I love his engagement on numerous fronts. He said he has been in business virtually all his life, and from the age of seven, he was already running a Hausa sweets business with his mom while in primary school in Bauchi. Although he has not graduated from the university, many Nigerian universities are currently seeking his partnership in the automotive and renewable energy fields. Having walked out of the university as a student, one of his goals is to build the type of new technology, cutting-edge university he wanted to attend but did not find in Nigeria.

We can only wish the best for Mustapha Gajibo and his Phoenix Renewable Energy Group. His passion for solving problems is exactly what is needed in Nigeria today. His vision of the use of environmentally cutting-edge technologies to address the problem of urban mass transit is what we need for our future. His can-do attitude is inspirational. Keep it up, dear Mustapha.

This article was first published on September 8, 2023.

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