Powering New African Mobility: with Valerie Labi

This article was created in collaboration between BYCS and the International Cargo Bike Festival, and was originally posted at cargobikefestival.com

10 min. read

In 2020 Valerie Labi co-founded startup Cargo Bikes Africa “to see how we could solve some of Africa’s biggest transportation challenges”. In late 2022 Cargo Bikes Africa merged with MANA Mobility, a German-Ghanaian enterprise set up by former BMW board members – with Valerie becoming CEO.

The joint entity designs, engineers and manufactures electric vehicles in Ghana – including both cargo bikes and small cars – that make zero-emission transparent affordable, safe, reliable and functional. In the process, MANA Mobility seeks to tackle head-on the mobility challenges faced by both urban and rural Ghanaians – and Africans – alike.

And in a rapidly urbanising country in which the population – just over 32 million in 2022 – is forecast to surpass 50 million by 2050, the question of how Ghanaians will get from A to B has never seemed more pertinent.

Could you briefly introduce yourself; what is your background, how did you get involved with cargo bikes and what does your role entail?

I’m Valerie Labi, co-founder and CEO of what is now MANA Mobility – which started out as Cargo Bikes Africa. I grew up in the UK, moved to Ghana 2008 and I’ve been here since. I’m a mother of three and a serial entrepreneur; before I transitioned into e-mobility, I ran a number of startups in water and sanitation. I really believe that the businesses of tomorrow and today that are needed are the ones making decisions not just based on financial capital, but environmental and social capital too.

When I came to Ghana I went to the north, to the city of Tamale, which despite having a population of around 1 million has a very rural, agriculture-based economy. I spent a lot of time there talking to households at a community level, looking at living conditions and conditions for entrepreneurship. And one of the really big issues that came up consistently, regardless of who I was talking to, old or young, male or female, was around this connectivity gap.

What I mean by connectivity gap? It’s about transport, which was unaffordable, unreliable and unsustainable. And so that became my calling; to look at what opportunities there were to introduce new mobility solutions that supported and were accessible to both men and women. To move themselves and to carry an average load, which is around 50 to 150 kg.

What problems are embodied by this connectivity gap?

The first thing people told us was that petrol was too expensive. So that’s what pushed us into looking at electric vehicles. The second thing was around the affordability and the cost of vehicles, which is really high in Ghana because we don’t produce them; we import them. We’re always either getting second hand vehicles that have been sent down from Europe in whatever condition that may be, or we are walking.

And walking brings us to the third aspect because when you look at the household level, especially in rural communities, women hold most of the burden for carrying. It’s women who fetch the water, it’s women who carry stuff to and from the farm, it’s women who carry things to and from market, and it’s women who carry things to and from school. And most of the time there’s no real solution to this.

That’s what got us thinking; OK, how could we produce a vehicle locally that is easy for both men and women to use, which can go further? So we actually started by converting second hand bikes to electric bicycles and testing them in the communities to see how people responded to them.

We started with some rickety old bicycles and then quickly realised that people wanted to carry loads. So we iterated the frame and started working with a front-loading, more traditional looking cargo bike and before realising that that design wasn’t really suitable because of our road conditions. We went through a number of iterations to get to the bike that we have now. But it really started as just kind of me probing into how we could do things differently from a mobility perspective; and it kind of escalated from there!

And what is the design that you’ve landed on?

We’ve actually gone for a fat tyre, two-wheeler cargo bike with reinforced front and rear suspension – because of our road conditions. We’ve also designed a trailer to carry larger loads – often necessary in rural communities. And for the bike itself we’ve developed a longer rack which allows you to use it for urban deliveries and mobility, things like that.

And then we actually have two batteries on every bike instead of one, because we realised that depending on where you are, access to charging may not be easy. But what we observed was that people use the bikes during the day for commerce. So until battery swapping infrastructure is available, it’s just easier for them to charge at night at home, have two batteries on the bike and ride the whole day.

Are people going long distances on the bikes? 

Yeah. Typically, people are doing around 120 kilometres a day, so two batteries are definitely needed. It’s taken us a number of iterations to get here, asking; do people want one bike with two batteries? Would they always have one on charge? Do we need space for two batteries on the bike? Who does the charging? Where do they charge? And are people comfortable charging at home?

I think a really nice thing about why a bicycle/e-bike kind of solution fits is that the charging is not complicated. People feel comfortable charging their mobile phones at home so charging that type of battery also makes sense.

Another really important aspect is the unit economics on cost. Riders using them in delivery value chains were previously spending 1500 GHS (Ghanaian cedis) a month on petrol; around $120 a month. And now they’re spending on average, 8 GHS a week. So that’s just less than $1 a week on charging; around $4 a month. Huge savings which people are now taking as earnings for themselves. With this in mind we are about to launch a campaign to target more women, because we think that the productivity impact on society in terms of time is going to be huge.

It’s great to see you’re targeting rural communities – they are often forgotten when it comes to cycling initiatives. But are city dwellers on your radar too?

So a really nice thing about the e-bike is it can actually be a wonderful solution in both rural and urban areas. What we’ve realised is that we have a crossover product. We started in the north, in the rural areas and tested the bike the whole way through the country. We have a site in the north and our head office is in (capital city) Accra, where we’ll also be setting up our factory space.

I think it’s going to be interesting for us now in terms of how we scale. We see a lot of use cases for e-bikes across the country. Our aspiration is first to scale across Ghana in both rural and urban communities, but plugging into the best use cases. Then we’ll scale up further, initially across ECOWAS – West Africa.

We started with the value chain that has the most riders; plugging into e-commerce platforms for delivery. That’s mostly in Accra now. But we think that the e-bike is going to open up a lot of secondary markets because delivery is also expensive in other cities outside the capital too. You’re trying to balance the cost of petrol versus the number of deliveries you get. So we think that the e-bike is going to open up some of these cities to have on-demand delivery as a more accessible and more affordable service, not just for food deliveries, but for medical deliveries, for even potentially first responders.

Take the healthcare space; because the cost of transport is so high, we don’t have a lot of community-based medical services. We don’t really have ambulances or roaming midwives. You also don’t really have medical deliveries for pharmaceuticals and prescriptions just because the cost of petrol is prohibitive. And then the other thing you also see, particularly with nurses, is most nurses are women and wouldn’t feel comfortable riding a motorbike, while a car is too expensive. So this is just a very interesting space and I think that we see a lot of opportunities for use cases that could really be our next target for how we scale.

You talk about an ecosystem of e-mobility services on your website. What do you mean by that?

I think for us it’s been really important to look at this transition to EVs as a lifestyle transition. Right product, right time; especially as people are digitising. A lot more people want to be able to access services through app platforms, so one thing that’s been important for us is to make sure all our vehicles are connected.

You can’t just give people hardware and say, okay, now everyone is using EVs. What we offer is a vehicle that’s plugged into an app. And that app does a number of things; it provides information. Information on your vehicle, but also information on how to support your vehicle and who else in your community can help you with that.

We’re mapping local mechanics and also helping them upgrade so they can support the new EVs coming into the communities. You also need to know where to charge, so if you’re not charging at home, where are the charging-friendly power points? We’re mapping charging infrastructure; not just for e-bikes, but for any EVs now in Ghana.

For insurance, having connected vehicles means we can track them and that’s allowing us to plug in to insurance companies and to co-create insurance products specifically for electric vehicles in Africa. And then the final long-term play for the ecosystem would be; as we have the data of how many kilometres have been travelled, we could actually now start to look at how much carbon has been offset. Tokenise that and leverage it for some sort of asset financing to support riders and make vehicles more affordable.

All of that together is what we mean by the ecosystem. And now we’re bringing that visibility to the sector which we feel is going to be that pivot-point to getting the right support for a community of users who can also make requests – so we can start to see what is needed in that space. We’re just basically trying to bridge that gap and be a connector of people who understand that this transition is happening.

It’s clear that the bike you’ve developed – and the ecosystem around it – is a direct response to the mobility challenges you’ve observed in Ghana. How do you balance your focus on local context with your goals to scale up and expand your reach geographically?

The biggest issue now for Africa’s transition to EVs is that we don’t have vehicles that have been designed to our context. But transport is a necessity; everybody moves. And when we’re looking at what is wrong with mobility currently, like I said, the continent is plagued with second hand combustion engines and we are consistently trying to find foreign currency to buy these vehicles.

Our Ghanaian engineers really understand the context of what is needed in terms of mobility. But we realised we didn’t have the roadmap for how we scale this. How do we take that step from a really good idea that can solve a lot of people’s problems to an international level business? And that’s why we merged with MANA Mobility. At the time my business partner, Peter Schwarzenbauer, the former board chairman of BMW and his cohort of colleagues were toying with producing and designing an electric four-wheeler in Ghana. It just made sense because they had an understanding of series production. I think Peter has launched more than 300 vehicles globally in his lifetime.

So we’ve come together to set up manufacturing capabilities in West Africa. And these can in turn become a blueprint for other regions, meaning others can set up micro-factories and licence the designs, production procedures and branding. It’s definitely a pan-African goal.

And looking further ahead, in the long term we see opportunities to export too. For example, Ghana is well placed for Europe; it’s not far at all. So we are very, very well positioned as a country to be able to serve other markets as well.

With this new frontier of mobility, it’s really important for us as Africans to be able to design our own vehicles and produce them locally at scale.

All images: DESPACIO