Kenya recently announced that its national parks and game reserves would only allow non-fossil fuels to access national parks and game reserves by 2030. In addition, all hospitality and tourism facilities will be required to adapt renewable energy and the circular economy in their operations. Kenya’s tourism cabinet secretary said it was a necessary move given that Kenya is a founding member of the new global sustainable tourism hub.
But this move will come with huge challenges, primarily the cost of electric vehicles in Kenya’s historic parks.
This comes as the industry realizes that transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions from tourism. On average, planes and cars generate the most CO2 per passenger mile, followed by tourist buses, ferries and trains. Following the recent UN Climate Change Summit in Glasgow, 200 countries have pledged to review and strengthen their 2030 emissions reduction plans next year, keeping the door open for the temperature target close to 1.5°C.
Kenya relies heavily on tourism and rain-fed agriculture which are unfortunately both susceptible to climate change and extreme weather events. Kenya’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions amounted to around 16 million metric tons in 2020, up from 18.3 million metric tons the previous year, according to Statista. Despite this decrease, there has been an increase in the volumes of emissions from fossil fuels and industry in the country since 2000. And for this reason, there is a need for the government to take necessary measures and ensure sustainability to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change.
This decision was met with mixed feelings among the players. Gerard Beaton, director of operations for the safari operator Asiasaid the camps had long been solar-powered and had banned single-use plastic, and replacing fuel-hungry engines in safari cars was the latest step.
“We charge our electric cars from our solar plant so that our safaris really have less emissions over their lifetime than conventional (internal combustion engine) vehicles,” he said.
“Enormous financial expenditure”
While this is a laudable initiative, the cost perspective weighs heavily.
“This is a huge financial outlay for our national parks after two years of near zero revenue. But Kenya would set an incredible example to the world of how to take care of its wild places. We have already banned the single-use plastic on reserves, (moving) to only have electric cars would really set a global standard,” Beaton explained.
He also adds that it will only be a great initiative if the vehicles will be recharged from solar power stations.
“It is essential that we use renewable energy sources. As stated above, electric safari vehicles not only improve the customer experience, they are also better for the environment. I saw that Uber was going to introduce 3,000 electric motorbikes in Nairobi – this is going to make a huge difference to the quality of life in the city with reduced noise and emissions,” he said.
For Asilia, the switch to the electric safari car was really the final piece of the jigsaw of a low-footprint safari operation. Their first electric safari car started with Ol Pejeta Bush Camp in August 2019 and the safari car conversion cost Asilia $37,000. According to camp officials, this was a significant upfront cost that for many companies, after two years of declining Covid-related revenue, will be hard to come by. However, Opibus (now ROAM), the company that built Asilia’s electric safari vehicles, estimates that by using an electric safari vehicle, industry players will save $7,000 in fuel and service costs, so it will take us 5 years to break even. Despite the cost, Beaton said it revolutionized their customer experience.
“Avid photographers are particularly enthusiastic about the car because the ride is much smoother and there are no more dry gear changes, which creates ideal photography conditions. It is also quieter, which makes it easier to enjoy the sounds of the bush,” he noted.
For Emboo, the first lodge in Kenya and beyond to have its entire fleet of solar-powered Safari vehicles, the vision of sustainability began from the start of operations in the country. For them, the electric safari vehicle offered a unique way to explore the Masaai Mara.
“The vehicles are solar-powered, quiet, have no exhaust fumes and don’t disturb wildlife. You can enjoy game drives while listening to the sounds of nature, enjoying the scents of the savannah and getting closer to their favorite animals without disturbing the animals. You can really be part of nature,” said Valery Joanne Super, Director of Sales and Marketing for the Emboo camp.
She added that electric vehicles increase sighting opportunities for tour guides as they can now use all of their senses while guiding.
“Recently some guests went on game drive when the guide heard a faint roar in the distance. The sound would not normally be heard on a standard engine. The guide drove towards the sound and found a leopard with cubs in the bushes which the guests enjoyed,” she continued.
Although the initial investment is higher, Valery noted that its operating costs are much lower, making it a smart move.
“Besides being the right thing to do for our community and our ecosystem, the vehicles don’t need fuel and maintenance is minimal. As you will have noticed, the fuel situation in Kenya has led to high prices and shortages of gas stations, lodges with old ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles or with generators powering their fridges, lights know range anxiety because of it. Those with electric vehicles are doing very well,” she said.
Innovation Center to Inspire
As a result, the camp now has an innovation hub in the Masaai Mara to inspire and train other tourism stakeholders on sustainability. They also receive a roadmap on how to develop their own sustainable business, community center or daily lifestyle.
“Emboo River offers advice to help businesses in the tourism sector and beyond make their operations sustainable. It’s better for the environment, smooth business operations, cost savings, independence from world events and price increases and we’re here to help others make that change.” said Valery.
Although he is convinced that electric is the way to go and looks forward to seeing improvements in the country specific to game vehicles. Mohanjeet Brar, Managing Director of Gamewatchers Safaris, has yet to make the switch it makes no financial sense for his business.
“Unfortunately, Kenya does not yet seem to benefit from the lower costs of battery/solar technology. Also, my friends who have purchased these are struggling and the battery life is not good enough for some. That’s almost double the price of a new vehicle once you factor in the cost of recharging in camp. against the objective,” he said.
For John Musau, Managing Director of Tamarind Hotelthis directive will be expensive since most tour operators who take their guests to Nairobi National Park, which is a few minutes from the hotel, have both diesel and petrol vans.
“The main disadvantages are the high cost of maintenance and purchase, which will cause many local tour operators and hotels to become unemployed. Our hotel will certainly be affected because the majority of our customers want to take day trips in Nairobi National Park. If we don’t have such vehicles, it means we won’t be as attractive to foreign tourists as we are now,” he said.