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This Nigerian EV entrepreneur hopes to go head to head with Tesla

Mustapha Gajibo started with electric retrofits of community vehicles like motorized tricycles and now aims to bring electrification to communal buses.

Mustapha Gajibo seen through the door of one of Phoenix Renewable's electric vehicles
Fati Abubakar

Nigerians have become accustomed to long lines for gasoline and wild fluctuations in bus fares. Though the country is Africa’s largest producer of oil, its residents don’t benefit from a steady supply.

Mustapha Gajibo, 30, is doing what he can to alleviate the problem: his startup, Phoenix Renewables Limited, is launching a homegrown electric-­vehicle industry in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. 

Gajibo dropped out of university in his third year to run it. His first project was converting the internal-combustion engines of commonly used vehicles in the city to electric versions. He focused on two types of vehicles that residents often pay to ride: seven-seat minibuses and the motorized tricycles known as kekes.

A "zero emission" vehicle with fake grass floor carpeting outside the warehouse of Phoenix Renewables
Phoenix Renewables maintains a fleet of a dozen retrofitted electric minibuses capable of covering a distance of 150 kilometers on a charge.

He faced skepticism at first: limited power charging infrastructure has constrained the adoption of electric vehicles in the region. “Many people don’t believe that electric mobility is possible and commercially viable in the city of Maiduguri,” Gajibo says. But his electrification scheme has been gaining traction. The company now maintains a fleet of a dozen electric minibuses that can cover a distance of 150 kilometers on a charge and cost about $1.50 to power to full capacity. 

Building the necessary infrastructure is crucial to the success of the project. Gajibo and his cofounder Sadiq Abubakar Issa designed a 60-kilowatt-hour solar-powered charging station in the city and are looking at creating more.

Now, Gajibo has moved on from retrofitting internal-combustion vehicles to building electric vehicles from scratch. 

The first, introduced in 2021, is a 12-seat bus constructed from a number of locally sourced materials. It has a range of 212 kilometers and can be charged in 35 minutes via a solar-powered system integrated into the back. In a recent test run funded by the company, the buses transported 35,000 passengers in Maiduguri in just one month. 

Deborah Maidawa, an electrical building services engineer who lives in Maiduguri, believes Gajibo’s EVs are a good way to meet local needs. “Incorporating solar gives the vehicles an edge over other EVs that are springing up, and I believe they will flood the Nigerian market,” she says.

A brand-new gas-powered passenger minibus with automatic transmission can cost nearly 5 million naira (about $10,000). Gajibo says it will cost around the same to buy one of his solar-powered 12-seaters. He plans to roll out 500 units across eight Nigerian cities in the coming months and hopes this time he’ll be able to sell them. 

“Our products are quite affordable, and the cost of the vehicle is one of the major things we put into consideration,” he says. “The only way to achieve that is by fully designing and building these vehicles locally.”

State and local governments are now taking notice. In early 2022, for example, the governor of Borno State, where Maiduguri is situated, commended Gajibo’s work and awarded him 20 million naira (about $45,000) for research and development, as well as 15,000 square meters of land for a factory. The Nigerian government has expressed interest in having his company build electric patrol vehicles for the police and armed forces.

Mustapha Gajibo at a workbench with motor parts in the foreground

Gajibo’s ultimate goal is to compete with Tesla and other bigger brands. “We want to have our vehicles driven in New York, London, Munich, and other big cities across the world,” he says.

Valentine Benjamin is a Nigerian travel journalist and photographer who reports on global health, social justice, politics, and development in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa.

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