The innovative research project sees staff combining their knowledge and skills to test a five-seat electric van for an off-grid community in The Gambia. Between taxi journeys, the electric vehicle will be plugged into a carport with solar panels on the roof to take advantage of one of the most abundant but under-exploited renewable energy sources.
The De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) academics want to see Africa, the world’s second largest and second most-populous continent, become a ‘leader rather than a follower’ in adopting new technologies and reducing its carbon footprint. Their research has shown that linking affordable, reliable and sustainable energy access and transport will be a ‘wealth-creation’ solution.
The electric van will be shipped to the village of Manduar, where the Global Hands charity has its Community Development Hub, which was built partly by DMU students and staff. The Hub will be the location for the solar carport and local drivers will be recruited to operate the taxi service.
Dr Momodou Sallah, Reader in Globalisation and Global Youth Work, said the project was a “collaboration of engineering and social science” as they were acting on the needs of local people for the good of the environment.
He said: “We wanted to help after speaking to taxi drivers in The Gambia and hearing how they spend 50 to 60% of their money on buying fuel. We have the knowledge and expertise to provide Africa’s first solar-powered taxi service. Every mile the taxi travels will have 100% zero emissions.
“Not only will it be great for the environment, it will also change people’s lives. This will make a real difference to the community. We found out what the local problems were and we are working to solve them. We are doing something that can help and we are being driven by the people.”
He added: “There’s such a buzz about this happening. The community is thrilled and everyone is very excited. They are eagerly waiting to see the taxi for themselves.”
Nissan has donated the vehicle, which operates with a battery that can be recharged by solar power as a viable alternative to oil-based fuels.
The innovative solar panels, donated by Sharp, are particularly well-suited to warmer climates as they have ‘water jackets’ to cool them down, which improves their efficiency while providing useful hot water.
The vehicle, which has been at DMU for about three weeks, will also be fitted with equipment to capture and store crucial data such as mileage, speed and the charge of the battery.
Dr Rupert Gammon, Senior Research Fellow at DMU’s Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development, is working on the technical aspects of the project.
He said: “Transportation is a key part of day-to-day operations so the work we are doing is enabling people to move around, get their goods to the market and build their own livelihoods.
“Electric vehicles are incredibly simple to maintain and a lot more reliable; plus no-one ever has to buy any fuel for them. They also have the power and control to be much better suited to Africa’s roads. The vehicle will take advantage of the 10 hours per day of sunlight in The Gambia and can be charged quickly at a quiet time during the taxi driver’s working day.”
Dr Gammon has been researching smart grids and electric transport for about six years, most recently looking at small-scale, off-grid energy systems in the Developing World. He added: “We are helping Africa to lead the way at a time when electric cars are only just beginning to make their mark in the industrialised world. Africa should not always be last; we want Africa to be at the front of the queue. They are in an ideal position to lead this technological revolution, as they have done, for example, in the field of mobile money.”
Dr Sallah leads two study visits a year to The Gambia through #DMUglobal to teach students about globalisation and addressing community need. DMU students and staff have been visiting and fundraising for the Global Hands Manduar Development Hub since 2012. They recently donated books and computers to the Hub’s library, which is the second largest in The Gambia.
Ayolah Hanley, director of Global Hands, said what was a run-down village building is now home to a community hub working to help people develop new skills. She said: “The Hub is proving to be so successful that it is taking on a life of its own. It’s worked out so well as a concept.
“We have taken so many students out to The Gambia over the years; it’s become like a movement. Everyone has learnt so much and made friends for life.”
The DMU academics plan to create a ‘Living Lab’ at The Hub where they will work with local people to develop appropriate technologies for energy storage, sustainable buildings, cooking, food processing and transport. Using data from the solar taxi pilot project, they also hope to catalyse the development of a low-carbon transport industry across Africa and other developing countries.