Young engineer behind electric tuk tuks, bikes


Arc Ride Kenya Limited engineer Magdalene Maluta. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Magdalene Maluta and Elon Musk, the tech billionaire’s dreams have crossed paths. Although her dreams are small, she hopes to go the Tesla way but with tuk tuks, the three-wheeled motorised rickshaws.

“I have always wanted to know if we can ever get electrical vehicles in Kenya and to understand how the process of converting diesel to electrical vehicles works,” says the 26-year-old.

Ms Maluta is among a team of engineers behind the assembly of electric two-wheelers (motorcycles) and three-wheelers (tuk tuks).

She works at Arc Ride Kenya, a startup firm, leading a team of four engineers, to convert diesel-operated tuk tuks and motorcycles into electric.

At the workshop at Central Business Park behind Sameer Park, Nairobi, the engineers are busy putting bits and pieces of the electric motorcycles and tuk tuks, as they race to help Kenya cut carbon emissions from diesel and petrol-operated vehicles.

“Diesel vehicles pollute the environment and if I can contribute to reducing emissions through this new technology, e-mobility, I’ll be happy,” she says.

Being at the forefront of the journey towards scaling up greener transport solutions in Nairobi and beyond is no fluke. Ms Maluta’s love for electric cars stems from her fascination with metals. She studied mechanical engineering (Production option) diploma course at National Industrial Training Authority (NITA). She later enrolled for a degree in engineering. Here, she would finally work with metals — a mineral that drove her into engineering — as well as other materials including ceramics, plastics, woods, and concrete.

“As much as I was curious, I also have to thank my elder sister who had a degree in electrical engineering for being my role model,” says the second last born in a family of 11.

But how did she find a career in electrical engineering field after studied mechanical engineering?

Ms Maluta had just gotten a job at e.kraal, an IT company in the thick of the pandemic. But before she could report, the government restricted travel, affecting many businesses, especially those that heavily relied on importing wares.

“The firm was to begin operations in April but the Covid-19 restrictions made everything shaky and so they had to call it off. However, in January, I got a call to join Arc Ride. They told me they were dealing with electric vehicles. It was not the same field, but I was trained to grasp the specifics of the trade,” she says.

The lover of Rock music, a fairly good dancer of Bongo music, has found that moving to the rhythms of the engineering industry is not as easy. The life of an engineer can be bitter-sweet. One sometimes has to wake up very early or has to stay up late trying to get solutions. “Since we started, I haven’t gotten time to visit my mother,” she says. The body parts of the electric vehicles are imported from India and the engineers put the parts together. They are also doing maintenance right from the assembly, finding out the spare parts that such electric cars need, how much they would cost, routine maintenance, and designing.

So far, they have assembled 20 tuk-tuks and 15 motorbikes. It takes two hours to assemble a tuk tuk and between 45 minutes and an hour for the motorcycle.

The electric tuk tuks and motorcycles feature new technology like battery swap systems and electricity in their operations. One can replace a used battery with a new one at designated points or stations set up by the firm as well as charge their tuk tuks and motorcycles.

The motorcycles can be charged even at the normal charging points, however, the tuk tuks require three-face charging. A total of 15 have been installed in different places across the capital city including in Westlands, Rongai, Kitengela, Eastleigh, and at the firm’s warehouse in Nairobi.

“They ensure zero carbon emissions, are cheaper to maintain and operate and consume fewer units. For instance, two units of power can last 100 kilometres. We save a lot of money on fuel and maintenance as fuel prices keep rising yet we can create a more consistent electricity price to charge the vehicles,” she says.

Ms Maluta adds that Arc Ride plans to introduce 250 new and improved electric motorcycles into the Kenyan market by September.

It will also scale up the production to have more than 3,000 units in the next 18 months and create charging infrastructure to support the rollout, while expanding to neighbouring countries.

“We are coming up with ideas on designs as we want to build from scratch rather than importing the parts. This will involve designing, building the body, and then buying only parts like controllers and battery.”

Ms Maluta says that the future of electric mobility is looking up as more companies are coming to Kenya and the government just needs to enhance sensitisation of people on the benefits of having an electric vehicle over petrol or diesel-operated vehicles.

“In the next five years, it is my dream to design more electric vehicles rather than assembling. I want to see 10 percent of Kenyan cars being electric,” she adds.

But working in a male-dominated field is not a walk in the park.

“When you walk into an engineering office, you should have left your feminine side at home. There are those (men) who challenge you and those who will make you feel less so you have to prove yourself,” she says.

She urges girls to take up the challenge and venture into areas considered exclusive men’s clubs.

“I remember being told to take business courses or modelling but I was adamant on engineering. If you feel like you can do it then that is enough drive. Go and pursue it relentlessly. Give it your all and it will work out,” she says.