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The Kiwi entrepreneur doing his bit for climate change in Africa

Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. Photo/Getty Images

In the heart of Africa, Josh Whale is helping tackle climate change one moto at a time.

Motorbike taxis – commonly known as motos or boda bodas – are the most common form of transport for East Africa’s 443 million people. Each day, the region’s 2.5 million motos clock up, between them, journeys equivalent to a return trip from Earth to the Sun, and then back again to the Sun. New Zealand lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Josh Whale offers this startling statistic to explain the importance of motos to the region and the significance of his new venture in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.

Although affordable for passengers, motos return less than $2.50 a day to their drivers, who work an average of 12 hours. Whale and his start-up partners are trialling electric motos. Unlike most battery-powered motorbike taxis elsewhere in the world, these are powerful enough to tackle Kigali’s hilly terrain. A clean form of transport, they have the added benefit of increasing drivers’ incomes. Whale sees it as a win-win for investors, passengers, drivers and the environment.

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Whale grew up in Blenheim and Whakatāne. His parents, John and German-born Sue, met when his father was doing his OE. The couple backpacked and drove a Kombi van from Germany to India before returning to New Zealand where they had Josh and his younger sister, Rebeka.

Tales of his parents’ travels and a love of reading – even maps – led Whale to seek adventures around the globe. He and his American wife, Claire Nelson, who was an exchange student at the University of Otago and now works for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), lived and worked in China, the UK and Germany before moving to Rwanda in 2016. Whale has parked his life as a lawyer in favour of the electric moto project and a sideline in promoting native-tree planting to replace exotics that have made their way into the country’s lush, green landscape.

Josh Whale. Photo/Clare de Lore/Listener

Tell me about your early years, when you were a self-described “nerdy, probably know-it-all sort of kid”.

From a very early age, I was drawn to books; aged six, I read The Lord of the Rings [by JRR Tolkien]. At some point, Dad got fed up with me always wanting to go to the library or a bookshop, so one day he pulled out a big, beautiful Rand McNally International Atlas and told me to read that. I did, and I really got into maps, too, partly from all the Tolkien stuff. We always had the Listener and National Geographic at home, too. My parents told us tales of their travels, dozens of stories, and that played a big part in why I have ended up living abroad.

When did you become interested in climate change?

When we finished university, Claire and I watched An Inconvenient Truth [a documentary about former US Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate people about global warming]. I had studied Chinese as well as law, so we thought, perhaps naively, we would be able to add something in China. That country was on track then to become the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and we thought this was where we could add value. Claire was with an NGO and until I was offered a legal position, I did such things as kindergarten teaching and was even in a laundry-detergent commercial. We thought we’d stay a couple of years, but we ended up staying for five. In 2013, after a stint in London, I quit my law job and went on a “spirit quest”, for want of a better expression.

Trekking in Nepal in 2013. Photo/Whale family/Supplied

What was that about?

I did a lot of walking, including the Camino de Santiago trail and trekking in Nepal, and everywhere I went, the climate was completely out of whack. It was inescapable. It was an epiphany and it reaffirmed what I should be doing.

Why Rwanda?

There is a buzzy tech scene, it’s English-speaking and exciting things are happening here. For example, they’re leapfrogging the old ways of doing things, such as banking, and going straight to mobile phones, no landlines. In some ways, Rwanda is more advanced than Western countries. So, why not try this for motorcycles and leapfrog over petrol? I looked at various countries in the region and Rwanda came out tops. The country has higher fuel prices, so the economics were evident, there’s low corruption and it’s easier to do business.

Whale on the streets of Kigali. Photo/Clare de Lore/Listener

Why the focus on moto-taxis?

It seemed exciting that the focus of cutting-edge renewable energy was shifting to Africa. At the time, there had been so much buzz surrounding Tesla and electric bikes. People in Europe were congratulating themselves on a few thousand electric cars. I looked at what was happening in China with electric vehicles – there were about 200 million electric scooters and electric bikes in China, but the Western narrative was “electric vehicles are something the West will pioneer and should trickle through to places like Africa”. The China example flipped that on its head. It has nothing to do with how rich you are, so long as you design a business model that works. Electric vehicles make sense wherever you have high fuel prices and a lot of people driving a lot of kilometres each day.

What does your start-up involve?

We are making electric motos to replace Rwanda’s existing petrol ones. Our pilot has 25 electric motos. There are 2.5 million petrol motos in the region. We are trying to replace them with a cheaper and better alternative, not just because they are clean and green or because of huge subsidies, but because we are simply putting a better version on the road, and that happens to be electric.

With his wife, Claire Nelson, this year. Photo/Clare de Lore/Listener

In Kigali alone, we have 25,000 motos operating within a 12km radius of the city centre. If you stand by the side of the road, they make up about 60% of everything going past you. You have phenomenal density and concentration, so setting up a charging infrastructure to better suit the moto drivers makes much more sense than focusing on having a few electric cars scattered here and there. Fuel is trucked here from the coast. It costs twice as much to transport anything from the African coast to [landlocked] Kigali as it does to get it to the coast from, say, China. Fuel is transported on some pretty rough roads, so replacing that with electricity generated right here is very attractive.

What is the deal for the drivers?

Most drivers will rent to buy, as they do now. But a big difference is that the drivers won’t have to buy the battery, and that keeps the cost down. We make the battery an energy cost rather than a big up-front hardware cost. They come into the battery-swap station, then a little trolley will take out the spent battery and put in a new one. We check how much power they’ve used and the driver pays accordingly. It will take about 90 seconds.

What do you do in your downtime?

The lifestyle is like New Zealand in the 80s – hard to get decent wine and cheese, but you can afford a house downtown. We spend a lot of time outdoors and go mountain biking. Rwanda is gorgeous and not very big; it’s about the size of Nelson-Marlborough. It ranges from volcanoes, lakes and jungle in the west to savannah in the east – all in a four- or five-hour drive. I’m also involved in a tree-planting venture.

Kigali. Photo/Getty Images

What’s does that involve?

A lot of Rwanda’s trees are imported, many of them Australian, so naturally I want to get rid of them! Eucalyptus trees and grevilleas are not great for the ecosystem. We have good friends who run Akagera National Park in the east and they’ve agreed it would be great if the whole drive there was lined with acacias and not blimmin’ Aussies. At the moment, we are a loose collective and we’re looking at bringing together the national parks, getting expert botanists in to cultivate the trees, and coming up with an Edmonds Cookery Book-style guide to what to plant in Rwanda.

What are some good books to read about Rwanda and its history?

There are several great books about the 1994 genocide, and I try to read a couple of chapters again at this time of the year [when the genocide is being commemorated]. Roméo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda is particularly interesting in dissecting what went wrong. Another is  Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families. Jason Stearns’ Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa is about the aftermath of the great war in Africa as it spread into the Congo, in much the same vein as The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Whale. Photo/Clare de Lore/Listener

Alex Perry’s The Rift: A New Africa Breaks Free is also like Shadow of the Sun, and The State of Africa, by Martin Meredith, is a really good starter on modern African history. Alex Reader has a new book out called Africa: A Biography of the Continent, which I’ve only just started. Mostly, I read non-fiction, but I’m reading Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. It’s funny and satirical, about a mythical African dictatorship – in the vein of magical realism. Birds of East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe, and A Guide to the Seashores of the Western Indian Ocean are excellent, but also create a certain sadness when you think about the universe of life that is there, unknown to most of the world, and that it’s probably stuffed. This place is so glorious and it is in deep shit.

You’ve been almost moved to tears talking about this. It’s really got to you, hasn’t it?

The kids are right; the school protests are right. Greta Thunberg [a 16-year-old Swedish student and climate-change campaigner] is right – we need to panic. We need a revolution and to throw everything we have at it. If you could design a problem to destroy the human race, based on the frog in the pot of boiling water model, climate change is about perfect for taking us out. It doesn’t require a moment of pushing a button, it requires doing nothing.

This article was first published in the May 18, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.