The Federal government of Nigeria has removed a subsidy on petrol, shooting the price of the all-important commodity to an all-time high and plunging transporters and commuters into penury. However, an Enugu-based engineer, Chukwuemeka Eze, is bringing succour to transporters in Enugu by helping them convert their fuel-powered tricycles to electric-powered kekes.
Chukwuemeka Eze, a graduate of Electrical Engineering from the prestigious University of Nigeria, Nsukka, was a member of the team that built Nigeria’s first-ever electric vehicle, the Lion Ozumba in 2019. But rather than rest on those laurels, the young engineer went into the world with his expertise, assembling batteries and battery packs from China, and installing them into the tricycles.
He founded a green energy company called Revive Earth in 2021. The company aims to create a revolution in transportation by converting existing fuel-powered vehicles into full battery-powered ones. That business is what he currently spends most of his energy on while moulding the foundation of green energy with other visionary individuals and organisations.
In an interview with me, Chukwuemeka, also a finalist at the prestigious Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, said what motivates him the most is the idea of waking up and going to work ‘in the future’.
“That’s where everybody should work because it never feels boring. It is the joy I feel when I think of the potentials there and how even the scariest chances of failure stand no chance in my heart,” he said.
Asked why he chose keke napeps against other forms of public transportation like bikes and minibuses, he said the tricycles are simple, lightweight, cheaper to manufacture and install, and most importantly, they penetrate the market more quickly. He, however, noted that his company wanted to focus on portable commercial vehicles and, as such, has since started experimenting with minibuses and will be launching the model in September.
Interestingly, Chukwuemeka had always wanted to be an engineer even before he had a clear idea of what engineering was all about. He liked the idea of making stuff, and he knew that people who were called engineers were renowned for making stuff. So he became enthusiastic about light and how electricity worked. He was also curious about batteries, LEDs, radios and just about anything powered by electricity.
After taking apart his father’s radio/cassette player (and getting punished for it) and reverse-engineering the same, his father decided to have him serve as an apprentice under a radio/cassette repairer after his primary school education. Chukwuemeka, who considers himself a tinkerer, learned from an early age how basic electrical connections in lighting and cooling systems work and was able to power his father’s house, which was mostly without power then.
Interestingly, Chukwuemeka doesn’t consider himself among the brightest students in Secondary School, having failed mathematics in the West African exams (WAEC) twice. But in a feat that would form a kind of philosophy in his life, he decided to study that weakness, sharpen and hone it until it became a strength. He fell in love with mathematics.
“I found myself deeply engrossed in studying the only thing that made me fail WAEC those two times: Mathematics. I studied it as if my life depended on it. Then I realized it wasn’t even as difficult, I had only been scared all along, based on popular opinion. I think the moment I began to enjoy Maths, I was certain I was going to study engineering if I ever got into the University.”
Journey into electric energy
Chukwuemeka Eze eventually made it into the university, but it took only two years for him to realise that he wasn’t cut out for the regular type of engineering. So he decided he must be vast with more unconventional means of engineering. He used the free internet in school to download and watch YouTube tutorials. Through these and critical analysis of hands-on applications of various popular engineering and scientific theories, he discovered and fell deeply in love with embedded systems design and computer programming.
He eventually started studying electric vehicles and was inspired by the works at Tesla and its sustainability mantra. These opened his eyes to the reality that electric vehicles would be the future, so he resolved to understand the technology with the fixed aim of starting his own electric vehicle servicing company five years after leaving the university. He interned in power electronics and embedded systems designing and programming to further this aim.
His big break would come just after this internship training programme. The founding Head of the Department of Mechatronic Engineering at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, Professor Ozoemena Ani, attended a conference organised by the National Automotive Design and Development Council (NADDC) in Abuja. He returned with a resolve to build an electric vehicle. Armed with this resolve, he formed a team which comprised student engineers like Chukwuemeka, and the next four months were the toughest he had ever endured.
The result of those four months of rigour was the launch of Nigeria’s first locally-made electric vehicle, the Lion Ozumba 551 in July 2019. You can read more on that in the link below:
“It was a tough four-month-long rigorous research. I was exposed to more than I ever saw in the past four years of my schooling. The vehicle was the result of that intense Research and Development. The media attention to it overwhelmed me personally. It got me re-thinking more wildly about the potentials of EVs in Nigeria,” he said.
Following that feat, the young innovator decided to make electric vehicles ‘his love and pain’ because he saw a great need for them.
Cleaner vehicles and cheaper alternatives
With the knowledge he gained from the hugely successful UNN project, Chukwuemeka founded Revive Earth in 2021. In two short years, the company has converted five tricycles from fuel-powered to fully electric-powered. It has also converted two bikes and is almost ready with its first minibus model. The company sources battery cells from China before assembling the battery packs in its workshop in Enugu to suit the specifications of the vehicles they are retrofitting.
“Our goal is to create a supply chain of sustainable transport systems for Africa which can utilize the technologies of the 4th Industrial Revolution, such as AI and IoT to create robust and sustainable transport system and mobility network that solve local problems.”Chukwuemeka Eze
The retrofitted keke napeps, the more common means of transportation, now carry display dashboards showing the distance travelled. They use 5.12kWh batteries which costs just N215 to fully charge at N60 per kilowatt hour.
It takes roughly 1 hour and thirty minutes to charge, fully and even this could be faster if there’s serious investment into superior albeit more expensive chargers. A fully charged lithium-ion battery could cover a minimum distance of 60 kilometres. Chukwuemeka says this is just 40% of what drivers of regular keke pay for fuel on the same distance. These electric vehicles are almost noiseless
Charging the vehicles is simple. Chukwuemeka says there’s a regular 13A/15A EU plug with a stretch of cable that allows the driver to plug the vehicle like he’d plug his phone or computer. He however lamented that charging systems haven’t become very widespread, which is why the company is aggressively seeking partnerships with financiers to invest in that.
“We are looking to raise USD 800,000 within the next five years to expand our retrofit factory, equip it more and aggressively market our product to benefit millions of Nigerians. One of the issues that mini-grid developers face is that of energy waste, like when you have built a massive solar farm but no one is using it, your investment will just lie in waste.
The young engineer argued that in rural areas where these mini-grid systems have been deployed more, there’s close to zero demand for electricity. People only charge small phones and light up their houses at night with them. He said if these systems were deployed to power electric vehicles instead, to push commercial offtake such as the ones his company is making, investors would find building mini-grids and regular electricity more lucrative.
Speaking on the company’s expansion plan, Chukwuemeka says within the next ten years, weRevive Earth hopes to have gone beyond manufacturing retrofit kits with a robust battery swapping/charging network to ground-up EV manufacturing tailored to fit local needs.
To that effect, it is already training technicians on retrofitting/conversion. After rigorous training and licensing, the technicians would work with the company as agents, setting up at various localities. They would render the conversion services using our Revive Kits and the maintenance services needed for electric vehicles. This way, Revive Earth could focus on manufacturing the systems.
Chukwuemeka and his team believe they are agents of the African industrial revolution. He explained that the key to their successes has been resilience to hit their goals with great attention to detail and a sense of purpose within the founding team.
My philosophy was and still is that the same reason people think EVs won’t work in Nigeria is the very reason it should work. EVs will create commercial demand for electricity and make the sector more lucrative for investors. If we find a way to create EVs and EV systems that can subtly tap electricity, even from renewables, we would have created a wave of transformation in both the energy and transportation sectors that will never end.Chukwuemeka Eze
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