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Africa’s Anti-Hummer

Tristan McConnell
Wednesday, 20 Feb 2013 | 10:50 AM ET

Africa's roads are, for the most part, awful. They are potholed, corrugated, crumbling ribbons of tarmac, or earth that turns to mud when the rains come.

There are exceptions: South Africa has some nice, smooth, multi-lane highways; Namibia has straight single-lane ones that slice through the desert while in Kenya the capital is getting some new Chinese-built flyovers and bypasses.

But South Sudan and Congo have virtually no paved roads at all. Liberia's are swallowed by jungle, Niger's and Mali's by the desert. Ugandans have staged creative protests, fishing in the capital's huge water-filled potholes. In Kenya, once you turn off the main arteries the already-bad roads simply disappear.

Like any first-time visitor to rural Kenya, Joel Jackson, a 28-year-old Briton, couldn't help but notice this when he first came in 2009 to work for a forestry company. He saw at once the impact bad roads have on the economy: imported off-road vehicles that can handle the roads cost a fortune yet people and things have got to get about or the economy withers.

"Transportation is as fundamental to developing countries as health care, education, markets and all the other things that drive prosperity," he said in his office in Nairobi where he runs Mobius Motors, a new company designing and building African cars for African roads.

Mobius-II will come off the production line later this year but it has already been four years in the making. The design is no-frills — it resembles the squat US army Humvee — and is hardy with a tough tubular steel chassis, wide wheelbase, high ground clearance and economical 1.6-liter (0.4-gallon) gas engine. It has no side windows (so no need for air conditioning) and can be adapted to carry up to eight passengers or nearly 1,500 pounds of cargo. Like another, rather more famous car model, it is, for now, only available in black.

The first iteration of Mobius was a prototype based on a sandrail design. It was knocked together during weekends and evenings over 10 months in a mechanic's workshop in Kilifi.

"The logic behind Mobius-1 was, can we build a car with local labor and a much simpler design premise to make a very simple, but robust, durable and reliable car?" Jackson recalled.

"We were testing the water. When that was done it became clear you could do this in a more organized fashion, introduce more engineering rigor and create a much higher quality product that could have mass market potential."

Jackson now has 16 full-time staff and Mobius is soon to hit the production line. But he said he never set out to start a car company and certainly he looks nothing like an automotive executive.

Slim and sandy-haired, he dresses in the uniform of the hipster: skinny olive chinos and grey polo shirt, light dusting of stubble, Converse One Stars and no watch. He was named a TED Fellow last year and has won Mobius a grant worth $70,000 from New York-based nonprofit Echoing Green, which gives seed funding to social entrepreneurs.

More important, he's also convinced business people and for-profit investors in Silicon Valley, the City of London and elsewhere to put in hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2010. The latest round of fundraising closed late last year, bringing in enough investment to get Mobius into production and begin work on another prototype.

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In late 2011 Jackson took Mobius out around Kenya for a road test-cum-marketing drive that helped him to identify and fix a few technical issues as well as get feedback from the kinds of people he hopes will buy the car.

At a cost of $6,000, the car is too expensive for many of Africa's rural poor for whom a couple of dollars a day is a good income. Instead, it is pitched at rural entrepreneurs in a bid to get them, and the economy, moving.

"We're not just building better cars, we're enabling entrepreneurs, giving them what they need to run sustainable businesses," Jackson said.

But Mobius is not a charity and Jackson, who worked as a financial adviser immediately after finishing university in London, is keen to make money.

"There is a clear social impact and all of the investors have cared about that but it hasn't been the primary driver of their investment decision. What this is fundamentally about is the commercial business," he said.

The first step is Kenya this year, then East Africa within five years. After that, perhaps within a decade, the continent: a huge market with no shortage of terrible roads and, so Jackson calculates, no shortage of potential Mobius customers.

"Eighty percent of Africa's population lives in rural areas and those areas have a lot of people with sparse, degraded roads," he said. "I know it's a pretty contrarian idea to build vehicles in Africa but the flip side is this could be massive, it could be a game changing business," Jackson said.

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