Kenya is a case study for global tourism, striving to meet climate change goals but struggling with the expense to do that, especially coming off two incredibly tough years without business.
Kenya recently announced that its national parks and game reserves will only allow non-fossil fuels to access it national parks and game reserves by 2030. In addition, all hospitality and tourism facilities will be required to adapt renewable energy and circular economy in their operations. The cabinet secretary for tourism in Kenya stated that this was a necessary move being that Kenya is a founding member of the newly launch of sustainable tourism global center.
But the move will come with enormous challenges — mainly the cost of electric vehicles in Kenya’s storied park lands.
This comes as the industry confronts that transportation is tourism’s main source of greenhouse gas emissions. On average, planes and cars generate the most CO2 per passenger mile, with tour buses, ferries, and trains coming well behind. Following the recent United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow, nearly 200 countries have committed to revisit and strengthen their 2030 emissions reductions plans next year, keeping the door open to the crucial 1.5°C temperature goal.
Kenya highly relies on tourism and rainfed agriculture which unfortunately are both susceptible to climate change and extreme weather events. Kenya’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions amounted to roughly 16 million metric tons in 2020, down from 18.3 million metric tons in the previous year, according to Statista,. Despite this decrease, there has been an increase in the volumes of emissions from fossil fuels and industry in the country since 2000. And for this reason, it is necessary for the government to take the necessary steps and ensure sustainability to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change.
The move has been received with mixed feelings amongst the players. Gerard Beaton, director of operations for safari operator Asilia, said that camps have, for a long time have run on solar power, and banned single-use plastic, and that replacing the fuel guzzling engines of the safari cars is the last step.
“We charge our electric cars from our solar plant so our game drives really do have considerably lower emissions over their lifetime than conventional (internal combustion engine) vehicles,” he said.
‘Huge Financial Outlay’
Despite that this is a worthy initiative, the prospect of the costs weighs heavy.
“This is a huge financial outlay for our national parks after two years of almost no revenue. But Kenya would be setting an incredible example to the world of how to care for its wild places. We already have a ban on single use plastic in the conservancies, (moving) to only have electric cars would be truly setting a global standard,” explained Beaton.
He also adds that it will be a great initiative only if the vehicles will be charged from solar plants.
“It is essential that we use renewable energy sources. As per the above, electric safari vehicles not only enhance the guest experience they are also better for the environment. I saw that Uber will be introducing 3,000 electric motorcycles in Nairobi — this is going to make a huge difference to the quality of life in the city with reduced noise and emissions,” he said.
For Asilia, the shift to electric safari car really was the final piece in the jigsaw of having a low footprint safari operation. Their first electric safari car began with Ol Pejeta Bush Camp in August 2019 and converting the safari car cost Asilia $37,000. This, according to camp officials, was a significant initial cost which for many companies after two years of Covid-related reduced revenues will be hard to find. However, Opibus (now ROAM), the company that built Asilia’s electric safari vehicles, estimates that by running an electric safari vehicle, players in the industry will save $7,000 in fuel and service costs so it will take us 5 years to break even. Despite the cost, Beaton said that this has revolutionized their guest experience.
“Keen photographers are particularly enthusiastic about the car as the ride is much smoother and there are no longer bump gear changes — making for ideal photography conditions. It is also quieter making it easier to enjoy the sounds of the bush,” he noted.
For Emboo, the first lodge in Kenya and beyond that has its entire fleet of Safari Vehicles powered by solar energy, the vision of sustainability began from the onset when they began operations in the country. For them, having the electric safari vehicle has offered a unique way to explore the Masaai Mara.
“The vehicles are solar powered, silent, have no exhaust fumes and do not disturb wildlife. You will be able to enjoy safaris while listening to the sounds of nature, enjoying the scents of the savanna and getting close to their favorite animals without disturbing animals. You can truly be part of nature,” said Valery Joanne Super, director of sales and marketing for the Emboo camp.
She added that the electric vehicles increase the tour guides’ sighting opportunities as they can now use all their senses while guiding.
“Recently, guests went on a game drive when the guide heard a soft roar in the distance. The sound would normally not be heard over a standard engine. The guide drove towards the sound and found a leopard with cubs in the bushes which the guests enjoyed,” she continued.
While the upfront investment is higher, Valery noted that its operational costs are much lower and this makes it a business savvy decision.
“On top of being the right thing to do for our community and ecosystem, the vehicles, do not need fuel and the maintenance is minimal. As you will have noticed, the fuel situation in Kenya has led to high prices and shortages of fuel at stations, lodges with old ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles or with generators powering their fridges, lights is experiencing range anxiety due to this. Those that have electric vehicles are just fine,” she said.
Innovation Hub to Inspire
As a result, the camp now has an innovation hub in the Masaai Mara to inspire, and train other tourism players on sustainability. They also receive a roadmap on how to develop their own sustainable business, community center or daily lifestyle.
“Emboo River is offering consultancy to help businesses in the tourism space and beyond to make their operations sustainable. It is better for the environment, smooth business operations, cost savings, being independent from world events and price increases and we’re here to help others make this shift,” said Valery.
Though he is confident that electric is the way forward and is looking forward to seeing improvements in the country specific to game drive vehicles. Mohanjeet Brar, managing director of Gamewatchers Safaris, hasn’t made the shift yet since it hasn’t made any financial sense to his business.
“Unfortunately Kenya doesn’t seem be benefitting from the lowered costs of battery/solar tech yet. Also my friends that bought them are having some challenges and the battery life isn’t sufficient for some. It is almost double the price of a new vehicle once you factor in the cost of the charging facility in the camp. Of course, if you’re having to use a generator to charge the car then it completely defeats the purpose,” he said.
For John Musau, general manager of Tamarind Tree Hotel, this directive will be an expensive affair since most of the tour operators taking their guests to the Nairobi National park, which is a few minutes away from the hotel, have both diesel and petrol tour vans.
“The main negatives are high cost of maintenance and purchase which will render lot of local tour operators and hotels jobless. Our hotel will for sure be affected because majority our clients want to do day trips to Nairobi national park. If we will not have such vehicles, then it means we will not be as attractive to foreign tourists as we are currently,” he said.