Nigeria: Uganda’s New Car, The Nation’s Challenge

THE launching of an electric car that the students of Makerere University made has a ringing message for Nigeria on two fronts. The car – Kiira EV – will not run on petrol; it uses batteries and the university is not on strike, but runs its shoestring research budget well.

Founded in 1922 as a vocational college, Makerere became a university college in 1949 (the same year as University College Ibadan), University of East Africa in 1963 and then Makerere University in 1970 following the break up of the East African Union.

Two other universities in Dar-es-Salam and Nairobi resulted from the split of the East African Union, mostly at the instigation of the obtrusive Field Marshall Idi Amin. Some of the most famous alumni of Makerere include President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and President Milton Obote of Uganda.

The car was invented from part of research funds (Ush2.5 billion about US$10.46 million 0r N1.569 billion) that President Yoweri Museveni established. For poor Uganda, it is a lot of money, which people expect, could have been expended in tackling health matters like AIDS, where Uganda weighs in as a poor example.

On a global front, an electric car would not be exciting news. In 1884, electric cars had been invented. Big commerce, the appeal, and politics of oil did not allow its development. While countries like Britain and France, losers in the oil politics that America had cornered by 1918 wanted to develop electric cars, America’s forefront technology ensured that oil, in which it was ahead, led other things.

The Briton Thomas Parker invented an electric car in 1884. He said it would make “London smokeless” a reference to concerns about pollution.

The Ugandan car runs 80km on a single charge costing Sh6000 (about US$2.5 or N375) and can attain a speed of 100km/h. At Makerere, the latest attempts are at making the technology available in buses, the major form of transportation for Ugandans.

Kiira is a great reminder that given the right conditions, great things can flow out of Africa. Kiira is a challenge to Nigeria, its calamitous universities, its out-of-touch leadership and the academia that believes it is on a God-proposed mission that must be strike-driven.

“Our training in institutions of higher learning has not brought out a lot of research products. I think this vehicle is a manifestation of a changed paradigm of training in our institutions, to go beyond just lectures and laboratory experiments,” said Sander Stevens Togboa, an electrical engineering, professor who is overall head of the Kiira project.

Kiira EV, according to Tagboa, came out of Makerere’s participation in the Vehicle Design Summit, an inter-university initiative, in Turin, Italy. “Standard components” like the headlights, wheel, motor and batteries were imported, but, Togboa explained, the chassis was designed and produced locally, as were other parts, such as the firmware, which controls the computerised vehicle’s operations.

Now that the car has been built at a cost of $35,000 (N5.25 million) what is next? When mass-produced the price will be drastically reduced. Without the presidential money, the research would have died at design stage, a challenge that Nigerian researchers face.

With nearly 40,000 students, Makerere university’s official research budget is about UShs 1.4bn (US$540,000 about N81 million) a year, half of which is expended in running the school of postgraduate studies. Which Nigerian university has a research grant of N81 million in any area?

Nigerian governments and universities are so ancient that poor Uganda tells the story resoundingly. Are we listening? There are alternatives to petrol (fuel). Uganda is searching for it, we are clueless about where the world is heading.

Source: All Africa.Com – 16 Dec 2011