First EV mass transit bus by Swedish-Kenyan startup Opibus begins operation amidst plans for regional launch by 2023

The first electric bus by Swedish-Kenyan EV startup, Opibus, has hit Kenya’s roads marking the beginning of the company’s venture into the mass transit industry. Opibus first announced plans to roll out electric public transport buses last year when it raised $7.5 million in a pre-Series A round.

The startup is now running a pilot in readiness for the commercial launch of EV buses in Kenya later this year, and across Africa by the end of 2023.

Opibus has over the last five years been in the business of future-proofing existing gasoline and diesel vehicles by converting them to electric. EVs come with a range of benefits including a reduced cost of transport and no carbon emissions. The startup, which was founded in 2017 by Gardler, Filip Lövström and Mikael Gånge, has so far converted over 170 vehicles for different clients including mining companies and tour firms.

The company is now slowly pivoting to the building of EVs and supportive infrastructure like public charging stations. Brand new Opibus electric buses will cost $100,000 and $60,000 for conversions (which the startup is using in the pilot program).

“This first year, we will be testing 10 buses commercially in Nairobi to ensure that the product fits and is optimized for the usage patterns. Once we get this valuable feedback, we will make the required changes and get all our production partners lined up to scale the roll out as rapidly as possible,” Opibus chief strategy and marketing officer, Albin Wilson, told TechCrunch.

Opibus specializes in making electric buses and motorcycles.  Image Credits: Opibus

Opibus says its vehicles are designed and built locally, giving them a competitive advantage in terms of a lower price by the time they reach the market. Additionally, local production means that the output can be tailored for local market needs.

“Our strategy is to design and develop a bus that is viable in price, durable and accessible for this region…We are building a product that allows for a rapid scale up, that can leverage global and local manufacturers. Meaning our design is easily implemented across the African continent, as it is a product tailored for the use case, and very cost effective,” said Wilson.

The startup is now eyeing the rest of Africa through partnerships that will drive the adoption of EVs across the continent..

Uber’s partnership with Opibus, which was announced last month, for example, will see the deployment of up to 3,000 electric motorcycles, manufactured by the startup, across Africa by 2022. Motorcycles under Uber are used as taxis and for deliveries in its different markets.

The EV sector in Kenya is budding and has over the recent years attracted new players including BasiGo, which made its debut in Kenya in November last year. BasiGO, which recently imported two EV mass transport buses for its pilot, plans to sell locally-assembled electric buses using parts from China’s EV maker BYD Automotive. The BasiGo buses come in 25 and 36-seater capacities, with a range of about 250 kilometers while those by Opibus come in 51-seater capacity with a range of 120 kilometers.

Toyota Ventures backs seed extension into Agtonomy, turning tractors into autonomous vehicles

Agtonomy co-founder and CEO Tim Bucher was born and raised on a farm and was deep into his own farming business when he took a computer course while at UC Davis and got hooked.

It was that parallel agriculture/technology career that led him to start Agtonomy, a hybrid autonomy and tele-assist service startup that turns tractors and other equipment into autonomous machines to provide a low-cost, technology-enabled labor force for local farms to manage such equipment.

It came out of stealth mode last September with $4 million in seed funding from a group of backers that included Grit Ventures, GV and Village Global.

Grit and GV came back again to invest in the South San Francisco-based company and were part of a $5 million seed extension that includes backers like Toyota Ventures, Flybridge, Hampton VC, E²JDJ and Momenta Ventures. The latest funding gives Agtonomy $9 million in total funding to date.

Having just raised funding, Bucher wasn’t expecting to raise again so soon, but when he saw the outlook for 2022 that agtech was going to be the No. 1 “hot area” for the year and beyond, he decided to take the additional funding.

“Five years ago, it was hard to get any VC attention related to agtech, but there has just been overwhelming interest from investors, and though we are just starting out, local agriculture needs help now,” he added. “The funding will accelerate our trials and additional partners and essentially turbo-charge our activities and ability to double down at the speed in which we are moving, which includes expanding the team.”

Bucher anticipates having 50 trials going and to double the company’s 20-person headcount in the next few months.

Agtonomy is as simple as calling an Uber driver, he said. Using a mobile phone app, a farmer can assign a job to one of the tractors, like mowing the field. He believes self-driving technology like this, and what other companies like John Deere are doing, will help to alleviate the decades of labor shortages in farms around the world.

The company has a small fleet of what he called “proof of concept” electric vehicles that have been operating for a year at Bucher’s Trattore Farms. He says the farm work on his farm is almost entirely done with these vehicles.

Bucher expects a commercial launch to happen in 2023, and the company will initially start with a few hundred tractors. In comparison, some 300,000 tractors are sold each year, he added. The tractors can be anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million, with companies like John Deere typically going after big farms.

In contrast, Agronomy’s autonomous vehicles will cost around $50,000, which Bucher believes will encourage larger farms to purchase a swarm of smaller machines that can run 24 hours a day, be more environmentally friendly and not tear up the land.

Jim Adler, the founding managing director of Toyota Ventures, said in a written statement, “We see huge potential in agtech and are making investments accordingly. Fully autonomous vehicles will become a reality on farms where they are desperately needed.”

Similarly, Bucher believes that many of the autonomous vehicles today cater to more “convenience technologies,” while companies in the agtech space are building similar vehicles in what he calls “necessity technology.”

“It is kind of a perfect storm with consumer demand, climate change, electrification and labor shortage in farming,” he added. “We can solve these much sooner in agtech than having the other kinds of autonomous technology in our lives. With ours, it allows all of us to eat good food.”

Editor’s note, Jan. 18 at 9:05 a.m. reflects a change that Toyota Ventures did not lead the round.