Why I left my legal career to design and build electric vehicles in Nigeria -Tolu Williams
In this interview with @KayodeLagos, Tolu Williams, the founder of Saven heart technologies, abbreviated Siltech, takes us on his journey into exploration and selling of e-mobility in Lagos, Nigeria. He also mentioned plans to expand into other parts of Africa
What is the story behind Siltech?
My journey started in 2012 when I took to attending Automotive Technology international trade shows in search of the most cutting-edge Mobility-based innovation and technology for personal use. The journey began with a well-known electric scooter.
My Law degree was more of fulfillment and alignment with family tradition, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but I’ve always had a passion for automotive engineering, mobility-based science, and technology ranging from motorbikes to superbikes, sports cars, bicycles, fighter jets, and ships.
SILTECH began as a small e-mobility company that procured and distributed custom Africanised Evs ranging from two to three-wheelers.
With a significant increase in demand and aftersales services, I ventured into e-mobility Automotive Engineering and served professional training courses for two prominent Ev Manufacturers in Asia.
I quickly learned how to build, customize, and manufacture Evs for the African market, and as we honed this skill over the years, we began to build prototypes that would later become our best sellers across Africa.
What types of EVs do you manufacture?
To begin, our primary focus is e-mobility, and we concentrate on two and three-wheelers. We began about eight years ago for personal use only. Then we gradually graduated to different use cases, ranging from security to oil and gas, to logistics, as well as a slew of different use cases for electric vehicles (EVs).
Tell us about the EVs you have in stock.
We pretty much have something for everyone, for all ages, and for all purposes. Dirt bikes, electric power bikes, electric scooters, electric tricycles, four-wheeler rides, and electric quads are available. We have every type of two and three-wheel electric vehicle from around the world, including India, Asia, and Europe.
How are these bikes getting here?
Some of them are shipped, while others are assembled here. Some of them need minor tweaks, such as changing the motor or the controller system or getting a larger battery capacity based on what our clients want. However, the majority of them arrive on a ship. As a result, we either assemble partially or curate different specifications.
Given the scarcity of electric vehicle engineers, how complex is the assembly of electric vehicles?
The assembly procedure is not difficult. It’s no different than putting together a standard petrol-powered two or three-wheeler. However, the emphasis has been on retrofitting or customization rather than assembly. Aside from simply assembling the body of the EV, we change the controllers, the battery rating, sometimes we upgrade the model, and sometimes you have a product that looks really good but doesn’t work well in the market, so we might do a little tweaking to ensure that it can work well in African terrain.
The majority of these bikes have been modified for use on European terrain. So, what are some of the features that you customize to ensure that they can be used by anyone here?
In terms of performance, one of the first things we look at is the motor. The terrain here is very different, requiring a little more power, so we concentrate on that. We choose controllers that can operate in high temperatures and for extended periods of time.
We also work on the suspension, a great way key part of the technology because most bikes have the motor inside the back tire, though we’re slowly moving away from that. In order to keep your engine from being impacted as much, you’ll need a very good suspension.
In most cases, these bikes are designed to grow on perfectly flat roads in first-rate cities with easy access to energy.
Lagos isn’t somewhere where you’re going to find a public switch to charge your EVs and regulations haven’t really met that requirement yet. However, you can swap out your battery, take it anywhere, and use smart chargers.
You can charge using an inverter, a small generator, a large generator, or a standard grid light.
We don’t want a situation in which you, for example, run out of battery and then look for a way to charge, becoming an inconvenience to others, and then trying to roll your bike into the house to charge it, which simply does not work.
So you take out your battery, which is about the size of a briefcase, take it inside, charge it, and then return. This also broadens your potential range.
It is common for larger brands to be drawn to visions like yours, so are you open to collaborations when they come calling?
We will welcome them with open arms. The overall goal is to reduce emissions from mobility in Africa to zero. And, if you look at it, the most common mode of transportation is two and three wheels, because that is what people can afford.
Savenheart technology is definitely open to collaborations, giving people more options, access to these vehicles, more financing, and all of those different ways to quickly adopt this. Getting more avenues to access these vehicles faster, whether commercially or personally, is something I’m all for.
What are some of the difficulties you face?
The main issue here is the cost. Raw materials for making batteries are becoming scarce, the major powers have begun to snap up the raw materials, which means that the average cost per kilowatt-hour of a battery is around $200. We’d prefer it to be around $100 or $120. That was the goal last year, but it’s unlikely to happen again this year.
People are wary of new innovations when it comes to adoption. So, how are you going to get people to accept your innovations?
At 8 years old, I believe Siltech is one of Africa’s oldest, if not the first, E-mobility platforms.
Because, even before there was talk about climate change, we just liked these vehicles.
I told you how it all started with me always wanting to ride bikes, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted the stress of having to be a Power Biker. I actually wanted to get from point A to point B on a bike, and this bike thing gets me there.
Batteries, suspension, and all of the personal challenges I faced about eight years ago are now funding ideas for each of these bikes. Each one has a unique story and is slightly customized; we test each one before releasing it to the public.
What are the differences between your customized electric power bike and a petrol-engine power bike?
The speed and power are identical; the only difference is that this is noiseless.
First, you eliminate noise pollution, and then there is no heat, despite the fact that we live in a tropical country.
If you’re an Icelander, you might enjoy riding your Kawasaki because it will warm your thighs. According to what we’ve seen, people in Africa prefer this because it doesn’t emit heat.
Then there’s the upkeep. So, with a traditional petrol engine, you might do X number of oil changes because there are so many things that can go wrong technically with your engine.
For electric power bikes, you need just a layer of grease and anti-rust spray on top of that, and you make sure to charge your battery at least once a month to keep it from going flat.
So, while the EV is more expensive at first, it saves money in the long run. Like my dirt bike, I’ve had it for about three years and sometimes I think about how I’ve never serviced it, maybe just changed the gear oil once, but that’s about it.
I just charge at home; it’s almost as if mobility on this bike isn’t something I’m even paying for.
In terms of security, what is the difference between an EV and a gasoline bike?
Petrol bikes are extremely loud. So, for example, if you’re patrolling an estate like Banana Island, you’re disturbing everyone, but when an electric bike passes by quietly with the siren, it’s as if it’s part of nature.
So you’re not only lowering emissions and reducing engine oil stains, but you’re also lowering noise pollution and air pollution.
There’s also a limit to how far you can go with designing petrol bikes in terms of designs and styles because you always have to find somewhere to keep the engine.
Who are your clients?
People generally think of a bike as something used for commercial transportation or a fun ride, or as something that sits in your garage and is packed indoors. However, with these, people tend to use them because they are so simple to use.
We have many female users of electric bikes, as well as grandmothers, children, businessmen, and people of all ages who use them for a variety of purposes.
Some just use it to go play tennis at VGC every day, while others use it to commute to work from Lekki to Ikoyi every day. Some people ride their bikes to get home or to the gym during rush hour, people use it for deliveries, others for smoothies, and there are numerous other applications. People use this for security now, which is an added benefit. The more we saw people using it, the more we became inventive, and we began supplying corporations such as Halogen.
How did you come up with these amazing designs and innovations?
It was really based on market demand, based on what we were hearing from clients. For example, there is one we call the Lekki bike; we designed it specifically for Lekki phase one, VI, Ikoyi, and large estates that want something affordable and stylish.
How do customers get repairs or spare parts?
They can just come to us, and we will give them a warranty. We’ve figured out the few main components we need over the years.
But, aside from that, I’d like to emphasize the importance of adoption and orientation. So we send out messages to each and every user of our products on a weekly basis, reminding them of the things they need to do because, because it’s such a new technology, we don’t want them to make mistakes.
We send them out on a regular basis, and you remind us at the end of the month to charge your battery, because if you don’t use it, you shouldn’t let it lie*. So those are the pointers that will enable them to use it for the next three to five years.
How long can the battery be charged?
Depending on what you’re doing, it can last anywhere from a day to three days.
But the thing is, there is no real downtime because it employs battery soft technology, which allows you to top up wherever you go.
For example, if you go to work with your laptop and your briefcase battery, put it by your desk, plug it in, you’re not going to plug it in and all the lights will dim like you’re plugging in a kettle because it’s a smart charger.
You can just plug it in, the charger is maybe 0.8 kilowatts, plug that in, even if it’s only for 30 minutes or 45 minutes, it’s enough, you’ve made up for the journey.
You can actually go on and on; there are no boundaries.
How does the current exchange rate/forex scarcity affect your business, and how are you dealing with it?
As I previously stated, this business has been influenced in some ways by supply and demand. The demand compelled us to curate and design vehicles.
Now that supplies are running low, we’re leaning toward manufacturing as well. So, basically, we’re looking at ways to be less reliant on having to ship in everything.
As a result, we anticipate that at least 20 to 30 percent of the EV’s material will be sourced locally. And in about a month, we’ll be releasing a prototype.
It’ll be like Nigeria’s first luxurious electric bike and a high-end performer, going above and beyond anything in this shop right now.
How well are you positioned to capitalize on global oil crises?
What’s going on in the world, with the World War, just shows that we can’t rely on oil and gas because oil and gas can be the reason why we have to be able to talk to or negotiate with anyone.
We can’t rely on it because it pollutes the environment. Despite the fact that there are numerous aspects of oil and gas, we must shift our focus to newer and alternative energy sources. And it’s especially clear right now, with the global price of fossil fuels skyrocketing.
We definitely need significant investments in renewable energy as well as increased access to renewable energy.
What has been the rate of penetration for your products/electric bikes/electric vehicles?
I’d say it’s on a steady rise; it peaked during COVID and has been steadily rising since then.
I believe we have now identified the markets that we want to supply, as well as the main clients and products that we will be pursuing in the next five to ten years, as well as signing off on some of the key technologies that will remain relevant in the coming years.
We’re not Tesla, Rivian, or BMW, but there will be electric cars everywhere very soon. As a result, we are very focused on products for mass markets.
In the near future, our ultimate goal is to ensure that we manufacture the majority of the EV’s parts, as well as raw materials, locally.
How long will these EVs last?
They’re extremely tough; each one has been tested for at least six to nine months before we sell it. We don’t always know what the limits of EVs are because they are determined by demand.
I’ll give you an example: the logistics company that purchased it uses these bikes to commute from Apapa to Ikoyi every day. Now that we’ve seen it can do that, it’s simply given us more insight into what technology to improve.
I’m working with Max on one of our main clients, and we just finished creating a max series M3 entry, which is an electric okada. It’s the same as a petrol okada, but it’s electric.
There is no difference in the way it looks, rides, or performs. From a commercial and personal standpoint, we’re pretty experienced, and a lot of the inputs that went into the commercial vehicles also came from our experience.
How do you intend to expand across Africa?
I believe we would like to scale exactly what we’re doing. That is, we use our technical expertise, as well as our knowledge of demand and supply, to procure EVs in order to enter new markets.
Our goal is to have one hundred outlets throughout Africa. So what I meant was that we built the Siltech brand, and people are aware that the Siltech brand is an African brand that manufactures EVs for Africa.
We want to expand to different distribution points, not necessarily by opening branches elsewhere, but by having our products available in countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Cameroon, and wherever else is possible.
And in some places, the cost of fuel is extremely high. Fuel prices in Ghana, for example, are nearly five times higher than in Nigeria.
So that’s what we’re looking for: to take our experience and apply it to other markets, essentially supporting various platforms through distribution. It’s not like you’re buying a fancy bike; there are various consultancy angles ranging from security deployments to safe oil and gas mobility, intra-construction mobility, and everything in between.
Poaching is one of the new security use cases we just started. That’s great because they’re silent, don’t disturb the animals, and the poachers don’t hear them coming.
What are you currently working on?
Siltech has launched its 8th Generation Evs and intends to build an all-Nigerian Evs. To better serve demand, we have recruited and trained a team of Nigerians to build custom Evs.
We also recently purchased 20 plots of land to construct an EV manufacturing and assembly plant. The EVs will be manufactured in Nigeria with 65 percent of their raw materials produced locally.
In September 2022, three new Ev prototypes made in Nigeria will also be unveiled.
How do you find technical skills and manpower on a local level?
The design, welding, and chassis are all done locally in Abeokuta, the leather is from Kaduna, the battery assembly is also from Kaduna, I focus on the battery, the motor, and the controller, and we all come together to form an all-Nigerian team to create electric bikes for various use cases. It will be very high-end and luxurious, and it will go a long way.