Young British entrepreneur Joel Jackson talks to Africa Briefing on his journey from consulting for an NGO in Kenya to founding a company to produce home-grown all-purpose vehicles for the African terrain
IMAGINE driving your Japanese, European or American-made vehicle in rural Africa and the vehicle breaking down as a direct result of the poor state of the road. Imagine also, the added inconvenience of waiting for hours or trekking many miles because public transport in those areas is virtually non-existent.
That is the commonplace occurrence experienced many times by a young British entrepreneur then working as a consultant with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in rural Kenya. That experience inspired Joel Jackson to set up Mobius Motors to design and manufacture an affordable vehicle, which is rugged and durable enough to withstand Africa’s rough and sometimes unforgiving terrain.
‘My background before starting Mobius was in management consulting in London, but I was always interested in Africa and its long-term economic potential and growth. I eventually moved to Africa in 2009 to work for an NGO, to help with their operations and expansion in the region,’ Jackson told Africa Briefing.
‘That was really an exciting role, and it was the first time I’d travelled to Africa, and staying in that role for two years exposed me to the challenges and opportunities in the transportation space. Ultimately that led me to found Mobius.’
Jackson said the first-hand experience moving around rural and peri-urban areas and essentially struggling to get around, struggling with public transport options and generally degraded roads was the inspiration for Mobius, recognising that that kind of challenge was common not just in rural parts of Kenya, but much of sub-Saharan Africa.
Jackson believed that it would ‘ultimately be a game-changing opportunity’ for a new product best suited to local conditions and needs. It would ‘offer people in those areas much more effective forms of transportation with an affordable and durable car. So that was the nugget of inspiration for Mobius and I stayed in Kenya and I’ve been there since.’
From the prototype Mobius I, Jackson and his team moved to the Mobius II, which was launched in 2015. ‘What we’ve now developed is the new generation of Mobius II. The first generation Mobius II was very well-received. We created a small production batch to get the vehicle into the market and get feedback from the customers so we could continue developing future generations of the car,’ he said.
Indeed the very rugged, affordable Mobius II has performed consistently well in the market with overwhelmingly positive feedback from satisfied customers. ‘[We] meet the needs of the average consumer vehicles that are really rugged and reliable and also very affordable. So developing and scaling that kind of product will make Mobius a household name not only in Kenya but in other parts of the continent,’ said a bullish Jackson. ‘And ultimately, that would generate a significant commercial return. We also see a huge social impact opportunity with Mobius,’ he added.
The architecture of the current next-generation Mobius II allows the company to launch a ‘naked version’ which users can adapt for various businesses: public transport, pick-up truck, or ambulance. ‘That will open up the market to allow many more owners not just to use the vehicles for their own private transportation, but also to run services and in turn enable the end-users access to transportation.
‘So the Mobius will be selling not just B2C [business to consumers] with the current SUV version that we have, but also B2B [business to business] sales to entrepreneurs who can, in turn, run their own transportation services,’ Jackson explained.
He added: ‘In Africa, there are numerous small-scale transportation services offered, matatus for example. So there’s an abundance of entrepreneurialism in Africa. What are missing are the products themselves that are affordable, efficient to run and reliable as well and not capacity or terrain constrained,’ he added.
Jackson believes the progress of Mobius will boost industrialisation in the long-term not just in East Africa but across the continent. ‘Today we have a factory in Nairobi where we can run end-to-end vehicle production. We have a body shop, paint shop, general line assembly, final line inspection, warehouse and receiving area,’ he said.
‘That facility enables us to run production in-house at Mobius. What we’re also doing is working with suppliers in Kenya localise more and more of the content in our car. The potential for localisation of content in Mobius is significantly higher than the traditional vehicle because we’ve specifically the vehicle to be localisable – simple and robust.
‘If you look at the supply chain in Kenya today, we already work with a handful of local suppliers to strengthen their processes so that we can increase the volume with them, and build more of the car in Kenya.’
Jackson expects the local content for the Mobius to be ‘substantially higher’ which, in turn will create more jobs. ‘Not just the Mobius directly in our production facility but also in the tier-one supply network. As our production volumes grow, so too does our employment potential. And for every Mobius job we create, there are many more jobs we create in the local supply network.’
According to Jackson, Mobius offers better value to consumers. One of the advantages that Mobius has over imported vehicles is the high imported duties that push up their prices. ‘The second challenge is those vehicles, by and large, are developed for a different environment, often well-paved urban environments,’ he argues. ‘So what you find generally is that the majority of cars on the road today in a country like Kenya are not specifically designed for that kind of environment and relatively expensive.’
He added: ‘Mobius is offering a much higher value product. The cost of our car is half the price of a five-year-old imported SUV in Kenya. So it’s substantially lower-priced with equivalent performance. This vehicle is designed for rugged road driving over long distances with heavy loads. So the consumer first and foremost is getting an unparalleled proposition.’
Mobius currently has 500 pre-orders on its books. A relatively nascent concept in Kenya, the pre-ordering for the vehicle indicates high inherent demand. Mobius also offers and after-sales experience which, according to Jackson, is not about the product itself. ‘It’s about the overall life-cycle of the ownership of the product. If your car breaks down, for example, what kind of service do you receive? We are offering a free three-year warranty and we’re supporting that with high-quality, authorised servicing operations.’
This compares favourably with the majority of used vehicles sold in Kenya, which have limited or no warranty. Due to the high repair costs from authorised dealers, people tend to use roadside mechanics some of whom use inferior quality spare parts for their repairs. ‘So beyond just offering a free warranty, Mobius is offering a trusted network of service operations with genuine parts,’ Jackson said.
Seeing the economic potential of Mobius, Jackson says the Kenyan government is keen to see the company scale up and expand its distribution network. ‘We are in discussions at the moment with the government about further support that we can explore with them in future as we continue to grow. Right now, there are a number of incentives that already exist in the region for automotive assembly. But again, Mobius is going far beyond what traditional assembly is involved in developing a new vehicle. What we’d like to see over time is more support to encourage deeper and deeper investment in local industrialisation.
‘In economies around the world like Germany and Japan, manufacturing has been the backbone of long-term growth, and we see exactly the same potential in Africa, particularly in a post-Covid world where the need for stable employment is even greater.’
The Mobius journey has not been without challenges and, according to Jackson, as a start-up carmaker, the initial challenge was setting up a global supply chain. ‘Automotive in Africa is still relatively nascent compared to elsewhere in the world, and although there are some existing skillsets in automotive assembly and distribution, for development of new vehicle platforms, that hasn’t really been done before in Africa – developing a homegrown vehicle,’ he explained.
‘We’ve however been fortunate in the last few years to hire some really talented engineers, particularly Kenyan, engineers, but also to work with international partners to help us increase that skillset. And this is one of the longer-term investments Mobius is driving in Kenya in expanding the skillset in automotive development.’
Jackson sees ‘inbound demand’ for Mobius all over Africa and says the company plans to expand ‘as we quickly as we can’ to meet that demand, though the initial focus will be within the East African Community (EAC). However, he believes in longer-term they can sell those cars throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The plan is to set up a Mobius-controlled sales and service centre network that will maintain a high-quality service experience for the customer. That, he says, will ultimately underpin the Mobius brand and strengthen it in ne regions as it continues to grow.
‘At the moment, the focus is on Kenya as we scale up production. Over the next few years we’ll be selling cars in East Africa and then longer-term we will plan to set up regional hubs in West and Southern Africa where we’ll continue to ramp up production to meet local demand.’