Electrifying African Transportation with Roam: A Deep Dive into SET Award Winner’s Impact and Challenges

The climate tech sector is on an extraordinary ascent, with global investment in energy transition reaching a record $1.8 trillion in 2023, marking a 17% increase from the previous year. This upswing signifies a decisive shift towards clean technology solutions, reflecting a deepening commitment to sustainable innovation globally. The 2024 SET100 startups, pulled from more than 430 applications from over 75 countries, are at the forefront of this charge—a result of their pioneering innovations driving significant advancements in high-impact sectors.

In the third of our deep-dive interviews with the SET24 winners, we sat down with Roam’s CFO, Rajal Upadhyaya, on the sidelines of SET Award 2024 about the startup’s mission to electrify Nairobi’s, Kenya’s, and the wider Sub-Saharan African transportation system. Despite financial and infrastructural challenges, Upadhyaya explains how Roam is pioneering the shift from petrol to electric motorcycles and buses in this crucial market, driving down carbon emissions and enhancing local livelihoods.

Vertical Integration for Control & Efficiency

Roam makes electric, battery-powered bikes. But not just any kind of EV bike. Roam’s bikes are sleek yet durable robust two-wheelers crafted with the urban jungle of Nairobi and its rugged hinterlands in mind. As dena’s head Corinna Enders explained during a recent visit to Roam Park, Roam’s HQ:

“Motorcycles and buses are the lifeblood of mobility across much of the African continent, especially in cities like Nairobi where motorcycle taxis dominate the streets.”

Roam’s approach involves vertical integration, managing everything from the design and development of its bikes to assembly and maintenance. “We have multiple revenue streams and greater control over the consumer experience,” notes Upadhyaya. This comprehensive strategy not only mitigates risks but also strengthens Roam’s market position. By controlling various aspects of the value chain, Roam can ensure their products’ quality and reliability, offering their customers a seamless experience. This strategy also allows for rapid innovation and adaptation to market needs, setting Roam apart from competitors who might only focus on a single aspect of the ecosystem.

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However, this also means they face challenges across various aspects of the value chain. “Execution is hard in Sub-Saharan Africa due to limited financial sector depth and human resources,” says Upadhyaya. Roam has had to train and develop its talent, sometimes losing key staff to international companies. For example, their lead battery engineer, Lucy Mangala, was poached by Jaguar Land Rover, highlighting both the quality of Roam’s training and the competitive global demand for skilled talent.

Capital Challenges and Efficient Execution

Roam faces a daunting funding landscape. According to Upadhyaya, many investors shy away from African ventures due to perceived risks and lack of scale. “Our biggest challenge is getting investors to understand and appreciate Africa’s potential,” he explained, shortly after pitching Roam’s solution to our international jury during SET Award 2024. “We start with 100 potential investors, but then through conversations, circumstances, and sometimes for reasons that aren’t explained, that number narrows down to 25 willing to engage with us.”

Despite these hurdles, Roam has successfully raised $15 million in equity and is preparing to secure additional funding through debt. Upadhyaya emphasized: “We’re doing a lot with relatively little, showcasing our capital efficiency and the ambitious scale of our mission.” This achievement underscores Roam’s ability to stretch every dollar, making substantial progress even with limited resources.

Roam’s approach mirrors the broader trends in the EV industry, where startups are not only focused on deploying EVs but also on improving infrastructure. Advancements in battery technologies and alternative systems are pivotal for decarbonizing both ground and naval transportation. Similarly, 2023 SET100 startup Aerodymax is enhancing freight trailers, while Sealence focuses on the electrification of maritime propulsion engines. These initiatives are vital for the comprehensive decarbonization of various transportation sectors.

Of course, this ethos of efficiency is echoed across the startups that made it into the 2023 SET100 List. For instance, Blitz Electric Mobility is making significant strides by deploying electric vehicles across diverse geographies. Similarly, Epic Charging and Deftpower are crafting robust EV ecosystems, ensuring seamless integration across the mobility landscape. Together, these startups present a holistic approach to mobility aimed at reducing carbon intensity and enhancing system-wide efficiency.

Navigating Bureaucracy and Infrastructure Hurdles

Infrastructure development presents another significant challenge. Roam must navigate state bureaucracy and negotiate contracts for charging infrastructure. “Everything takes time, money, and effort,” Upadhyaya explained. Despite these obstacles, Roam’s success in establishing the necessary infrastructure creates a competitive moat, making it difficult for larger international companies to enter the market.

Upadhyaya compared Kenya’s current situation to India’s 20-25 years ago, pointing out the bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome. Support from senior levels of government has been crucial, but implementation at the ground level often involves painstaking navigation of regulatory landscapes. For instance, securing tax exemptions for components can be a protracted process, often slowed by minor administrative issues.

Supporting Local Economies and Global Climate Goals

Roam’s impact extends beyond environmental benefits. “Anyone switching from a petrol bike to our electric bikes saves 30% on costs from day one,” highlights Upadhyaya. This cost efficiency directly improves local livelihoods, making transportation more affordable for everyday use. 

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Roam’s commitment to sustainability aligns with global climate goals. “We aim to mitigate a million tonnes of CO2 in the next decade,” states Upadhyaya. By substituting polluting vehicles with electric ones powered by Kenya’s 90% renewable energy, Roam contributes significantly to carbon emission reductions. This direct climate mitigation is a key component of Roam’s mission, aligning their business goals with broader environmental objectives.

Furthermore, Roam’s electric motorcycles are not just eco-friendly; they are also more efficient and cost-effective. Traditional petrol motorcycles in Kenya often fail to meet emissions standards applicable in other regions, meaning Roam’s products represent a leap forward in both technology and environmental impact.

Building a Sustainable Future

Roam is committed to the “people, planet, profit” equation. “In order for us to be sustainable, we have to become profitable,” Upadhyaya asserted. This balanced approach ensures that Roam’s business model is viable in the long term, providing environmental benefits while also fostering economic growth. The company’s holistic approach addresses multiple facets of sustainability, ensuring that their impact is both broad and deep.

Of course, Roam is part of a larger movement towards sustainable mobility, where various startups are contributing to different facets of the ecosystem. As mentioned, Roam’s fellow SET100 startups are together building a sustainable, viable future of mobility that is good for the environment as well as good for the end consumer. Blitz joins Roam in expanding EV deployment across diverse geographies, making electric mobility more accessible. Meanwhile, Epic Charging and Deftpower are creating robust EV ecosystems, ensuring that the infrastructure keeps pace with the increasing number of electric vehicles.

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Furthermore, advancements in battery technologies and alternative systems are crucial for the decarbonization of transportation. Companies like Aerodymax are enhancing freight trailers, while Sealence is electrifying maritime propulsion engines. OtailO is leveraging AI for fleet management, and Air Cylinder Wheels is innovating beyond conventional rubber tyres. These efforts collectively represent a comprehensive approach to reinventing mobility components, highlighting the industry’s commitment to sustainability.

Of course, Roam was the winner for 2024, and for good reason. As it continues to grow, the young company’s journey offers a compelling narrative of resilience and impact, setting a powerful example for startups in emerging markets. Roam’s story is one of ambition and determination, demonstrating how a clear vision and strategic execution can overcome even the most formidable obstacles. By focusing on sustainable growth and leveraging their unique strengths, Roam is not only transforming transportation in Nairobi but also setting the stage for a greener, more prosperous future for the entire region.

Follow Roam’s LinkedIn here, deep dive into SET Tech Festival and SET Award’s 2024 impact here, check out our other SET24 winners here and download the 2024 SET100 here.

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