Electric propulsion for African fishermen

Since 2007 the Siemens Foundation in cooperation with the Global Nature Fund, have been involved in a project to replace kerosene lamps, commonly used for night fishing at Lake Victoria in Africa, with solar powered LED lamps. Today, the Kenyan part of Lake Victoria is almost free of kerosene operated lamps – a huge success! However, fishermen still use old and unreliable gasoline engines to power their boats emitting more than 400,000 tons of CO2 on the worlds 3rd biggest lake every year. Gasoline and oil spills have a devastating effect on the drinking water and the environment. Time for change!

Night fishing at Lake Victoria and other major African lakes is the traditional way of catching the Omena. This tiny fish is for local use only and represents the main protein source for millions of people around the lakes. It is assumed that at Lake Victoria alone up to 20,000 boats are operated by fishermen spending around 15 to 25 U$ for gasoline each night, - depending on size of the motor.

Based on the gained positive experiences with the project to convert kerosene to LED lamps, involved experts formulated the next challenge: to replace gasoline boat propulsion systems by electric motors. But was this a realistic idea or just a crazy dream of some e-mobility enthusiasts? And could all of this be realized in a country where over 80% of the population still lives without access to grid electricity? Endless, heated discussions surfaced no clear conclusion so a field test would need to bring the answer!

Sienga Beach was the selected location to introduce the new electrical motor technology to local fishermen in early October 2017. Supported by the Siemens Foundation and Torqeedo an team of experts started several performance tests and training sessions for selected fishermen with two different motor types. The new technology attracted the attention of the whole village and it was sometimes difficult to temper the excitement and answer all their curious questions. 

Joseph Miroka was the first fisherman who was introduced to the new technology. He is the owner of two boats which are presently propelled by 15 horsepower gasoline motors. After only 2 days of training supported by an instructor from the manufacturing company, Joseph was able to operate the new motor without any problems. 

On the evening of Tuesday, 3rd October 2017 he left Sienga Beach for a 12-hour trip with three other fishermen. At 7am the next morning Joseph safely returned. The first trip ever with an electric motor on Lake Victoria ended successfully and without any problems. 

Five different beaches around the Kenyan shore of Lake Victoria were visited as part of this feasibility test campaign and more than 20 trial runs with over 100 passengers were completed. The E boarders performed seamlessly demonstrating that a transition to a clean and cost-efficient fishing boat propulsion solution is within reach.

For sure, a lot more needs to be done, including a professional study to prove the technical and commercial feasibility. New battery technologies and financing mechanisms need to be developed to make the new technology affordable to the fishermen etc. etc. But as Albert Einstein formulated:

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing."

Rainer Hönig and Wolfgang Gregor
August 2018
Wolfgang Gregor