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Q & A with Joel Jackson, founder of Mobius Motors

In February, Global Post profiled an interesting startup in Africa called Mobius Motors that is working to manufacture affordable ($6,000) cars designed specifically for Africans.

Mobius Motors
Mobius Motors – Image: Courtesy of Mobius Motors. REUTERS

By simplifying the designs through the elimination of non-essential parts like power steering and air conditioning, the team at Mobius is able to drastically reduce the cost of the vehicle, which they hope will help small business owners in need of affordable transportation. Reuters reached Mobius founder and CEO Joel Jackson over email to ask him about his plans for the car company and some of the challenges he foresees.

Reuters: First can you tell me briefly how Mobius came about? I understand you were working in Africa when you had the idea?

J.J.: Mobius was inspired by my experience working in rural Kenya in 2009 with a startup forestry venture. In this role I spent time with local farming communities and learned about some of their day-to-day challenges. One of the biggest issues these communities faced was immobility. Without access to appropriate forms of transport many people would walk tens of kilometers to get around – to get access to schools, or doctors, or clean drinking water or farming inputs.

The vision of Mobius is to build a more appropriate and affordable vehicle for transport businesses and in turn create a platform for mobility across Africa.

Reuters: Can you give us some info about the company? Number of employees, how many cars you currently build/hope to build? Any info on financials? 

J.J.: Mobius has 24 employees. We’ve built two prototype vehicles and one production alpha vehicle; and we’re launching initial proof-of-concept production of 50 vehicles in Q3 2013. To date, Mobius has raised several million dollars of investment and we plan to increase production to 300 units in mid 2014.

Reuters: How do you manage to keep costs down and actually build a car that sells for $6,000? Are parts imported? How much of the car is made in Africa?

J.J.: Mobius reimagines the car, eliminating all non-essential features to drive down cost and weight. For example, we remove air conditioning, power steering, many internal fixtures and even glass windows. At the same time we invest in key aspects of functionality that matter, such as suspension and handling, for reliable performance on highly degraded road environments. We have partnered with a major European carmaker for powertrain supply along with several other strategic suppliers internationally for safety-critical systems in the vehicle. Currently, over 35% of the vehicle cost is sourced domestically within Kenya. Longer term, we’re working with Kenyan suppliers to increase local content beyond 40%.

By locally sourcing more supplies and expanding our assembly capabilities in Kenya, we plan to not only drive down the cost of the car but also help strengthen a domestic automobile industry and create thousands more skilled jobs.

Reuters: What are the main challenges that Mobius faces? What challenges do you foresee?

J.J.: Our main challenge to date was finding strategic automotive suppliers aligned to our currently modest production volume targets. This issue will diminish as our production volumes significantly increase over the coming years, but initially we found it difficult to access visionary suppliers who can supply us with the components we need at much lower order volumes than the industry standard of more established automotive OEMs.

Reuters: Can you discuss the goals of Mobius? Obviously profit is key, but you also aim to help entrepreneurs and have some social impact. How do you square all this?

J.J.: Our vision is to empower entrepreneurs across Africa by building a platform for mobility, with better cars, business-in-a-box advice and access to financing.

Entrepreneurs need durable, functional, and affordable cars to support a range of transport businesses, such as mobile medical care, goods delivery, public transport and school bus routes. Thus, from the ground up, we’ve designed a car optimized for rugged roads, with large versatile loading space, efficient fuel consumption and easy maintenance. All at an affordable price of $6,000.

Mobius Two is designed to support existing small businesses and encourage new entrepreneurs to invest in transport opportunities. Our goal this year is to launch initial production and sell our cars to these entrepreneurs; to begin unlocking the opportunity that viable transport businesses create for the entrepreneurs who run them and end-users in communities who use them.

As we expand our production capacity, prove our business model to entrepreneurs and sell more vehicles we will strengthen our social impact on the small business community. Long term, we believe that mass production of Mobius vehicles will catalyze systemic change in Africa’s transit network and enable a prosperous future for hundreds of millions of people across the continent.

Reuters: Do you envision a time when the Mobius is exported to other countries? Can you describe your growth projections?

J.J.: Yes, we have plans for regional expansion.

The next two years will be focused on the validation of Mobius Two in the Kenyan market. We aim to prove our business model, centralize production and build an efficient distribution network all within Kenya. During this time we will test our production operation and distribution channels to identify any unforeseen issues as we optimize our model.

By 2015, we plan to launch a next-generation Mobius Three vehicle with a distribution network stretching across Kenya. In 2016 we plan to roll out vehicles to neighboring countries in East Africa. As we build our facilities to reach increasing production automation, our goal is to eventually expand pan-Africa.

Image: Courtesy of Mobius Motors. REUTERS

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Q & A with Joel Jackson, founder of Mobius Motors

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