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The Epropulsion Zanzibar Project: How Electric Outboards Are Changing the Lives of Local Populations

For the seaweed farming communities of Zanzibar, a project led by ePropulsion electric boat motors is set to free them from the punishing cost of purchasing boat fuel and make a massive difference to their lives.

Seaweed farming in Zanzibar

Seaweed is used for pharmaceutical and cosmetic products and has been cultivated and harvested in Zanzibar since the late 1980s. The country is now one of Africa’s primary producers.

The industry is important not only economically, but also for helping create a more equal society. Almost all seaweed farmers are women and the work and income help raise their financial status and role in the community.

Seaweed farming in Tanzania. Photo: Roshni Lodhia

When the industry started, the seaweed grew in shallow waters close to shore and could be easily harvested through wading. Unfortunately, the surface temperature of the Western Indian Ocean has risen 1°C in the last 30 years and the seaweed now grows further out, in deeper, cooler waters. That requires boats.

That is a massive disruption for the female farmers.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries began addressing the problem with a program that would have 500 fibreglass boats built locally. Each boat is about 5-6m long (17-19 feet), can carry 6-8 women out to the harvesting area and is powered by by 9.9 – 15HP two stroke gas/petrol motors. There are now dozens of the boats in operation. 

One of the problems with those outboards (that many people can relate to!) is having to tug on a starter cord over and over while adjusting the choke until the motor turns over. It requires a fair amount of strength, so the boats have male motor operators/captains.

Boat gas costs 6-7 USD  every day

Another problem is the fuel, from both economic and environmental viewpoints. Zanzibar is not rich by any stretch of the imagination. The average annual income is about 4USD per day. Gasoline costs about 1 USD per litre. Each boat uses 6-7 litres of fuel per day. It doesn’t take a business degree to realize that any fuel costs take a BIG chunk out of the farmer’s earnings, even when the cost is split by 8 workers.

Environmentally, these are sensitive waters that are also home for fish that make up part of the local diet. Hundreds of 2-strokes plying the waters is a recipe for ecological disaster.

Realizing all this, the government of Zanzibar developed a major Blue Economy program in 2020 to “reap the economic potential of the sea without depleting the ecosystem” It also is designed to “support inclusive and sustainable economic growth while creating employment opportunities.”

A delegation led by Capt Hamadi Bakari Hamadi was sent to the COP 26 Conference in Glasgow in 2021, where they met Ian McLaren of the UK Department of International Trade (DIT), who introduced them to Ian Thomson of the UK’s Nestaway Boats, the largest ePropulsion retailer in the world; Ricky Cole of ePropulsion UK; and ePropulsion’s Global OEM Sales Director Steve Bruce.

2-strokes would put 115 tonnes of oil into the water

Ian Thomson did a quick calculation of what impact 500 boats with fossil fuel motors would have on the local environment and it was pretty staggering. “If electrification were adopted over the entire fleet, based on 10 years, they would avoid 115 tonnes of two-stroke oil into the sea, 1625 tonnes of unburnt petrol into the sea, and 11,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

That certainly caught the attention of the Blue Economy officials and two weeks later Ian, Ricky and Steve found themselves on a plane to the tropical island as part of an official UK Trade mission!

They brought along an ePropulsion Spirit 1 with them “generating much suspicion at both airports” says Ian T, but even with the official nature of the trip there was not a realistic chance of getting clearance for taking a battery.

Once in Zanzibar they met with various Ministers and government officials and were escorted to seaweeding farming villages and boat building enterprises to assess the project.

Meeting with President of Zanzibar

The highlight of the trip was a meeting with President Hussein Mwinyi. He is a driving force behind the Blue Economy, and a big proponent of increasing opportunities for women.

The Spirit 1.0 had been a valuable showpiece to get the officials in Zanzibar excited about the possibilities of electric motors, but after the tour the ePropulsion team realized that any boat in Zanziabar would be used for lots of different things beyond seaweed farming.

They decided to recommend the Navy 3.0  kW outboard with a 48 Volt, 4 kiloWatt hour E-Series battery.They also did calculations on sunlight. The Navy, like all ePropulsion outboards, can be charged through solar panels and Zanzibar sits only 6º below the equator. If they built a roof over the boats it could hold 600W of solar panels while also providing welcome shade for the seaweed harvesters.

What really drove home the benefits of electric propulsion for the Zanzibar officials was a visit they made to the UK a few months later for an agriculture equipment show. The ePropulsion arranged a demonstration with two transparent water tanks – one with a two stroke motor running and one with a a Navy 3.0 running. 

Within minutes the fossil fuel motor had fouled the water in its tank, while the ePropulsion water was still crystal clear. 

The only question now was how the farmers and community would accept this new clean technology. That would be answered a few months later. ePropulsion headquarters shipped a Navy 3.0 (with battery!), solar panels, solar charger with MPPT, and flat pack folding roof.

Ian, Ricky and Steve were there on the island to unpack the crate and were met by Capt Hamadi and Dr Salum Soud Hemed, Director of the Development and Fisheries Department. Next stops, the seaweed farming communities of Paje Beach and Kizimkazi.

The coming of the electric boats was big news. Steve Bruce says “It was very apparent everywhere we went that they already knew who we were and why were coming, the press was there, everyone in town showed up.”

“We had the demo boat on a flatbed truck.” added Ian. “For launching the boat, we’re not talking about cranes or trailers or anything like that, 20 local men would lift the boat off the flatbed and put it in the water. All done completely manually.”

And the reaction from the women seaweed farmers?

“They loved it. I think their experience of boats had very much that it was something only men could do. So they were amazed, they could just press a button and twist the handle. I think it really hit home that ‘hey, we can actually use this ourselves!’”

One of the question marks the ePropulsion team had was how much energy the boats would require in real life situations and if on shore charging would be needed. The goal was to get the women out to the harvesting areas and back – with a full load of seaweed – at 4 to 4.5 knots.

Not every day is sunny in Zanzibar, and there is also a rainy season. But on most days the boats could run entirely on the 600W from the solar panels and a fully charged 4kWh battery could last through 4 days or more.

It can be a bit of a cliché to say somethinbg is a “Win-Win-Win”, but in this case it is absolutely true.

The women of the villages are truly empowered to undertake the farming on their own. There is employment for the local economy in building and welding the solar panel roofs, along with training and education on solar power and electrics. The ocean and everything that lives in it is a winner, free from 2 stroke oil and gasoline.

Source: plugboats