a photo of an electric Safa Tempi mini-bus in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Kathmandu children return home from school on a Safa Tempo electric bus. Nepal was a leader in introducing EVs in public transportation. Niranjan Shrestha/AP

For a brief moment in the 1990s, the Nepalese capital was at the vanguard of the zero-emission public transportation revolution. What happened?

If you take public transport in Kathmandu, you have three options. There are buses and microbuses, different only in size. During rush hour in Nepal’s capital, both are often crammed to almost twice their stated capacity and on the prowl for more passengers. Both also feature gruff conductors that hang off the vehicles like they’re heeling sailboats, crying out a string of bus stops so fast the names blur into each other. As the buses slow down, the conductors slide open their doors and hustle people inside, in scenes reminiscent of drive-by kidnappings.

The third option, Safa Tempos (literally, “clean three-wheelers”), stand apart from the fray. They lack conductors, for one, and many are driven by women, an otherwise uncommon sight. They look like large, white tin boxes, with benches to seat 12 people and an open entrance at the back. And they’re battery-powered.

Safas were introduced in Kathmandu in the mid-1990s, long before the current generation of battery-powered buses. Originally introduced as a pollution-fighting measure, by 2000 the city had more than 600 of these zero-emission electric vehicles (EVs). Locally manufactured and backed by government policies designed to encourage adoption, Safa Tempos constituted the largest fleet of battery-powered public transport vehicles in the world, and they turned one the world’s poorest cities into a pioneer for an extraordinary new idea in public transit—but only briefly.

At the turn of the millennium, the Safa’s homegrown manufacturing and assembly industry was forced to shut down, and fossil-fuel-powered buses retook the streets of Kathmandu. The original fleet of aging Safa Tempos has largely survived, operated by entrepreneurs, but it no longer carries the promise it once did. Air pollution rates in the urban area, meanwhile, have skyrocketed.

What happened? Today, the Nepali government has begun a new campaign to transition public transit to EVs, but those who promoted Safa Tempos wonder what might have been. “Tesla showed the world that electric vehicles were the future,” said Ramesh Parajuli, an academic and environmental activist. “But in a way, we had already done that.”

The rise of the Safa

On clear blue days in Kathmandu, the Himalayas appear in the north, its snowy peaks suspended over the nearby hills. In the early 1970s, you could see the mountains for about one-third of the year; by the early 1990s, the growing number of vehicles on the road had reduced that figure to 20 days. Because the city sits in a bowl-shaped valley, pollutants easily pool and stagnate overhead. Experts blamed much of the deteriorating air quality on Vikram Tempos—a fleet of 640 diesel-powered Indian three-wheelers that released clouds of black smoke around the city; one newspaper article likened them to “walking chimneys.”

To curb pollution, in 1993 an American NGO called the Global Resources Institute came up with an electric version of the three-wheeler. Given the city’s slow traffic and short public transit routes, GRI determined, such vehicles could run comfortably on deep-cycle lead-acid batteries, like the kind used in golf carts. After a three-year pilot funded by USAID, the technology was bought by the Nepal Electric Vehicles Industries (NEVI), whose founder, Bijay Man Sherchan, was a mechanical engineer who had previously established Nepal’s first car assembly workshop. In a 1997 op-ed, Sherchan wrote that Kathmandu could be reinvented as the “Shangri-La for electric vehicles,” with Safa Tempos replacing Vikrams for good.

The conditions for a transformation seemed to be in place. To encourage Safa Tempos’ manufacture and sale, the Nepali government agreed to slash tariffs on parts from 60 percent to 1 percent, and major banks set up loan incentives for entrepreneurs. Locals welcomed the new vehicles; one article in the Kathmandu Post noted that Safa passengers were spared Vikrams’ “obnoxious petrochemical smell,” and another judged that Safas were “here to stay.” In 1997, NEVI and another manufacturer had assembled 35 Safa Tempos, selling them for $6,700 each to small entrepreneurs, most of whom both owned and operated their vehicles. Two years later, five manufacturers had assembled 210 more.

But it wasn’t until late 1999 that business took off. In September, after years of pressure from environmental activists, the government banned Vikrams altogether. “With monsters away, heave a sigh of welcome relief,” a Post headline read. Safa Tempo manufacturers rushed to fill the void. Within six months of the ban, they had assembled 350 more vehicles. Thirty-eight charging stations ran under capacity, anticipating further surges in production.

At the time, analysts projected that Safa expansion could be sustained purely on profit. By the end of 2000, total investment stood at some $5 million, which had resulted in 750 jobs and vehicles serving about 100,000 people every day, according to a 2000 paper. Safas Tempos showed that curbing air pollution “does not require major technological breakthroughs or expensive equipment,” according to a journal article about the project that Parajuli co-authored.

“It was a fantastic operation,” Sherchan recalled. “Public EVs hardly existed anywhere in the world, and here we were able to operate them commercially.”  

The electric slide

But the Safa Tempos proved to have some intractable flaws. Each vehicle required two sets of 12 batteries, which were imported from California for $1,720, and had to be replaced almost every two years. This meant Safas cost at least 25 percent more to operate than Vikrams. The batteries failed even quicker if the vehicles ran at high speeds, and several began giving out after just a year, making some entrepreneurs wary of investing, according to a 1999 report by the Post.

But if these technological weaknesses limited the business’s growth, it was government policy that ultimately doomed it. When the government banned Vikrams, it decided to compensate its owners by allowing them to import petrol-powered microbuses at a lowered tariff. Because these vehicles still met European emissions standards, they were certified as “clean.” Activists protested that one polluting vehicle was being swapped for another, Parajuli recalled, and argued that Safas represented “the technology of the future.” But the extent of the tariff concession—from 160 percent to 1 percent—drove entrepreneurs who might have replaced their Vikrams with Safas into conventionally powered 15-seater Toyota microbuses.

Nepalese people crowd the roof of a public bus in Kathmandu. (Niranjan Shrestha/AP)

Once the microbuses were on the streets, the Safas’ expansion was halted. Across Nepal, transport routes are controlled by protective cartels that collectively form the Federation of Nepali National Transport Entrepreneurs, popularly known as the “diesel mafia.” Obtaining a permit to ply a certain route requires their approval, and microbus owners—cartel members from their Vikram days—refused them to Safa owners. “It was like a blockade,” said Umesh Raj Shrestha, the current president of the Electric Vehicles Association of Nepal.

Faced with a glut of vehicles and nowhere to run them, the Safa manufacturers ceased operations toward the end of 2000. Then the government abruptly withdrew their tariff concessions. “We were victims,” Shrestha said. “We were all discouraged, and many of us left this business.”

Meanwhile, the number of fossil-fuel powered vehicles continued to expand and Kathmandu’s air quality continued to plummet. According to government data, the number of vehicles in the city increased from around 100,000 in 2000 to 1.17 million this year. Pollution rose at a breathtaking pace, to five times WHO guidelines this year, making Kathmandu’s air one of the most toxic in the world. “Looking back, Safa Tempos couldn’t do much to stop pollution,” Parajuli said. “In that way, it failed.”

The way forward

But Kathmandu’s electric past may be prelude. Last year, Nepal’s government inaugurated a campaign to transition to electric vehicles as part of its commitment to the Paris climate agreement. According to the “National Action Plan for Electric Mobility,” the government aims to halve the country’s consumption of fossil fuels by 2050. Kathmandu’s provincial government has pledged to replace all buses and microbuses with EVs by 2030, and this year, it committed funds to buy 30 electric buses. The central government recently announced that it would buy 300 more.

Conditions for an electric transition have “come together in a perfect storm, in a good way,” said Bikash Pandey, a clean energy expert at the development organization Winrock International. The tariffs on imported EVs are 1 percent for buses and 10 percent for cars. (The rates for their fossil-fuel counterparts are 40 percent and 240 percent.) EV technology has advanced enormously since the Safa Tempos debuted: Lithium-ion batteries have become more efficient, powerful, and affordable. And a proliferation of hydropower projects, which has also led to a powerful pro-electric lobby, will soon give Nepal an electricity surplus for the first timeAdopting EVs would not only make use of this surplus but also narrow the country’s trade deficit, of which nearly 20 percent is from importing fuel.

The Safa Tempo experiment wasn’t entirely a failure: It demonstrated the importance of building a strong local pro-EV constituency, said Pandey, who has worked in clean energy in over 20 countries across Asia, Latin America, and Africa. While Safa advocates couldn’t overpower entrenched interests in 2000, they continued to pave the way for electric-friendly measures. “The current policies were possible because they did the work 20 years ago,” Pandey said. “From my perspective, none of it was wasted.”

Yet the interests that thwarted Safa Tempos persist. According to Rameshore Khanal, a former secretary at Nepal’s Ministry of Finance, the government still needs to crack down on transit cartels and enact policies to lower the cost of electric buses. This remains complicated by Nepali car dealers, who hold powerful sway over Nepal’s Department of Transport Management and have repeatedly stymied attempts to import affordable reconditioned EVs, Khanal says. They’ve also blocked amendments that would allow fossil fuel vehicles to be converted into electric, which would encourage the rise of a domestic assembly industry and render EVs cheaper.

Whatever its internal policies, Nepal’s path to EV adoption will be dictated to some extent by its two giant neighbors. China is now the world’s biggest manufacturer of electric buses, exporting to cities in the U.K., U.S., and Latin America. Several of its major cities, such as Shenzhen and Guangzhou, have already made the transition to EVs. And India, under the second phase of its electric transition program, has allocated $1.5 billion to subsidize sales of electric and hybrid vehicles, adding about 7,000 electric buses this year. Both countries have committed to manufacturing only EVs by 2030. With no industry of its own, Nepal will be forced to exclusively import EVs in the future, whether it likes it or not. “Either we adapt our policies and be swept along in the trend,” Shrestha said, “or we’ll be dragged there.”

To Safa Tempo pioneers like him, the current momentum is bittersweet. Nepal was once far ahead of the electric curve, Shrestha says. Today, many countries are only beginning to make inroads into the EV sector; had the government been more supportive, Nepal’s might now be thriving. “By now,” he said, “every bus you see might have been electric.”

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