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Interview: Usman Sheikh, co-Founder & CEO, Jolta Electric

Published in Jul-Aug 2021

Co-Founder & CEO, Jolta Electric, on his organisation’s electric bikes and the future of electric vehicles in Pakistan.

MAMUN M. ADIL: When was Jolta Electric established?
USMAN SHEIKH: Mohammad Azeem and I co-founded Jolta Electric in 2017, at a time when people in Pakistan weren’t even talking about electric vehicles (EVs). I had spent a lot of time in China and in Beijing at that time people were planning to ‘electrify’ every single taxi. We got the idea from there and thought we would set up something similar in Pakistan. BBC Urdu interviewed us; it went viral and Fawad Chaudhry [Minister of Information and Broadcasting] watched the interview and showed an interest in our company. We then pushed the government to bring an EV Policy into being which we drafted for the government and other stakeholders and this was approved in 2019. We were the first to apply for a licence and obtained it in March 2021, which is when we started production. We are the first EV manufacturers in Pakistan. What makes us different from other players is the fact that they are importing completely knocked down (CKD) units and completely built units (CBU) from China, whereas we manufacture engines locally.

MMA: How challenging was this to accomplish?
It was difficult but we have experience working in China and knew how to train people to use reverse engineering technology and improve it. We studied Japanese hybrid cars as well as American ones and as we work in technology through our other companies, our expertise helped.

MMA: Launching e-bikes is part of the government’s five-year plan that envisages electric bikes to have a 30% and 90% share in passenger vehicles and heavy-duty trucks by 2030 and 2040 respectively. In your opinion, how realistic is this vision?
The government’s vision to electrify vehicles is very realistic and achievable and the way to go for a clean and green Pakistan. A few years ago, Nokia was the leading phone brand, then Apple and Samsung came into the picture with smartphones and within five years everyone switched. Such shifts take place rapidly; for instance, despite being expensive, CNG kits gained traction very quickly because people realised that using them would save them a lot of money in the long run.

MMA: Jolta’s e-bikes are available in several models. How are these models different from each other?
JE70d is our ‘base’ model and has a dry EV battery that can be charged overnight. It has a battery life of two to two and a half years and is priced at Rs 82,500. It covers 80 kilometres in eco mode and has a maximum speed of 55 km/hr. JE70L has a lithium battery and can be charged within two to three hours; it has a lithium battery with a life of five to seven years, and can be driven for 80 to 100 kilometres after charging and has a top speed of 60-65 km/h with a price tag of Rs 115,000-125,000. Scooty is designed for women, and is priced at Rs 105,000 with a dry battery and Rs 125,000 with a lithium battery. Our sports bike is for young people who like to race and is priced at Rs 210,000.

MMA: Aren’t these more expensive than regular bikes?
In some cases they are cheaper than Honda’s CD 70. Furthermore, given that petrol prices are increasing day by day, electric bikes will be more economical in the long run, especially since they do not require maintenance (oil change, etc.), and do not create any noise and pollution. There is speculation that the government will waive the registration fees and people who use them will not be charged parking or tolls fees.

MMA: Who is your target audience?
Students, teachers, working women and men, government officials, domestics, delivery people and security guards.

MMA: Where are the bikes available?
We have showrooms in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad/Rawalpindi and they are also available throughout Pakistan through our dealers. We plan to establish showrooms in Peshawar and Quetta next.

MMA: How has the response been so far?
It has been overwhelming and we have 10,000 bookings already. The best response has come from Sindh and smaller cities which have a 50 kilometre radius. People in larger cities want a higher driving range (at least 150 kilometres), which we will be manufacturing next month.

MMA: Won’t driving them prove to be a challenge for people?
These bikes are very easy to use. My 11-year-old daughter has learnt to drive our bikes, since she knows how to ride a bicycle.

MMA: Given frequent electricity breakdowns in Pakistan, how practical do you think EVs are?
We are already producing more electricity than is required in Pakistan, the problem is the distribution and this has to do with issues related to the circular debt rather than the generation of electricity. Hopefully, this will be resolved in the next three to four years.

MMA: How much progress has been made with charging stations?
There are a few charging stations in Pakistan so far, with many more in the pipeline. The first is located in Bhera near the Lahore and Islamabad motorway, and there is one in Lahore as well. The LUMS Energy Institute estimates that 60 charging stations are required to cover the major highways of Pakistan and I think these will come into being in a year or so.

MMA: What are the main challenges in terms of manufacturing?
Finding trained personnel with the expertise, but we are training people ourselves. The other is that the raw materials have to be imported and this raises the prices of the bikes, as the taxes on certain items are very high – between 25% and 50%. Ideally, to increase the sales of electric bikes, they should be priced at Rs 60,000 but to achieve this, the government needs to reduce taxes and provide subsidies to end users if they want to make Pakistan greener in a timely manner.

MMA: What are your goals for Jolta for the next five years?
To manufacture 100,000 bikes every month within the next five years; our aim is to achieve the government’s targets with regard to EVs.

MMA: Who do you think of as your competitors, and what edge do you have over them?
We are the only licensed electrical vehicle company in Pakistan so far and we have no competitors right now. However, in a year’s time, there will be about 10 companies in the market as they have seen our success. Our advantage is our R&D because of our background in electronics and computer engineering. We are developing and designing our own products that will have an edge in market as the others are mostly mere assemblers.

MMA: How are you marketing and promoting your bikes?
We are doing road shows in every city where we have appointed dealers and promoting them on social media, radio and cable TV. Our ads will soon be on digital media and then TV. We are also offering test rides to users via awareness campaigns. As Prime Minister Imran khan launched our bike, we have received worldwide coverage. n

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