An African invention racing against foreign competitors

When Neil du Preez (represented in Morocco by Ernie Aylward) and his team at Mellowcabs started on their journey, they may not have realized they were soon to enter a global competition. The South African company, based in cozy Stellenbosch intended to build “electric mini-cabs that provide low cost, eco-friendly taxi and transportation services in congested urban centers, focusing on last mile transportation.” The team has started to do just that, locally, and a year later, the small startup is in an electric car arms race against manufacturers in India and Taiwan, and other car company giants.

In the 2016 African Entrepreneurship Team, Neil and his Mellowcabs team, won $100,000 in the Environment category to fulfill their vision of bringing electric mini-cabs to South Africa. And, as they scale their idea, Award funding in focused disbursements helps Mellowcabs continue to compete in Africa and across borders.

 

Solving Problems in Public Transportation, First in South Africa and Then the World

 

“I’ve always been interested in public transport, and what it can mean for individuals and the economy,” says Neil. “Growing up in South Africa we didn’t have access to public transport. Then, after living abroad for a few years I started seeing transit systems in a new light. Mobility is a precondition for economic growth: mobility for access to jobs, education, health, and other services. Mobility of goods is also critical to supply world markets in our globalized economy.” This vision galvanized into Mellowcabs, and Neil and his team have not looked back.

South Africa relies almost exclusively on fossil-fueled vehicles to meet transportation needs. And, limited public transportation and urbanization means cars continue to multiply. Neil has focused his efforts to target one of the specific needs. He says, “research has shown that if public transport options are made more attractive to car commuters, especially by resolving the first and last mile transport problem, private car use will decline.” Enter Mellowcabs.

Mellowcabs are electric mini-cabs invented, designed, and produced in South Africa. These “last mile” cabs are designed for short trips for people and mail delivery. The company says that “80% of all urban vehicle trips are shorter than 4km,” a distance easily serviced by a zero-emissions, electric cab. In a world of Uber and Lyft, Mellowcabs uses a similar mobile app where users can easily order an efficient, 100% electric mini-cab to their door.

Revenue comes from passengers, advertisers, and cargo delivery, making Mellowcabs a sort of urban taxi/ billboard/bike messenger service. More than just a taxi service, Mellowcabs eliminates carbon emissions. Neil du Preez, the company’s founder, says that “A single Mellowcabs vehicle could save 12 kg of carbon emissions per day, or 4.3 tons per year.”

Award Team test drives Mellowcab with Neil (center) in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Award Team test drives Mellowcab with Neil (center) in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

From Three to Ten Mini-Cabs, with Many More in Production

Since winning the African Entrepreneurship Award in December 2016, Mellowcabs has increased its fleet from three to ten electric mini-cabs, with a lot of improved technology and processes along the way. Neil says that since their initial application with the Award in early 2016, “The project evolved substantially, from a fairly basic vehicle, to a much more advanced one. The market we are aiming for requires something that is competent in every aspect, and can compete with the best out there.”

Production will soon speed up. Award funding allowed Neil to develop more in-house production capabilities. Neil explains that “Our entire chassis now consists of laser-cut bent aluminum pieces. We then rivet the entire chassis together (in-house). This has many advantages, including…not being dependent on material from suppliers with long lead times and large minimum order quantities.”

The founder, Neil du Preez (right), with his R&D team poses with three completed MellowCabs.
The founder, Neil du Preez (right), with his R&D team poses with three completed MellowCabs.

Diversifying a Business Model for More Success

As Mellowcabs developed their passenger potential, Neil says “it became evident that it’s use was not limited to just passenger applications. Market changes in the courier and home-delivery industry have made it clear that the Mellowcabs or as we like to call it the MellowVan is an attractive urban delivery vehicle.” Neil and his team see the potential in the courier industry boom and they believe they can provide an environmentally friendly, affordable, and practical alternative for companies. For many local, last mile deliveries, a big truck is not essential. MellowVan allows for easy street navigation and makes parking easy. As of winter, 2017, MellowVan was attracting worldwide interest from South Africa, into Europe, and even in South America.

So far, these vehicles have withstood the rigors of road testing. Of the first 10 in production, six will be leased out by Uber Rides & Eats. Another three vehicles Neil intends to convert into the cargo vehicles to serve DHL and other clients in Cape Town. The remaining vehicle is on standby exclusively for customers. And, Neil says, “a further 10 vehicles are in the production pipeline.”

On their scaling journey from prototype to product on the market, Mellowcab looks forward to increasing their positive impact, and decreasing headaches caused by urban transportation.