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YOUTH EMPOWERMENT: “Every time I see one of our Green Riders on the road, I think: They’re off to go make some money”

Exclusive interview with Craig Atkinson, founder of Green Riders, a proudly South African, turnkey, green e-mobility solution dedicated to creating a significant social and environmental impacts. Since its inception in 2019, Green Riders has employed and trained 875 people, most of whom were unemployed and underprivileged youths (men and women). By October 2023, Green Riders had completed more than 315-thousand deliveries, covering more than 3,385,7740 green kilometres.

Let’s start with some background on you and how Green Riders started?
Green Riders started with a couple of friends back in 2019. We had worked together in previous businesses where we’ve always had the objective of doing something good for the planet and doing good for people. We were in the events industry and we used to do a lot of conservation work, raising money for rhinos and other endangered species. Then during COVID, the events industry obviously hit a bit of a wobble and also being a passionate cyclist, I started importing e-bikes (actually from 2017 already), and we just wondered if there was a way to use e-bicycles and create something meaningful.

I got together my core team that I worked with in previous businesses, and a good friend of mine that I’ve known since pre-primary school, Rory, who’s got a lot of technical background, he actually built my very first bicycle at the age of like 12 or 13; we used to BMX together. So, I’ve always been something to do with passion. If I don’t have passion for something, I can’t make a success out of it. So I’ve always been passionate about cycling and creating something meaningful for the planet and for our people. And yeah, that was when the vision of Green Riders kind of started.

We knew that we could make an impact in people’s lives and we could do something good for the planet by decarbonising the planet. And during that period, we saw a big spike in the e-commerce last-mile delivery sector. We took a bit of a gamble, brought in our first 100 e-bikes, we raised a bit of seed capital for that, and tested the markets. That was the birth of Green Riders. That was actually from a previous company called Pathway Cycles. We decided to rebrand to Green Riders, because we had so many people calling us saying do you sell this or that bike? and we weren’t really in the retail market. So we just decided to do a rebrand and have gone from strength from strength since 2019 till now.

What technology are you using and how do you cope when it is loadshedding?
So, load shedding is a good question. What we’ve found is that we have to have fast charging. We use 5 amp chargers, and our batteries are relatively big, but it takes about 2–3 hours to charge the battery from 20%, we don’t let it go underneath that, our BMS kind of cuts it out, so it never goes empty. But it takes about 2–3 hours to charge full.

Unless there is load shedding phases 7 or 8, we’re actually quite safe because, our team will be able to charge up their batteries from 11 p.m., when they get home from shift, and generally it’s charged up by 2 a.m. in the morning. So, when they start their shift early mornings, everything’s good and dandy. So, we haven’t really had too much of a load shedding issue from a feed perspective, it’s just more annoying when, for example, we have generators on in the background now at our offices.

How has this organisation changed people’s lives and contributed to alleviating climate change?
As I previously mentioned, it was very important for us to create something sustainable and beneficial for the people of South Africa. From a lot of research, we realised that there’s a lot of youth that just don’t have jobs, they don’t have the opportunity, they’re not established enough, they barely have anything more than a matric qualification.

I’m not saying this industry is easy, but it’s something that you don’t need some sort of degree to be able to make really good money. All you have to have is self-discipline, determination, and just be a go-getter. So we found that this is a great opportunity for us to tap into that market and work with the youth that don’t have the opportunity to necessarily get into a mainstream job.

I think that’s been something very close to our hearts and the entire team. Even when we hire someone, if they’re not passionate about making changing people’s lives, they just won’t really fit in with our organisation and our company culture. During our training, we actually try and emphasise like how important it is to go green. Just the other day, we announced that we’ve just completed over 3 million kilometres of carbon free tailpipe emissions, if you want to call it that, where we haven’t used any ICE vehicle since we’ve been in Green Riders. And yeah, we’ve just made it quite clear and it’s important for people to know that they are contributing to a positive change for the planet, and it’s part of the educational process.

We definitely try and emphasise that side of things as well. A lot of our candidates that are now Green Riders actually feel proud to know that they’re doing something good for the planet while they’re making money on the side. So it’s really a win-win situation for us.

November is Africa Youth Month. How can the continent’s youth be made to feel part of the green economy future in your view?
I think it all starts with education. If you look at Europe, the dangers of global warming is drilled into people’s minds. I spent a lot of time in the Netherlands and you speak to the youngsters there, and they’re very, you could say left-wing, and it’s all about going green and making a positive change and all of those types of things. That is the right mindset for a sustainable future.

In South Africa’s education system, I don’t believe there is that huge emphasis in the school structure. So as organisations, what I think we need to do when we absorb the youth into different companies or entities, is to emphasise, whether you’re a Green Rider or you’re working at a coffee shop, explaining to them and saying, when we sell coffee and take away, let’s use organic. And they’re going to ask, why is organic important? Well, it’s important because we’re selling thousands of these things a month. We’re going to contribute to a huge problem. So let’s work together and explain and show that we care for the planet. And eventually people’s mindsets start changing. They start appreciating the efforts that they make. They feel rewarded because they get praise for the work and not really so much the work, but the feeling of doing something good for the planet as well. And we always say that, for example: when we had our 3 million kilometre milestone, we sent a message out to the groups with all our Green Riders saying: Well done guys, thank you for contributing to this. That’s 85 times around planet Earth. That’s amazing. We could have done that with ICE vehicles. However, we chose as Green Riders to do something good instead.

What can governments be doing with regards to enabling green economy investment and job creation?
I believe the government is being more proactive. You’ll see that the JETP (Just Energy Transition Partnership) final implementation plan has been released. There’s a lot of good things out there. Green Riders is mentioned as an e-bicycle implementation partner for JETP, which is fantastic news. But I would say more local governments and national government, not so much from a big picture or SDG perspective, but just looking at policy and incentivising the green economy.

As an example, like what they do in Europe is, if you have an EV or you’re using an electric bicycle or bicycle, you’ll have priority parking. Working on infrastructure as well; there’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be implemented in order to create a sustainable green economy. I can’t speak on behalf of all the different industries, such as solar or anything else in this sphere, they would have their own challenges and things that they would appreciate more input from a government perspective, but from mobility, it’s assisting the industry with infrastructure, charging facilities, better tariffs for people charging up, more solar investments for micro vehicles or micro EVs to be able to charge. And just general support, especially when it comes to youth upliftment. We do the best that we possibly can, and we’ve got fantastic partners, such as Harambee and Yes4Youth, but they’re not government. Government could emphasise the importance of this and also look at raising funding to ensure that our youth can be trained and into this green economy, whether it’s a Green Rider or working in manufacturing or solar power or solar panel installations. There’s a lot of various TVET colleges that are emphasising this, but they need that type of support as well.

What are the main challenges in your view?
To be honest, the main challenges are that we pay all the school fees. When we bring in the wrong hardware, we feel the pain. You can’t bring in one or two bikes and test the market and think that you can sign that off and be happy. You only realise real teething problems and issues when you’ve got a fleet of 100 plus. So our first fleet of 100 e-bikes, we’ve actually written the entire fleet off.

Just making bad decisions on what tires to use, what batteries we should be using. We had frame issues, a whole bunch of things, but it’s all fixable, but you have no one to copy in the market. You can’t go to Johnny’s Cycles next door and see what they’re doing and just quickly learn from them. So we have had to pay a lot of school fees.

Second is building trust in the EV market. I’m so sick and tired of hearing, oh no, we can’t use your e-bikes because there are hills in my area. I’m like: Yes, not all e-bikes are designed to get up 35° hills, but we’ve put a lot of R&D into our assets to make sure that we can achieve type of issues. It’s just changing the mindset of our customers and people within the industry that could potentially be our customers and partners in the future to get them to believe that EVs are the future, EVs the way to go. But in all honesty, that was more of a 2019, 2020 problem. When we started, EV and micro mobility wasn’t even a thing those days. But now, we’ve got our partners such as Uber, we work here on a 2024 strategic plan. Uber’s also investing quite a lot of money into creating better planning for cycle lanes and infrastructure for micro mobility. Governments are working closely with us, I am on an advisory board, so that they can learn and understand more about the market. All the policies have been outdated since 2007, and unfortunately now we have to sit with decision makers to create a more inclusive policy for 2023 that makes sense for scale, not just for Green Riders, but any micro mobility or EV company coming to South Africa.

You obviously love what you do, what keeps you excited about this sector?
What keeps me very excited is when I see our riders on the road. I often drive around with either a colleague or my partner, and we see Green Riders everywhere. Every single time I see them I go: “Hey look, there’s a Green Rider, he’s off to go make some money.” And it just makes me proud to see that’s someone that didn’t have a chance in the past, and he or she has now got themselves an e-bike, and I can see them going to the shop, collecting an order. Every single time I see them collecting an order, I realise it is we as an entity and my vision have created that opportunity for them to get that job, get that order and to make that gig work, where every time they pocket R30 or R40. So, it’s just amazing to actually see my dream come to life. Yeah, I think that’s probably what keeps me going.

There are days when I feel completely demotivated. You feel super isolated being the first in this market. And there’s obviously a lot of stress behind the scenes, but those days that you feel like giving up and trying something else that’s a little bit easier, you realise the impact that you’re making in people’s lives and seeing the stats of 3 million kilometres. When I die one day, I’ll at least know that I’ve done something good. So that keeps me going.

Entrepreneurship is so important for the future of the continent’s economic growth. Do you have any advice for other green entrepreneurs?
My advice to any green entrepreneurs is you have to start. I’ve been in this industry for a while now and I see very similar companies and people at summits, expos and they all got great products, great vision and great ideas, but they’re not bullish enough to just actually start. They’ve got samples of bikes. They’ve got samples of their technology. They’ve got all the blueprints on paper, the full business plan for a five-year vision.

Not many people are willing to take that risk. When I took the risk in 2019 and brought in the first 100 bikes, it was probably the biggest mistake I made from a hardware perspective, but also the best decision of my life. Because even though we’ve made so many mistakes over that time, we learned a lot. And there’s no way that you can’t learn if you don’t have the products and you’re not failing.

I’m a strong believer in failing, but failing fast, learning from your mistakes and growing. But all this stuff in theory, and you’ve got one bike or one solar panel, and you’re dreaming of this big day when someone’s going to come to you and say: “Here’s R20-million, please do fulfilment for me.” And you’re just waiting for that day the rest of your life. You can’t, you have to just start. There’s nothing that’s going to come your way easily. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to pay school fees, but you actually get out of it at the end of the day. We’ve done that. We prove that that system works. Yeah, that’s my biggest advice. Start. Don’t hold back another day.

You were at the inaugural Africa’s Green Economy Summit in Cape Town in February, what was your experience, and how important is such an event for the continent in your view?
The best part for me at the Africa’s Green Economy Summit was the networking. It’s just so fulfilling to see so many more people in this industry that have drive and are passionate about what they do. When you are an entrepreneur, I guess it’s just human nature, you want to feel that you’ve got a support system around you. And without Africa’s Green Economy Summit, you almost think: “Hey, I’m doing this by myself. I’m the only person in South Africa stupid enough to tap into a market that doesn’t exist and creating something from ground up.” But when you go to summits, you realise there’s more people in this, more people with struggles, more people that you can network and speak to on a personal level and see what they’re doing and learn from one another and be there just to support.

I’ve really made some good friends in the industry. We don’t necessarily work together or partner with anything, but we look out for each other, drop each other WhatsApps or voice notes or give a call every now and then saying, “Hey, I saw this opportunity. I don’t know if it fits your portfolio or something that you have appetite for, but go ahead and try” and make those connections for one another.

Just yesterday, a good friend of mine in the business of EV rentals, car rentals, Volvo’s etc., and I just connected him with one of our Uber contacts so that he can potentially get into that market. No real financial benefit to us, but we wouldn’t meet all these people if it wasn’t for Africa’s Green Economy Summit. So it’s highly recommended. I mean, I go every single year, just to make sure that you stay connected and you can learn and just be involved in the industry.

Anything you would like to add?
I’d just like to add thank you for this opportunity. I’ve always appreciate the Vuka Group. They’ve been an amazing partner to Green Riders. I know we’re not anything official, but you know the love and support that we found from Africa’s Green Economy Summit, the Vuka Group and every other partner that’s been involved, including Iain Banner from e-Movement. We loved the Formula E last year. We had the privilege of actually riding our e-bikes around the track and that opened so many doors. I mean, that was the first time I met the premier of the Western Cape, Alan Winde, and the other dignitaries that were part of that event, and now we talk all the time. If it wasn’t for e-Movement and the Vuka Group, we wouldn’t have had that opportunity to actually connect with the premier and the Western Cape Government dignitaries. So yeah, I just love the team and I love what you guys are doing. So yeah, thank you.

 

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