Harnessing the power of the sun

Bolivia’s Mobi eyes solar-powered future.

Founded in 2020, the Bolivian startup Mobi, based in Santa Cruz operates a fleet of electric vehicles (“EVs”) including scooters, bikes, mopeds and e-bikes which are all solar powered. Bolivia, one of Latin America’s poorest countries may seem a rather unusual choice for an e-mobility startup; nonetheless Mobi closed the largest ever seed round for a startup in Bolivia last year at USD 1.38 million off a USD 5 million valuation. Investment was led by Biopetrol, the main operator of gas stations in the country, and Kieffer & Asociados, an insurance company.  

What makes Mobi particularly interesting is that the company was granted access by the Bolivian government to extract and develop lithium – the company is using the mineral to develop solar batteries to develop its EV’s. To further its lithium development ambitions, Mobi announced last month that it had partnered with US extraction outfit Energy Exploration Technologies Inc. For markets and investors, Bolivia’s commitment to helping local companies develop a domestic lithium battery supply chain would signal that the administration is serious about developing infrastructure to exploit the resource, critical to global supply chains – and to the country’s fiscal stream. 

The CFO of a service provider company in Bolivia explained, “Mobi was largely inspired by micro mobility companies in North America and Europe where companies have enjoyed significant return on investment. Latin America in contrast is a much less developed market, would-be users have a comparatively reduced disposable income to spend on these kinds of rental schemes.”

“… Latin America in contrast is a much less developed market, would-be users have a comparatively reduced disposable income to spend on these kinds of rental schemes.”

The CFO of a service provider company in Bolivia

There is regional precedent, EV schemes have been successful in Colombia and are becoming more visible on the major cities of neighbouring Brazil. In Bolivia, Mobi’s strategy is particularly ambitious not just on account of pioneering EV usage in the country but because Bolivia’s challenging mountainous topography and comparatively smaller urban areas makes doing so a particularly difficult undertaking.  

Indeed, high altitude hilly cities, haphazardly planned, including La Paz and Sucre make it difficult for outfits such as Mobi to install and maintain infrastructure in a cost-effective way. However, lower lying and flatter cities including Santa Cruz and Cochabamba are easier options, but their markets are smaller and poorer.  

Mobi has launched a subscription service for its users and is now looking to expand into neighbouring Paraguay. That said, several hurdles stand in the way of further expansion. “The business environment in Bolivia is not one that is supportive of startups. Although on the one hand the total lack of regulation is advantageous, the state apparatus, more than before, is coercive to the extreme. The taxes that the few formal companies have to pay are high. But more than anything, the bureaucracy is extreme. It takes months to get permits and licenses, not to mention corruption,” explains the CFO. 

“The business environment in Bolivia is not one that is supportive of startups. Although on the one hand the total lack of regulation is advantageous, the state apparatus, more than before, is coercive to the extreme.”  

The CFO of a service provider company in Bolivia

Interest in renewable modes of transportation is nascent in both Bolivia and Paraguay. These are comparatively poor countries where the food basket and energy bills often leave little left over to think of e-transport. Indeed, there is a high risk of theft – there are plenty of examples of bicycles, skates and anything else that can be rented being stolen by organised gangs. The other risk is driving on the streets which in large Latin American cities can be a major hazard for regular automobiles let alone smaller and less visible scooters, bikes and mopeds.    

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