MellowVans, a South African business that specialises in manufacturing light electric vehicles, has taken a major step in expanding its reach. The company recently exported its first test vehicles to Europe. MellowVans has already established a strong foothold in its home country, counting courier companies and retailers among its clients. To learn more about the company’s journey and future plans, Jeanette Clark spoke with founder and director Neil du Preez.
In 2014, South African Neil du Preez took a sharp turn on his career path. He had been living abroad, working as a commodities trader and had a background in chemistry, but an idea took hold to create a small three-wheeled electric vehicle, and it would simply not let go.
One thing was clear to Du Preez, while it had to be small and nimble, it could not look like a tuk-tuk (the auto rickshaw vehicles so prolific in East Asia). “That design had gotten stuck in the 1950s, we wanted something modern,” he says.
The original idea, when he moved to Stellenbosch in South Africa, was to design a light electric vehicle for passenger transport. The company, MellowCabs, was established and started gaining some media attention for its use of recycled material and environmentally friendly approach.
By January 2015 the company had built eight prototypes that were visible on the roads, creating a steady trickle of interest from advertisers and public transport providers.
The company was still continuously evolving its ideas around the design and materials used. At one stage the cab even featured a flexible solar panel on its roof.
A major turning point, however, was when Du Preez and his team realised in 2019 that the use case for the vehicles had much more potential when it comes to parcels and cargo.
“There was a moment where the managing director of courier company DHL said to me: ‘Convert one of these into a delivery vehicle and we will test it for you,’” says Du Preez. “In retrospect that was a major pivotal point for our company.”
MellowCabs changed its name to MellowVans and DHL started using them. Today, there are MellowVans throughout South Africa and some vehicles can be found in Namibia and Botswana. Now Du Preez and his team have their sights set on Europe.
Rethink and redesign
MellowVans was establishing itself as a partner for last-mile deliveries when the global pandemic hit. If home delivery was a rising trend before, it suddenly became a necessity for people stuck at home. “Retail home delivery exploded, which was a very good thing for us,” says Du Preez.
The company realised that there was a big international market for electric three-wheelers for cargo delivery. It used the first couple of months of the pandemic to relook its design, considering changes that would be appropriate for use if the vehicles were sold in Europe.
Du Preez and the team also considered the European homologation requirements. Before a vehicle can be sold in the European market, it has to undergo rigorous testing and the redesign was the ideal time to address some elements that would help with final approval.
Although various international components have been added to the vehicle, Du Preez notes that over 60% of the build still consists of locally sourced South African parts.
Production of the redesigned vehicle commenced in January 2022 and today the company has homologation pre-approval for Europe, hoping to finalise the process in the next couple of months.
“We have test vehicles on the ground in the Netherlands with DOCKR, a mobility supplier, and in Belgium with DHL Europe,” says Du Preez. “Next up is France and Germany.”
With the redesign, MellowVans also looked at the suspension requirements for its new markets, adjusting it to navigate the cobblestone surfaces found in Belgium, specifically.
MellowVans have a cargo capacity of 2.5 cubic metres, far exceeding that of motorcycle delivery vehicles. The top speed is electronically limited to 60km/h, and it has a range of 130km. All vehicles come with an onboard charger and can be fully recharged in four hours.
Leasing and maintenance
Any maintenance is covered under the company’s leasing offer. It no longer sells the vehicles to its clients.
“Most of the maintenance that we have to do are things like windscreen wipers, tyres, side mirrors, not really any technical work,” says Du Preez.
The two- or three-year lease includes the functionality of a full internet-of-things system which enables clients to track the deliveries made.
No deposit is required, and full insurance is included.
Ramping up production
Hardware manufacturing is expensive, says Du Preez. “We don’t qualify for tax incentives under the South African Automotive Production and Development Plan (an incentive scheme) as we don’t produce 50,000 units and more per year. We had to find funding wherever we could,” he says.
Initially, MellowVans received financing from an angel investor as well as “friends, family and fools”, as Du Preez puts it.
Thereafter the company qualified for funding from South Africa’s Industrial Development Corporation and just recently it closed its first Series A funding round with a consortium of South African investors.
MellowVans has made considerable investments to increase its production volumes. “Previously we could manage one vehicle per day, from April we will be up to four per day,” says Du Preez. “By August, it will be 10.”
The demand for the vehicles has always outstripped the supply. MellowVans could simply not produce enough units to supply both South Africa and Europe. The plan is to ship the fully built models to European clients as a start, moving towards local assembly in the destination market as soon as it makes sense from a price point approach.
“We are using European components in the vehicle, so we would have to have local assembly there. We are looking at possible locations in the Netherlands, Hungary, as well as Egypt.”
MellowVans founder Neil du Preez’s contact information
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