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West African city goes green with solar vehicles

The Ivorian town of Jacqueville, just outside the city of Abidjan, is betting on solar-powered three-wheelers as it looks to replace traditional but noisy and dirty bush taxis to make Abidjan Ivory Coast's premier eco-city.

The minicars of 2.7 meters long and 2 meters high, are covered in solar panels, each fitted out with six 12-volt batteries, giving the vehicles a range of 140 kilometers.

"We are used to seeing typically old and beaten up bush taxis pollute the atmosphere and the environment. We said to ourselves, ‘If we could only replace them with solar trikes,'" Mayor Joachim Beugre said.

"The adventure started in January with two little cars," explained the solar cars' promoter Marc Togbe, who has created a partnership with local businessman Balla Konate. The latter wants to extend operations to Odienne and Korhogo, towns in the north, the country's sunniest region.

"Today, a dozen cars are up and running. We are right in the test phase. More and more people are asking for them," Beugre said, seeing a chance to kill several birds with one solar stone.

For the start of the school year in October, Jacqueville plans to bring on stream a 22-seater "solar coach" designed to help deal with "the thorny issue of pupils' transport."

Many schoolchildren typically have to travel tens of kilometers from their home village to urban schools. So far, the trikes have also provided work for around 20 people, including drivers and mechanics.

A switch to solar and durables may appear paradoxical in Jacqueville, however, as the area produces the lion's share of the country's gas and oil.

The wells outside the town produce 6.65 million cubic meters of gas a day, while several foreign firms run pipelines taking oil and gas across the town to feed the refineries at Abidjan. However, the municipality - total budget 140 million CFA francs - sees none of the profits, an issue that has drawn public ire in the past.

The 50 million CFA francs trike project is just one piece in a much larger jigsaw that includes the construction of a new eco-city on a 240-hectare site among coconut trees.

"It will not be a city for the rich," Beugre insisted, showing off a blueprint replete with cycle paths and a university. "All social strata who respect the environment will be able to live there," he added.

"Our ecological project will go all the way and "stand up to the power of oil and gas," the local politician said. "In years to come, we want to ensure that these solar-power machines become the main means of travel in the area."