Chennai Startup’s Electric Two-Wheelers Raise $50 Million Funding

More than 10 million electric cars were on the roads, globally, in 2020. Subsequently, sales of e-bikes have also risen. Realising this opportunity and the need for electric vehicles (EVs) in 2014-15, an entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu, is today running one of the largest electric two-wheeler companies in Africa. 

Mansoor Alikhan Al Buhari is the founder and chairman of M Auto Group of Companies. A serial entrepreneur, he initially conceived of M Auto as an auto company. 

Hailing from a village called Kottampatti in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, the entrepreneurial spirit was instilled in the 33-year-old year by his father from a young age. 

“My father always told me that you should not work for someone else. You should employ others. Therefore, doing something on my own was always my goal,” says Mansoor.

He started his first business as a 17-year-old, in Tirupur with Rs 3,000 and a gold coin.

Mansoor Alikhan Al Buhari is the founder and chairman of M Auto Group of Companies
Mansoor Alikhan Al Buhari with M Auto’s electric two-wheelers in Africa

The company, ‘Computer Planet’, dealt in sales and servicing of computers.    

“Many of my family members have textile businesses in Tirupur. I went to work with them from 2006-07. The tradition was that whoever comes to work, must start by folding the banians (vests) and keeping them in boxes, washing bathrooms, etc. I was not happy with that. With my uncle’s help, I got a job at a computer operator’s office. And once I learnt a little about computers, I started my own business,” says Mansoor.

After that, he started an IT company called Computer Corporation of India, which ran from 2010-2013. And that’s when his friends introduced him to the auto industry. “At that time, there were no meter autos in Chennai. My friends were speaking about how the large industry was still unorganised. So, I came onboard ‘Namma Auto’ where we ran meter autos. However, I quit that after a few months due to personal reasons,” adds Mansoor.

Electrifying Autos

M Auto electric in Africa
M Auto Electric in Africa

Soon, he started Makkal Auto or ‘M Auto’ to organise the sector and help auto drivers with their earnings, especially focusing on women drivers.

While running meter autos, he realised that while petrol prices kept changing, meter rates weren’t changed. And the solution to this was electric autos.

“Initially, we would buy autos from Bajaj, TVS, add meters and give them out on lease. But the increase in petrol prices posed a huge challenge. CNG also had the same problems. The only long term solution would be electric autos. So after much research and development, we started retrofitting autos and making them electric. It cost us about Rs 75,000 to make an auto electric,” says Mansoor.

Then in 2019, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami officially launched M Auto Electric’s retrofit electric autos.

The company also worked on gender inclusion by training 3,000 women as auto drivers. 

M Auto's women drivers
M Auto’s women drivers in Chennai

They also introduced 13 variants of the auto to help businesses. They set up a huge facility in Chennai and started manufacturing.

“During the lockdown, I saw auto drivers in India using vehicles for other businesses like selling fruits and vegetables. So we introduced ‘business on wheels’ for almost 40 types of businesses, where the auto can be customised as per the needs of the entrepreneur like ‘m-veggies’, ‘m-garbage’, ‘m-ambulance’, etc. It is advantageous for them as they don’t have to spend on rent,” adds Mansoor.

While working on the electric three-wheeler market in India, they also set their sights on other countries. 

Yasmeen Jawaharali, co-founder, M Auto Electric, says, “We realised that autos are used in many countries. While travelling to countries in Africa, we saw the immense use of two-wheelers. The bike taxi market in Africa is huge. We also saw that Africa has leaders who have visionary thinking and want to go green. We raised investment from Africa Transformation and Industrialisation Fund (ATIF) and are the biggest e-vehicle company here.” 

They launched in Africa in Togo and Benin in 2020 and have delivered 2,500 electric two-wheelers.

Yasmeen Jawaharali, co-founder, M Auto Electric
Yasmeen Jawaharali, co-founder, M Auto Electric, riding a two-wheeler in Africa

They also have orders for another 15,000.

“We have raised $50 million in funding from investors in Africa to develop e-mobility here,” says Yasmeen, adding, “What we realised when we visited countries here is that the dependency on bike taxis is a lot. So we started selling electric two-wheelers, which were used for these bike taxi services. We also built battery-swapping stations. We also have introduced the pay-as-you-go model, which we want to replicate in India as well. Riders give a deposit of Rs 2,000 to start riding. If you recharge your vehicle, you can ride it, it’s that simple. In two-three years of continuous use, the vehicle becomes yours.”

Mansoor adds that M Auto is building factories in Togo and Benin. The plan now, according to Mansoor, is to expand its footprint in both Africa and India. He also claims, “Our Chennai factory is operational and can manufacture 1,000 vehicles per month.” 

“We want to focus on the B2B segment in India for two-wheelers. We want to serve fleet operations and offer end-to-end transport solutions. I want to honour my father by providing jobs to more people in the coming years,” adds Mansoor.

Edited by Yoshita Rao