Akon: ‘I don't think charities in Africa work’

US-Senegalese rapper Akon has launched an ambitious energy project in Africa. But will it be as successful as his music?

As night falls across Africa bustling cities light up and neighbourhoods begin to buzz, fed by traffic from well-lit roads. In the countryside, meanwhile, villages are plunged into darkness, shutting down the night-time economies of rural communities as restaurants and shops close and children light candles to do their homework.

For Akon, the US-based rap star, the realities of living without electricity are a vivid memory from his youth growing up in Kaolack, southern Senegal. Today, 600 million African people still live without access to electricity, and 3.5 million people die each year from inhaling toxic fuels or house fires caused while trying to light their homes. The project Akon Lighting Africa aims to tackle the problem using a different approach to the usual methods of NGOs in Africa.

Akon and his two co-founders, Thione Niang, a Sengalese political activist and Samba Bathily, a Malian entrepreneur and CEO of the solar energy company Solektra International, believe that what rural African communities need is not overseas charity but affordable renewable energy delivered by fully trained African professionals managing for-profit projects that bring longevity, generate jobs and build new self-sustaining economies. They think this initiative could mark the beginning of an African energy renaissance in which the continent becomes the focal point of a global solar power industry.

For Akon, this second venture into development (he also founded Konfidence, a health and education charity) has been an eye-opener. “There have been a lot of issues and challenges that I honestly wasn’t aware of until I got involved,” says the 42-year-old rapper, who has just completed a Canadian tour and spent the summer on a roadshow with Bathily and Niang that took him from the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, through Rwanda, Congo-Brazzaville, Nigeria and Niger, culminating at the coastal city of Cotonou, Benin, where they inspected Akon Lighting Africa’s projects.

“One thing I’ve realised about Africa is that only the organisations that involve Africans themselves are successful. A lot of corporations that come with their own policies and try and implement them in Africa fail horribly. The advantage we had is that all three founders are African, so we were able to navigate through each country a lot faster.”

Niang and Bathily bring political and economic skills to the project, while Akon admits that his main contribution is his name and the marketing opportunities it brings.

The founders have already made deals with the governments of 16 African states and aim to be operating in 25 by the end of next year. The deals are pre-financed using a $1bn credit line funded by international partners, including China Jiangsu International Group, and distributed by the pan-African bank Ecobank. A Chinese manufacturer supplies the solar panels but, crucially, the workers are predominantly African. The pre-financing set-up means that Solektra International can begin the engineering work straight away, giving villagers immediate electricity. Repayment plans are worked out with individual governments on a case-by-case basis.

The deals are delivering three types of solutions for people without electricity: 100,000 street lamps are being installed in villages; 1,000 solar micro-generators will act as clean energy hubs for communities, replacing old generators that used fossil fuels; and 200,000 household solar electric systems - including devices that store energy to provide LED panel lighting at night and pocket-sized solar gadgets that charge phones and tablets - will be sold at affordable prices to families, subsidised by each African government or local authority. It is a for-profit business, with Solektra negotiating rates with each government to meet affordability targets and with payments structured to ease burdens on national budgets.

“Personally, I don’t think that charities in Africa really work,” says Akon. “I think it just holds the people down longer than it should. I think the only way to build Africa is to build for-profit businesses that create opportunities and jobs for the people locally. That’s why with Akon Lighting Africa we decided to take a for-profit approach. Ultimately, it’s providing empowerment to local people so they can start developing their own economies.”

To that end, the organisation is a month away from launching an academy in Bamako, Mali where young people will train in construction, engineering, clerical work and project management.

“When we launched we sent 20 young people from 10 African countries to university in Marrakech with a scholarship fund to complete the engineering programme and then come back and work for us,” says Niang. “But we then realised this was bigger than that so we set up the academy in Mali.”

However, the project is not entirely bypassing NGOs. Niang’s non-profit Give1Project specialises in mentoring social entrepreneurs and has been key in mobilising young, enthusiastic recruits who carry out the legwork and receive valuable training and employment in return.

“What happens usually is that when people come to do business in Africa, they bring the expertise with them but they also bring the workers, and once they’re done they’re gone,” says Niang. “That’s why many cities in Africa have a lot of solar lights but after three years none of them work and nobody is there to maintain them. So we thought it was important to train the young Africans in the local areas. And it’s important to give jobs to young people.”

Their efforts have been well received by governments seeking greater energy access but struggling to find reliable partners. Akon Lighting Africa holds direct meetings with the countries’ leaders, then with the energy ministers, then with finance ministers and then they set up pilot projects before discussions about increasing scale.

Akon Lighting Africa focuses on rural areas because that’s where the need is greatest. “If you want to make an impact start there,” Akon says. “My thinking is if you want to build Africa, you start from the rural areas because that is the heartbeat of Africa.”

Join our community of development professionals and humanitarians. Follow@GuardianGDP on Twitter. Join the conversation with the hashtag #EnergyAccess.


Joshua Surtees in Paris

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