Aid is dead: Akon sets out the case for lighting up Africa through business

Last modified: 05: 01 PM GMT+0

The US-Senegalese rapper best known for filling dancefloors answers your questions about electricity, music and his love of the continent

That’s all we’ve got time for i’m afraid, but here’s a parting note from Akon:

Thank you very much for joining the conversation. With your help the commitments can turn into actions - we’re doing our part by launching the Solektra Solar Academy on 15 December in Bamako, Mali.

We have a great time at COP 21, we’re meeting potential partners, we’ve seen interesting commitments being made

You can follow the rest of the Guardian’s coverage from the UN climate change summit in Paris here, and here’s a selection of today’s stories

Updated

The case for aid

By email Tom Moore asks:

Akon, love the work you’re doing. I believe there is still a place in this sector for aid agencies. Many use the term loosely and still promote business and enterprise. SolarAid for example use grants to help them catalyse markets and reach the very last mile while still selling light and building sustainable markets. There is definitely room for partnerships.

Can I ask what you’re doing to ensure the very poorest aren’t overlooked? Many still can’t afford the cost of a home system and need help getting on the energy ladder.

Akon replies: I don’t believe in aid in Africa, I don’t believe it works.

Aid has been the central point for Africa for years and there has been no progress. If you want to help people you have to empower them, employ them and educate them so that they can provide for their own

Constant giving only weakens a person’s morale but if you put people in the position to the be one giving it strengthens them. This project is designed to keep the very poorest out of poverty.

‘East Africa is waiting’

@guardian @Akon and how will it be fully implemented? Thanks! Your Boy @Somaliland_NOW

— Mع٥_Wå¥ (@Somaliland_NOW) December 3, 2015

I wanted to be a part of Africa’s development in the future. Just log on akonlightingafrica.com for implementation facts.

It is an Pan African project.

Democratic Republic of Congo

My question would be what is he doing to highlight the ongoing situation in DRC the worst humanitarian disaster since WW2 according to the UN. It makes Syria look like a playground scuffle. Officially, 8 million dead since 1997 and likely much more, millions displaced. The wealth of the "heart of Africa" going to the west and technology in things like lamp posts, computers, mobile phones and other devices, what has he done to highlight this? What has he done to get a hydro plant at the mouth of the Congo river where water flow is enough to provide electricity to the entire African continent according to scientists? What is he doing to harness the wealth and stop the exploitation of the DRC which is the richest country in the world based on natural resources.

Am just an African citizen doing my part in the development of Africa in general. Unfortunately I don’t have the power to make decision like that. But you on the other hand should spread the information and raise awareness on the issue in Congo. And I will support anyway I can to raise the awareness.

Long term vision

What is Akon's long term vision for solar power and communities in Africa in the next 10years?

In the next 10 years Solektra my company wants to be the dominant provider of renewable energy in Africa

The trickle down effect

We'd love to ask Akon how he thinks that innovation can be nurtured and fostered at a community level so that communities are able to take control of their own energy needs, even in the remotest of places.

The winner of this year's Ashden Award for Business Innovation, SteamaCo, is pioneering remote-controlled renewable energy microgrids for rural areas in Kenya which work like mini power stations for each village, supplying enough energy to run small businesses, as well as power TVs, radios and bright lights in the home:

http://www.ashden.org/winners/Steamaco15

How can we make sure that the benefits of clean energy are passed on to the hardest to reach?

The communities need to start by themselves by supporting each others’ businesses. That unity will attract other businesses.

We’re working to develop the cheapest microgrid system in the world for the hardest to reach

Quad bikes

Where did you get the quad bikes for the Bonanza video?

We rented them

On music

@guardianmusic @Akonwiki @Akon @GuardianAfrica @MaeveShearlaw Ask him when the Stadium album App coming???

— AkonPromo (@AkonlPromo) December 3, 2015

We’re launching it in January but don’t tell anyone ...

Working with others

This comment has been chosen by Guardian staff because it contributes to the debate

I have a question for Akon.

What is Akon Lighting Africa doing to work with other aid agencies working in the energy access/lighting space?

I know that the UK's Department for International Development has a similar campaign, called Energy Africa, is there any scope for collaboration?

… Again we’re a for profit company, promoting public-private partnerships - so we do not work with aid agencies.

This comment has been chosen by Guardian staff because it contributes to the debate

Women in Senegal are working hard to provide solar lighting products to their off-grid communities. Limited awareness and availability of products are one of the main factors impeding women’s breakthrough within the energy sector.

GVEP International is supporting these women in Tambacounda and Kédougou, Senegal: http://www.gvepinternational.org/en/business/energy-opportunities-women-senegal

Akon, would you support these women's efforts by raising awareness of their activites in the energy sector and the key role they play in delivering solar lighting to rural regions in Africa?

Will do my best – send the information, I’ll have my people blast it on my social networks

Respecting local economies:

Also by email Nico Tyabji asks:

Many entrepreneurs, local as well as international, are setting up sustainable businesses selling solar lanterns and solar home systems that bring people access to electricity, for less than they currently pay for kerosene and charging phones. It’s a really exciting story for Africa already. How will he make sure he doesn’t kill what’s already happening by giving away lanterns for free?

Akon replies: Our pilot projects are “for free” – free equipment but our plan is to participate in official tenders, which will be ‘for profit’ at a later stage.

We’re setting pilots in rural areas where people cannot afford lanterns at all – the purpose of a pilot is to showcase the business model

We promote the business model for the people that can afford it, at a later stage (the tender phase)

Why not use western energy?

Why doesn't Africa open it's electricity markets to western companies who have proven track records in providing electricity for more then a 100 years? There is no need for Africa to reinvent electricity production/distribution.

The truth is: all western companies were approached at the beginning and all declined, so we started ourselves. Now that we managed to draw attention on the issue, everybody wants to work with us! We have partners from all backgrounds and all corners of the world now

Where does the money go?

Can Akon ensure that none of his relatives or companies will be involved in this initiative? My mind turns to Wyclef Jean and the people of Haiti, who are still waiting for all the promised development whilst living on scraps.

Akon Lighting Africa is a program created by a compant, Solektra International that we created with Samba Bathily and Thione Niang. This is a for profit business, so the money goes to the banks (African banks) and gets re-invested in the projects on the ground.

If not through aid, then how should individuals in western countries help?

This comment has been chosen by Guardian staff because it contributes to the debate

I'm aware of the negative aspects of aid- for the UK a huge amount of the overseas budget stays in the UK- agencies like VSO employee as many staff as they send volunteers and have huge expensive London office. Once costs of consultation are factored in a simple project to train a few thousand African youth to be community volunteers ends up costing the same per person as training a doctor in the UK for a year.

Aid ends up redistributing money back to the donor- so how do we, the rich help?

European towns love to twin ourselves with other similar European towns- perhaps we could twin ourselves to villages or districts- I could then pay for a solar a panel, post the school a laptop and we could connect with broadband/sat internet. Schools on different continents could communicate with each other, and communities could share.

Perhaps the tech revolution- the new industrial revolution is micro. Once governments needed to borrow or aided $millions to bring power with generators and grids to towns, and in the near future LEDs, solar, and batteries means that ex-pats, friends and the community themselvs can afford it.

power to the people.

What we do is definitely not aid – it is a for profit business. We want to create jobs.

How can western countries help? Come and invest in our projects. See for instance commitments from governments like France to support the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) launched at COP 21 in Paris– this is a good way to help, money for targeted investments

Motivation

Philbert Girinema sent two questions for Akon by email:

Why chose Rwanda as one of the countries to invest?

Akon replies: We like Rwanda a lot, we think it is growing fast and thought we could make a good contribution.

And what has been your motivation in this initiative?

Akon replies: Patriotism for Africa and smart business ...

Updated

Hi all,

Just to let you know that Akon is with us now.

Thanks for all the great questions... let’s begin.

Updated

‘Caesarians by torch mean mothers die’

Laura Stachel, US

Laura Stachel in Tanzania.
Laura Stachel in Tanzania. Photograph: We Care Solar/The Guardian

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the worst places in the world to be a mother, where a woman has a 1 in 36 chance of dying during pregnancy and childbirth, compared to 1 in 2,300 in the developed world.

The causes of death, including obstructed labour, are often easy to treat but emergency C-sections and other procedures are almost impossible to perform in the dark.

In 2008, Laura Stachel, an obstetrician-gynaecologist from California, came up with a solution to help overstretched midwives: a “solar suitcase” for health centres that suffer regular power cuts.

The idea for We Care Solar was born after a research trip to Nigeria, where she found a state hospital, serving a city of 1.5 million people, surviving without electricity for 12 hours a day.

“I saw mothers fighting for survival in near-darkness, nurses trying to start intravenous lines by candlelight, deliveries by kerosene lanterns, and surgeons who were conducting C-sections by flashlight,” Stachel explains.

She and her husband raised funds for a comprehensive solar electric system in the labour room, operating theatre and a blood bank. The hospital’s maternal death rate dropped by 70%.

Within a year they’d adapted this into a portable solar-powered kit, which included head torches, medical lights and Doppler baby heart monitors.

So far 1,300 have been distributed across Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Liberia, Malawi and Sierra Leone. The pair want to equip midwives across Africa with 20,000 lifesaving kits by 2018.

‘Energy is as important to development as economics’

Namubebo Akombaetwa, Zambia

Namubebo Akombaetwa in Zambia.
Namubebo Akombaetwa in Zambia. Photograph: Elly White

Namubebo Akombaetwa grew up in Luanshya, in Zambia’s Copperbelt Province, and remembers visits to her grandmother well. “She used kerosene lamps and at the end of every holiday I’d look at the ceiling and notice how black it was from the fumes.

“Over time that causes respiratory problems [like asthma and bronchitis] – the same as you might get from constant smoking.”

Fast forward to today and 30-year-old Akombaetwe is explaining how, as a development graduate, she saw a job advert for SunnyMoney, the social enterprise arm of UK-based charity SolarAid, which said it wanted to eradicate the use of kerosene lamps by the end of 2020.

“I realised energy was as important to development as economics,” Akombaetwe said. “I live in a country where so many people are off-grid and I thought I should do my part giving people access to clean, safe and affordable lighting.”

She sells small, portable five watt solar lights that charge in the sun and last for up to 72 hours. They have a five-year lifespan and cost around $5, which is an affordable option for their clientele, subsistence farmers on an average annual farming income of $163.

‘Sunshine is our one reliable source’

Francis Kibhisa, Tanzania

“Africa has an abundance of sunshine ... east Africa in particular is in a tropical zone,” says Francis Kibhisa. “Hydro, biofuels, gas and oil are all diminishable but sunshine is the one reliable source Africa can depend on.”

The 45-year-old off-grid expert set up Rex Energy in in 2000, specialising in solar solutions. They are one of Africa’s only solar companies founded, owned and run by Africans.

The company offers a vast array of products, from complete home solar systems capable of powering lights, televisions, electric shavers, laptops and mobile phones, to mini-solar grids producing up to 500kw of energy that consumers can tap into, instead of the national grid.

Most of Kibhisa’s customers are farmers and fishermen who can pay by text message, to suit their irregular incomes.

“The solar industry went through big problems during the European and American recession, with many giant companies losing a lot of money and declaring bankruptcy,” Kibhisa said. “But we got through it and investment is coming back.

“What we need now is to come up with innovations for storing the energy we produce , he says, but we have a big future ahead of us.”

Updated

‘Burundi has a lot of potential’

Dr Lazare Sebitereko, Burundi

Dr Lazare Sebitereko.
Dr Lazare Sebitereko. Photograph: Lazare Sebiterereko/The Guardian

Dr Sebitereko grew up in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where bamboo and firewood were the main sources of light at night.

Today he is in charge of ambitious plans for Burundi’s first major solar plant. It is a 17-hectare, 7.5 megawatt (MW) farm, 65 miles from the capital Bujumbura.

“Burundi is one of the world’s poorest countries but with a lot of potential,” he explains. “It’s very expensive to connect people to the national grid [and] the solution are alternatives like solar.”

The plant will increase Burundi’s energy capacity by 15% in a country where just 4% of the population of 10 million has access to electricity. It will employ 300 Burundians, 30% of whom will be women. Construction is set to begin next year, but there are fears that the project could be derailed after an attempted coup in May.

Sebitereko hopes that the project will improve the education system and lift people out of poverty by giving local economies a boost: “I never had access to electricity until secondary school, children today will be able to study ICT.”

Updated

Solar trailblazers

The world leaders, environmentalists and scientists convening in Paris this week for the UN climate change conference have a challenge on their hands: to secure a global agreement to stop temperatures rising.

The African contingent will be some of those pushing hard to negotiate on behalf of millions of nomadic pastoralists and small farmers across the continent, for whom the effects of climate change are being felt most.

Obama on climate deal: ‘Getting 200 nations to agree on anything is hard’

Across the continent governments are waking up to the fact that Africa’s most abundant natural resource – the sun – can provide clean electricity.

Inventors and NGOs are coming up with solar-powered inventions that can charge mobile phones, boost the capacity of national grids or pump water in remote villages.Akon, is one of those hoping to transform the continent’s environmental and economic landscape. As we count down to the live Q&A with the rapper at 4pm, we’ll profile four other men and women making a difference using solar power in Africa.

He’s best associated with the dancefloors of R&B clubs, after releasing tracks including Lonely, Smack That and Sorry, Blame it on Me. But Akon is also on a lesser-known mission: to bring electricity to millions of African homes.

Electricity is essential to ensuring that businesses stay open; young people can do their homework and public places stay safe, says the Akon Initiative, which the rapper set up in collaboration with political activist Thione Niang in 2014.

The enterprise is not about charity handouts, however. Akon has previously told the Guardian he believes foreign aid can hold people back. He prefers a form of development that enables local people to “start developing their own economies”.

Any questions?

As he prepares to head to Mali later this month to spend time with the continent’s solar energy pioneers, Akon has agreed to answer your questions about electricity, music and his love of Africa.

Join us live on Thursday 3 December between 4pm - 5pm GMT or leave your questions in advance in the comments below. You can also tweet them @GuardianAfrica or email maeve.shearlaw@theguardian.com.

Updated

Contributors

Akon,Joshua Surtees and Maeve Shearlaw

The GuardianTramp

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