Celebrities often lend their brand to a cause or undertake pet projects, but for Senegalese-American singer Akon, the issue of improving access to energy is personal and has been his main focus for the past two years.
Akon, who spent part of his childhood living in Senegal without access to electricity, launched Akon Lighting Africa, an initiative to bring solar power to the continent, about a year ago.
“There’s always been so many initiatives in Africa, so much money raised in Africa, but there’s never no results and it got to the point where you get tired of it,” he told Devex in a recent interview. “I took it more personal than anything and I wanted to be in a position to where if I move forward on something I wanted to actually see it materialize.”
The initiative primarily targets rural communities that are not connected to the grid and is working to find creative financing financing arrangements and bring costs down to make the electricity affordable.
The call for increased power generation to meet the growing and gaping needs in Africa isn’t new. But discussions are often around large projects — big new power plants or dams — followed by questions about who will benefit and whether building out the grid is part of the plan.
The Akon Lighting Africa initiative takes a different approach.
Designed to promote inclusive and sustainable growth, the initiative focuses first on providing solar power through microgrid systems to rural communities, which are often far from existing grids.
Akon and his partners didn’t come up with the business model — government-subsidized installation with commercial entities taking on the additional risk and collecting the payments — on their own. It’s a model that has been tested by the World Bank, said Samba Bathily, an entrepreneur and co-founder of Akon Lighting Africa.
In partnership with solar panel manufacturers and others, Akon Lighting Africa has secured a roughly $1 billion credit line that allows it to help broker longer-term financing for governments that may not be able to pay for a certain project in one budget cycle.
Governments use the loans to finance public utilities like street lights and to subsidize the installation of community solar kits. But costs aren’t borne by government alone — households connected to the community microgrid prepay for their electricity through a scratch card, similar to how cellphone credit is sold, until they own the the product outright.
Traditional energy sources like candles and kerosene are still cheaper, Akon Lighting Africa co-founder Thione Niang acknowledged. But the political activist and consultant said the initiative is working to reduce prices further — negotiating with suppliers, forming partnerships such as the one it has with Columbia University, and boosting economies of scale.
“The bottom line,” Niang said, “is [to] get people away from aid.”
It’s been a busy year for Akon Lighting Africa.
Last week it announced it would give $200,000 to support the new Western African Energy Leaders Group, a platform for West African political and business leaders to work together to improve energy access. In May, it launched a solar academy to train African entrepreneurs, engineers and technicians in the field of solar energy.
Further, the initiative reached 11 countries in its first year and has provided electricity to more than a million Africans. That may seem like a large number, but with more than 600 million Africans lacking access, it’s only a small step.
That seems to be something that is often on the minds of Akon and his business partners Bathily and Niang. It is fueling their plans to expand quickly and broaden their reach to 48 African countries by 2020.
The initiative, which was in the works for at least a year before its launch, meant that Akon put music on the backburner as he focused on studying the challenges and opportunities. The result: a realization that not only is there a great need, but that the market was huge and there was limited competition, he said.
The response thus far has been positive. The initiative has received “amazing feedback” and many people want to be a part of it to understand how it was able to get things done so quickly, Akon said.
“The main answer is you have to be able to understand Africa,” he said. Spending a lot of time in Africa and involving as many Africans as possible is critical, the singer added, because it brings a greater understanding of how things work, which makes working in each particular context a smoother process.
That’s not the only thing that has helped.
Akon is quick to admit that his celebrity has helped open a lot of doors. His name, and thus stamp of approval, gave partners and governments a sense of security — it created opportunities to meet with presidents and government ministers and business owners alike, he said.
With more than a year of work behind them, the partners are stepping up on the international stage and increasingly engaging with others, including potential partners, working on sustainable energy access.
They were at the U.N. Sustainable Energy for All forum and have had conversations with many of the donors, trying to share the details of what they are doing, the importance of reaching rural populations, and what sort of innovative financing opportunities may be possible.
They’ve had positive conversations with Power Africa, Niang said, but believe that action needs to be taken to combine off-grid solutions that can create jobs, improve schools, health clinics and the economy in the near term.
Big power projects — be they new plants or dams — can take many years to get up and running, and there are questions about how much of that new generation will reach rural communities or connect new customers to the grid.
“Big infrastructure projects are good in the long term, but now we should do both,” Niang said. “Why are we going to wait to give basic energy to 60 percent of the population?”
As large-scale capacity comes online they can feed into the systems that companies and initiatives like Akon Lighting Africa are helping to build.
That all relies on proving the business model. The initiative took substantial losses on early projects, in part due to investments in training African staff to install and maintain the systems. But the partners say they are confident. They are working to make the case in part through the ecosystem fund they set up — based on a cluster of 10 countries where results are tracked — to bring private equity investors into the business, Niang said.
The Akon Lighting Africa initiative is looking to expand into 48 countries by 2020 and he plans to launch other initiatives tackling agriculture, infrastructure and education in the coming years. Akon said he recognizes that these are ambitious goals but he believes in aiming high and bringing on partners to help do the work.
“No matter who you have to bring in, regardless of politics [and] policies, we just want to be able to bring solutions to Africa without the extra red tape,” he said.
And for those concerned about his other career, Akon said he’ll continue to record and perform, because music is what enables all of this work.