Senegalese-American singer Akon received a special welcome when he arrived in Benin in August, the last stop on his tour of six African countries as part of his Akon Lighting Africa initiative. Benin’s energy minister and other officials greeted him in the small, leather chair-adorned VIP lounge at the Cotonou airport. A fleet of gleaming white Ford Everests awaited his entourage outside, while he was directed to a black Chrysler.
During the following two days, the on-the-go motorcade would keep its police escorts busy — from meetings with the prime minister and the energy minister to an event at the U.S. Embassy and a small ceremony to unveil a solar street lamp in a semirural area not far from the capital city.
Thione Niang and Samba Bathily, Akon’s business partners in the Akon Lighting Africa initiative, joined him on the trip. The roles of all three are clear. Akon is the brand, Niang’s focus is on youth engagement and helping make political introductions, and Bathily is the businessman.
While Akon’s name is a driving force in the initiative, and he’s involved in many of the decisions, he’s never thought of himself as an entrepreneur. He didn’t even know the definition until recently, he said. But he’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit — from buying 12 packs of Snickers bars to resell at a markup from his locker at school to the illegal business opportunities he later chased that landed him in jail.
Back then, though, his motivations were different — he just wanted to be rich.
In large part because of his fame, the roughly two-year-old Akon Lighting Africa initiative has drawn a lot of media attention, but also generated a fair amount of curiosity and skepticism. Some of the criticism seems to stem from a lack of understanding of its brand and purpose.
Devex spent time traveling with the leaders of the organization and speaking with each in an effort to answer some of the lingering questions. While the the team touts rapid growth, especially in the past year, they’ve also been working to refine the initiative’s identity and priorities as it expands across the African continent.
Akon Lighting Africa was born out of a conversation a few years ago.
The initiative is designed to bring attention to the issue of energy poverty in Africa and the massive need for increased generation. Its current focus is on demonstration projects of solar street lamps and home solar kits in several countries.
“When you talk about health, there is no health without energy, no education, no commerce, no trade. So we said we were going to start from there.”- Thione Niang, co-founder of Akon Lighting Africa
To date, the solar street lamp business, by way of government contracts and tenders, has been the enterprise’s main business. Those installations and contracts are managed through the company Solektra, which was founded by Samba Bathily, and serves as the business arm of the initiative, which doesn’t actually implement the power deals.
The three partners didn’t know each other when Niang, who has played a role in Democratic politics in the U.S. and runs the Give1Project, invited Akon to speak at an event. Afterward, the two spoke about what they could do “to rewrite the story of Africa,” said Niang, who splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Senegal.
Niang felt he could harness the power of his brand — including his 52.5 million Facebook followers and 5.8 million Twitter followers — to make an impact. As the two discussed where to invest over the next few months, they kept returning to the same issue: the lack of energy.
“When you talk about health, there is no health without energy, no education, no commerce, no trade,” Niang said. “So we said we were going to start from there.”
Niang knows firsthand the challenges of “racing the sun” to complete homework, as does Akon, who spent part of his childhood in Senegal living in a house with no electricity.
Samba Bathily, with his understanding of energy, finances and business, whom Niang had met previously, completed the partnership picture.
Bathily’s Solektra has thus far installed 100,000 street lights as part of the initiative. About five percent were installed as demonstration projects and the rest primarily through government contracts or tenders. Each light costs between $800 to $3,000 depending on size, capacity and reach.
Solektra has worked out a deal with its Chinese suppliers for a $1 billion line of credit, which they use as part of a financing package they offer to governments as they bid for contracts or tenders. The credit line enables governments to pay the cost in installments over several years.
“If you ask most of them to pay one time they cannot do a good project,” Bathily said.
Akon Lighting Africa says it has reached more than 1 million people to date, which does not directly translate to 1 million more people with energy access. The number is calculated as the total of those impacted through their projects — for example citizens of a town or village that now has street lamps.
One of the demonstration projects is a village about a 45-minute drive, at least half on unpaved, barely-there roads, outside of Nairobi, Kenya. There, a row of solar street lamps lines one main road. The schools have solar street lamps too, as do the church, an orphanage and a few other public buildings. There are a few locals who have been trained to repair them should anything go wrong, but as the sun fades, they turn on like clockwork.
Akon Lighting Africa says it targets areas that lack access to energy and so the village was chosen in part because it was off-grid. However, within six months of the installation of solar lighting in the community, the Kenyan government extended the electric grid to the area, which raises questions about coordination. On the evening of Devex’s August visit, though, it appeared no one was out to make use of the lighted paths or other gathering places.
Still, ALA staff say the demonstration project has made a big difference in safety in the community and improved student productivity in schools. The location was chosen by government officials, as it is for all their work, and a lengthy community meeting and consultation determined the best locations for the street lamps.
Another potential challenge with this demonstration project and others is that ALA has distributed free home solar lighting systems, which could be problematic in a market where businesses are trying to sell similar products.
But the team is learning as they go and tackling challenges along the way, Niang said, one of which is spending a lot of energy educating people and making their case, especially to governments.
That’s been the only frustration that Akon has experienced thus far, he said — trying to explain to certain politicians what it is they’re doing and how ALA approaches things.
“People are used to doing things the way that they have always done it and when we come with our pitch and our approach, it’s always completely opposite and very different than what they’re used to,” Akon said.
It’s also meant relatively little sleep — spending every day, or every other day, in a different country doesn’t really allow for it. But somehow they still find time for fun, which helps break up the marathon of meetings.
When local musicians entertained the crowd of young people at an event in Benin, Akon danced with them on the stage, as did Niang. Bathily, seemingly the most serious, looked on.
Certainly Akon’s celebrity plays a role in the meetings and access the initiative gets; he understands the skepticism around celebrity engagement and the questions of whether this is a vanity project.
“I was one of those people that looked at all the other brands coming in like, ‘What’s happening? Where’s the money going? Where’s the progress?’” he said, adding that he’s always been skeptical of organizations that don’t deliver for the communities they claim to help.
Akon is much more interested in action than talk, he said.
Working with others
Akon Lighting Africa is looking for partners and recognizes that working together is the only way to effect significant change, the partners told Devex, although some stakeholders in the solar energy sector have questioned its business model, intentions and true commitment to partnership.
There’s no lack of confidence within the team — all three partners mentioned being sons of the African continent and attribute the initiative and Solektra’s business success to their local knowledge of how to get things done. But perhaps in that there’s also a bit of hubris — a sense that they know better, sometimes better than others working in the field.
Though some companies have been working on powering Africa for five or 10 years, Akon Lighting Africa has “probably accomplished more than every last one of them combined in less than two years,” Akon said.
It’s a belief, Niang said, fueled by the evidence of a string of failed projects where an outside company has come in, installed solar lighting, made their money and left only to let it crumble and break.
“Many people come in Africa with many projects and they cash out and there’s no sustainability,” Niang said. “We learned we need to ... make sure what we’re doing has continuity.”
When ALA was getting off the ground, the team talked to everybody involved in an effort to best understand the market, the challenges and who was involved, the partners said.
“You know what we understood? Some of them think that they have like the monopoly on Africa,” Bathily said. “I have discussions with them, Africa is not a monopoly for nobody, we need a solution. Everybody should join hands to bring the solution.”
But Niang said that Akon Lighting Africa has learned a lot from its partners and is looking to build a coalition of organizations working on the issue. He’s been meeting with Power Africa officials to figure out how they might fit into that U.S. government initiative and work together.
“We’re looking to partner with whoever delivers. We don’t really mind if you’re small or if you’re big — if you’re small we can help you grow and if you’re big you can help us grow. The unity is what’s going to keep Africa in a position where it can grow and be sustainable in the future,” Akon said.
Part of the reason Akon attended the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, Kenya, in July and has been involved in Sustainable Energy for All meetings in New York is to learn from the various entrepreneurs and development organizations working in the space.
“The best way to recruit is to be in those kind of events and be a part of those things to see what they’re dealing with, what they’re developing, what they’re trying to contribute to the growth of Africa,” he said.
It’s also about charting the road ahead and determining how decisions made in those forums may impact their work.
The organization will launch the Solektra Solar Academy in Mali in December, and in the long term is looking to become the utility company for rural energy in Africa.
Early on, Akon Lighting Africa realized that finding good human resources was also a challenge, so they began offering scholarships and training to locals to understand the market and the technology. This led to the decision to launch a solar academy, a training school specifically for solar power-related professions to build a cadre of knowledgeable Africans who can design systems, install and repair them, and build the future solar power businesses for the continent.
They’re not the first to recognize the need for talent — Off Grid Electric, a home solar electricity system company based in Tanzania, started a local academy to train potential future staff as they expand.
Read more stories on renewable energy in Africa:
And while Akon Lighting Africa has focused on streetlights — in part to bring awareness, but also because it was an easy entry point with few regulations involved — it plans to move into developing “minigrids” in the next year. It is also working in partnership with U.S. universities, German researchers, Chinese equipment providers and some NGOs to help build the ecosystem for minigrids and help encourage government policies that would lead to business growth in that area.
And they want to move fast, both because of the need and because that’s what people expect, Akon said.
“We’re not politicians so we don’t move like politicians, but we move like people who need for real action,” he said.
It’s clear that this is a deeply personal pursuit for Akon, one that symbolizes a break from the past.
“Where I’m at in my life, what I’m doing is definitely, clearly not about the money, it’s the feeling you get helping other people,” he said. “You feel more complete because now you start to understand your worth and more than anything you start to realize what you’re here for, your purpose.”
The change is demonstrated by the initiative and echoed by his partners, who strongly believe in the power of a new generation of young Africans.
“Solar can be an answer for energy solutions, not only for Africa but for the rest of the world. We have to drive that,” Niang said.
It may have been his celebrity that put the initiative on the map, but Akon is determined to deliver. He uses music as an escape, he said, and keeps it mostly separate while traveling for Akon Lighting Africa; but he’s sure recent experiences will be reflected in upcoming work — from the positive tone to the world sound. His audience for Akon Lighting Africa, meanwhile, is watching closely.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In preparing this story, much of the reporter's travel in Benin and Kenya was financially and logistically supported by Akon Lighting Africa. Nonetheless, Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.
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