One of Senegal’s most famous sons is using his platform as a hip-hop star to lift some of Africa’s most rural communities out of darkness and into the 21st Century.
ON AUGUST 6, the rapper Akon arrived in the coastal city of Cotonou, Benin’s economic capital, at the end of a two-week roadshow which started in Kenya before taking the international superstar through Rwanda, Congo-Brazzaville, Nigeria and Niger before reaching his final destination.
It was a very different journey to Akon’s usual tours.
There were no sweaty, topless performances in front of screaming fans and instead of popstar collaborations he travelled with his Senegalese compatriot Thione Niang, a political activist who, like Akon, was partly raised and educated in the US, and Samba Bathily, a Malian entrepreneur.
The three men are the founders of Akon Lighting Africa – a project that aims to bring electricity to the estimated 600 million people across (mostly rural) Africa who still have no access to the vital power source.
For these people, nighttime – which for much of sub -Saharan Africa falls quickly and at the same time every evening just after 6pm – means darkness until the sun rises again at 6am.
In practical terms, this means rural villages shut down economically and socially as shops and restaurants can’t light up their businesses, children can’t do homework except by candlelight, health centres struggle to cope with emergencies and people who have been out all day at work get home to ill-lit houses where household tasks are difficult to complete.
On top of these basic inconveniences – unimaginable in developed parts of the world where people become enraged if their internet connection goes down for five minutes – over 3.5 million people in Africa die each year as a result of fi res or toxic gas inhalation caused by trying to light their homes using expensive and dangerous fuels.
HERO’S WELCOME: Samba Bathily, Akon and Thione Niang (l-r) are met with applause in Benin [PIC CREDIT: Dagency.Fr]
In February 2014, Akon, Niang and Bathily launched their response to the problem, combining forces to begin a programme of providing these 600m people with clean affordable electricity via solar energy using Bathily’s company Solektra International, Akon’s celebrity status and worldwide influence and Niang’s consultancy skills and political contacts (he has worked for the Democrat Party in the US and was part of Obama’s campaign team in 2008.)
In Benin, an additional long-term plan was revealed – an initiative to use solar energy to enable children
to use tablet devices provided by the Akon Lighting Africa organisation for their schoolwork.
“The solar power we are providing can be used to connect all sorts of devices – telephones to communicate, fridges to keep food in, so why not to power computers too?” Akon explained. “We presented the outline of a new project we hope to launch within the next few months to supply learning devices and to set up smart schools.”
“Access to energy will drive rapid transformations in Africa,” added Niang. “Electrification first, education next. Akon Lighting Africa puts top priority on African development.”
Just outside Cotonou, in the district of Pahou, Akon and his partners joined Benin’s new Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou, to inspect some of the 1,500 streetlights and 2,200 solar energy kits installed by Solektra International in 124 communities in Benin.
“We have already installed over 75 per cent of the equipment,” Bathily said. “Benin is a strategic country. By winning this tender [a few months ago] we have been able to show that our approach is both solid and involves high quality solutions.”
Before Benin, at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, the trio held talks with local agenciesthat oversee rural electrifi cation projects and identified opportunities for more solar solutions across Africa. Their objective is to have a presence in 25 countries by the end of 2016.
Anne-Elvire Kormann-Esmel, who is running the project’s PR, says the inspiration for the organisation came from the personal experiences of the three successful African men.
“The three of them grew up in Africa, and as adults they had the opportunity to travel around the world. Discovering other countries year after year, they realise how important energy access is to develop a country. Whatever human efforts, there cannot be large economic impact without energy.”
She credits Akon as the brainchild behind it.
“Akon had thought of this project after a trip to Senegal when he came back to his home town, Kaolack, and realised that after years, nothing had changed – and nothing could change without energy.”
Having met Niang at a Give1Project event (an NGO created by Thione to mentor young entrepreneurs) the two Senegalese countrymen committed themselves to the project then approached Bathily, a man with expertise in the energy sector and in structuring finance for public-private partnerships involving governments, suppliers and local and international
CELEBRATION: Women in Senegal rejoice as they get electricity in their village for the first time [PIC CREDIT: Dagency.Fr]
“They have different but complementary backgrounds,” says Kormann-Esmel. “Most importantly they share the same vision. They consider themselves social entrepreneurs. For them, doing business is a way to support good causes and have a positive impact on society. In their opinion, electrification of Africa requires a ‘for profit’ approach in order to avoid dependency and to encourage governments and users to behave responsibly, deploy quality systems and maintain them over the longterm.”
It’s quite a different approach to that taken by charities and NGOs, and deliberately so.
So far, Akon Lighting Africa is operating in 15 countries: Mali, Niger, Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Benin, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo, Kenya, Namibia, Madagascar, Nigeria and Ivory Coast.
Next year, ten more countries will see the launch of new pilot projects: South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, Togo, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, and Botswana.
Once the technical aspects are agreed with local and national authorities, Bathily puts in place pre-financing schemes that allow immediate access to energy with repayments spread out over several years.
“Access to electricity also means access to information and the possibility to connect with friends and relatives abroad. It is a big change, especially when you realise that in some places people have never seen street lamps or computers before,” Kormann-Esmel says.
In terms of Akon’s role in the project, he’s not injecting his own money but as a brand advocate his fame is crucial in helping secure the funding needed.
One billion US dollars of credit has been put up by banks and suppliers, which means for the larger-scale projects, funding is there to carry out the work and switch on the energy right away.
For poorer African states that don’t have the capacity to pay for multi-million dollar projects up front, it is
essential the credit is there.
There is now a global consensus, reached through the efforts of aid agencies, foundations and donors that Africa cannot stay in the dark.
Akon Lighting Africa is just one of a number of public-private ventures attempting to solve Africa’s energy crisis and, given the almost continual presence of sun across the huge continent and the pressing need for the world to find alternative energies, the development of a reliable and clean solar energy programme could eventually see Africa catapulted from crisis status to global champion.
With the cost of solar panels falling significantly in recent years and the potential for solar to support other essential infrastructure needs like water pumps and irrigation systems, Africa could soon become the hub of a global solar industry.
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