Akon Is Pushing Solar Power in Africa

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 28: Akon performs on stage at Park City Live during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival on January 28, 2012 in Park City, Utah. 
National Journal
Aug. 4, 2014, 8:24 a.m.

Akon is a multi-plat­in­um re­cord­ing artist now, but be­fore mak­ing a for­tune with hits such as “Smack That” and “Locked Up,” he was a child grow­ing up without elec­tri­city in the West Afric­an na­tion of Seneg­al.

“I was one of those kids you see run­ning around with no shoes on liv­ing in straw huts,” Akon said in Wash­ing­ton on Monday. “I was blessed to be able to come to the U.S. with my dad and I’ve seen a bet­ter life, but it really hurts a lot know­ing that Africa has all these re­sources and we haven’t fully taken ad­vant­age of it.”

Akon wants to bring that bet­ter life to the con­tin­ent of his birth. In Janu­ary, he launched an ini­ti­at­ive called Akon Light­ing Africa that aims to elec­tri­fy a mil­lion house­holds across the con­tin­ent by the end of the year.

Akon spoke with Na­tion­al Journ­al on the side­lines of an event hos­ted by Gen­er­al Elec­tric fo­cused on op­por­tun­it­ies for en­ergy in­vest­ment in Africa.

The event is one of many that will take place in the na­tion’s cap­it­al this week to co­in­cide with the U.S.-Africa Lead­ers Sum­mit, the first-ever dip­lo­mat­ic meet­ing of dozens of Afric­an heads of state, mem­bers of Con­gress, and Pres­id­ent Obama.

Akon Light­ing Africa is work­ing to dis­trib­ute and in­stall sol­ar-powered street lights and res­id­en­tial sol­ar sys­tems to Afric­an vil­lages. And it’s on track to reach its goal of light­ing up a mil­lion house­holds with clean en­ergy by the end of 2014.

The mu­sic mogul cred­its the pro­ject’s run­away suc­cess to the will­ing­ness of loc­al Afric­an en­tre­pren­eurs to help out with the de­ploy­ment of sol­ar pan­els.

His fame has also giv­en the pro­ject a ma­jor boost. “I think it helps a lot,” Akon said. “It helps to fast-track what we’re do­ing and get a lot of at­ten­tion to the cause.”

The pro­gram op­er­ates in 14 Afric­an coun­tries, in­clud­ing Seneg­al, Mali, and Burk­ina Faso. Akon Light­ing Africa has also partnered with the Give1­Pro­ject, a lead­er­ship-de­vel­op­ment non­profit, and ADS Glob­al Cor­por­a­tion SA.

But don’t call it a char­ity. “I get tired of hear­ing that Africa is a char­ity case,” Akon com­men­ted. “Africa is wide open for busi­ness, and we’ve found a good busi­ness mod­el. Africa will nev­er run out of sun.”

Des­pite the re­cord­ing artist’s sunny out­look, however, power­ing Africa re­mains a tall or­der. Roughly 550 mil­lion people live without ac­cess to elec­tri­city in Africa, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank. And just 1 per­cent of private-sec­tor en­ergy in­vest­ment cur­rently flows in­to the con­tin­ent.

Akon knows his ef­forts are only a drop in the buck­et, but for now, he says, it’s a step in the right dir­ec­tion.

“A lot of times people get stuck think­ing about how big of a chal­lenge this is, but it’s im­port­ant to start some­where and that’s ex­actly what we’re do­ing,” he said.

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