Senegalese-American singer Akon (right, in suit) during a visit in Pahou,
Benin. Photo by: Akon Lighting Africa
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.
- 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.