By Diane Small
Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Bongo Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam may not be the catchiest name for a rapper, so no wonder it was shortened to Akon. This Senegalese-American singer may have powerful music and his bald, muscle-bound body may provide a powerful presence, but now Akon is getting into a different kind of power altogether: solar energy.
The US based rap star, who says he most identifies as Senegalese, is much more than a singer. He runs the record label Kon Live Distribution, owns a fashion line called Konvict clothing, and was a producer on Gwen Stefani’s Sweet Escape Album, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for him to create a new company that aims to improve millions of lives in rural Africa.
The Akon Lighting Africa will bring solar power to 600 million Africans who don’t have electricity, and a new “Solar Academy” will give African engineers and entrepreneurs the skills they need to make it a reality. To assist the project, European engineers will provide training and equipment.
Launched at the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All Forum in New York, the Academy will see its first project open this summer in Bamako, the capital of Mali. Local people will be trained in maintaining and creating small community-based power systems known as “micro-grids”.
The impact of having continuous energy is enormous: streets become safer, children can study longer, people can access more information via radios, computers and televisions, and small businesses can expand their activities and revenues, to name but a few advantages.
Given that most of Africa has around 320 days of sunshine a year, solar energy is the perfect source of electricity. And unlike larger, more ambitious projects funded by the likes of the IMF and World Bank that never saw the light of day thanks to bank and governmental corruption, Akon Lighting Africa is far beyond a money-spinner for Akon. Samba Baithily, co-founder of the project along with Akon and community leader and consultant Thione Niang, says: “We are doing more than just investing in clean energy. We are investing in human capital.”
With 70 percent of Africans being under 35, creating sustainable jobs is essential, but Baithily believes there is much potential for success: “We have the sun and innovative technologies to bring electricity to homes and communities. We now need to consolidate African expertise and that is our objective.”
So far, the project has provided solar street lamps, micro-generators, charging stations, and home kits to 14 countries — Benin, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea, Kenya, Namibia, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, and the star has recently met with Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara to bring solar energy to Cote d’Ivoire.
Having grown up in Senegal, Akon knows what it’s like to live with a lack of power. Having no electricity “stopped us from doing the things we need to do,” he said. “There wasn’t enough electricity to pull from.” He calls using solar energy to boost Africa’s energy capacity a “no brainer,” and stresses that this is not a case of charity: “We want to empower the people to develop their own opportunities…[But] before you empower people you have to educate them.”
It’s not the first time Akon has ventured into philanthropy; he also has a charity called the Konfidence Foundation, which promotes health and education, and supports underprivileged kids in West Africa and the United States. Clearly, Akon’s heart is bigger than his gangsta music suggests, and unlike other African projects implemented by smug celebs like Bono and Bob Geldolf, we have high hopes for this one actually sparking a shift in power to not only African energy grids, but to Africans themselves.
Main image:for Wikicommons