As night falls across Africa bustling cities light up and neighbourhoods begin to buzz, fed by traffic from well-lit roads. In the countryside, meanwhile, villages are plunged into darkness, shutting down the night-time economies of rural communities as restaurants and shops close and children light candles to do their homework.
For Akon, the US-based rap star, the realities of living without electricity are a vivid memory from his youth growing up in Kaolack, southern Senegal. Today, 600 million African people still live without access to electricity, and 3.5 million people die each year from inhaling toxic fuels or house fires caused while trying to light their homes. The project Akon Lighting Africa aims to tackle the problem using a different approach to the usual methods of NGOs in Africa.
Akon and his two co-founders, Thione Niang, a Sengalese political activist and Samba Bathily, a Malian entrepreneur and CEO of the solar energy company Solektra International, believe that what rural African communities need is not overseas charity but affordable renewable energy delivered by fully trained African professionals managing for-profit projects that bring longevity, generate jobs and build new self-sustaining economies. They think this initiative could mark the beginning of an African energy renaissance in which the continent becomes the focal point of a global solar power industry.
For Akon, this second venture into development (he also founded Konfidence, a health and education charity) has been an eye-opener. “There have been a lot of issues and challenges that I honestly wasn’t aware of until I got involved,” says the 42-year-old rapper, who has just completed a Canadian tour and spent the summer on a roadshow with Bathily and Niang that took him from the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, through Rwanda, Congo-Brazzaville, Nigeria and Niger, culminating at the coastal city of Cotonou, Benin, where they inspected Akon Lighting Africa’s projects.