Celebrities often lend their brand to a cause or undertake pet projects, but for Senegalese-American singer Akon, the issue of improving access to energy is personal and has been his main focus for the past two years.
Akon, who spent part of his childhood living in Senegal without access to electricity, launched Akon Lighting Africa, an initiative to bring solar power to the continent, about a year ago.
“There’s always been so many initiatives in Africa, so much money raised in Africa, but there’s never no results and it got to the point where you get tired of it,” he told Devex in a recent interview. “I took it more personal than anything and I wanted to be in a position to where if I move forward on something I wanted to actually see it materialize.”
The initiative primarily targets rural communities that are not connected to the grid and is working to find creative financing financing arrangements and bring costs down to make the electricity affordable.
The call for increased power generation to meet the growing and gaping needs in Africa isn’t new. But discussions are often around large projects — big new power plants or dams — followed by questions about who will benefit and whether building out the grid is part of the plan.
The Akon Lighting Africa initiative takes a different approach.
Designed to promote inclusive and sustainable growth, the initiative focuses first on providing solar power through microgrid systems to rural communities, which are often far from existing grids.
Akon and his partners didn’t come up with the business model — government-subsidized installation with commercial entities taking on the additional risk and collecting the payments — on their own. It’s a model that has been tested by the World Bank, said Samba Bathily, an entrepreneur and co-founder of Akon Lighting Africa.
In partnership with solar panel manufacturers and others, Akon Lighting Africa has secured a roughly $1 billion credit line that allows it to help broker longer-term financing for governments that may not be able to pay for a certain project in one budget cycle.
Governments use the loans to finance public utilities like street lights and to subsidize the installation of community solar kits. But costs aren’t borne by government alone — households connected to the community microgrid prepay for their electricity through a scratch card, similar to how cellphone credit is sold, until they own the the product outright.
Traditional energy sources like candles and kerosene are still cheaper, Akon Lighting Africa co-founder Thione Niang acknowledged. But the political activist and consultant said the initiative is working to reduce prices further — negotiating with suppliers, forming partnerships such as the one it has with Columbia University, and boosting economies of scale.
“The bottom line,” Niang said, “is [to] get people away from aid.”
Read the full article on Devex.com