A Recording Artist With an Ambitious Goal: Energize Africa With Solar Power

Hip-hop and R&B artist Akon has a lengthy professional resume, which includes chart topping hits, hundreds of guest appearances with the likes of Eminem and Lady Gaga, and over 35 million albums sold worldwide. But while music is how Akon earned a name for himself, the Senegalese-American singer is now becoming increasingly well known for his work to bring electricity to millions of people in Africa through his social enterprise, Akon Lighting Africa (ALA).

Akon, social and political activist Thione Niang, and entrepreneur Samba Bathily launched Akon Lighting Africa in 2014 with the goal of providing high-quality, sustainable, and affordable solar energy to villages across Africa, paying special attention to remote, off-grid locations. Providing street lights, micro-generators, charging stations, and home solar kits, ALA currently operates in 14 countries including Guinea, Senegal, Mali, and Sierra Leone.

ALA is similar to microfinance and credit programs such as Water.org’s WaterCredit. WaterCredit, for example, offers microfinance tools that allow households to purchase goods and services to meet their water and sanitation needs (like indoor plumbing and vended water). Once those purchases are made, the families are allowed to pay off those debts over time. ALA does the same thing, but on larger scale.

Company representatives meet with interested country leaders and negotiate an energy provision deal. ALA puts up the initial funds for the project and the countries make installment payments over several years. This approach makes sense for ALA, according to Akon, who said, “Most of these countries couldn’t allocate the money to pay for a big project up front, but they can afford if they pay by installments.” To date, ALA has invested over $400 million in its solar energy projects, at an average investment of around $75,000 per village.

ALA has since brought on additional partners in the solar panel industry and has secured a $1 billion credit line from a Chinese solar panel system provider, and recently gave the West African Energy Leaders Group $200,000 to the organization further improve energy access in Africa.

Now, it’s looking to take the next steps in its journey to bring power to the over 600 million people across the continent that lack access to energy.

At the latest UN Sustainable Energy for All Forum (SE4All), Akon, Niang, and Bathily announced the creation of ALA’s Solar Academy. The professional training center will provide skills training for the installation and maintenance of solar-powered electrical systems and micro-grids. The end game here is to build expertise in the solar power sector in Africa. At SE4All, ALA cofounder Samba Bathily explained:

We are doing more than just investing in clean energy.  We are investing in human capital.  We can achieve great milestones and accelerate the African transformation process on condition that we start training a new generation of highly qualified African engineers, technicians and entrepreneurs now.

ALA's goal, through all of its programs, big gives, and training programs, is to reach at least 48 African nations by 2020. Barring any major setbacks, it looks like it’s well on its way to achieving that goal.