Akon Seeks To Put Africa On The Grid, One Solar Panel At A Time

What happens when an international rap superstar turns his attention toward development?

Akon, the American-born Senegalese rapper who spent some of his childhood living in Africa, remembers growing up and seeing people who didn’t have access to electricity. Decades later, to his frustration, that situation isn’t much changed, and so he’s becoming a clean energy entrepreneur as a little side project with ambitious aims.


“My passion has always been to try to be a part of building infrastructure in Africa. We ran into a challenge every time in areas where infrastructure was planned on being built, but there was no electricity grid set up in those areas. So that became one of the biggest problems on why the development of Africa has been so slow,” says Akon. “There’s still kerosene lamps and candles being lit today.”

His self-titled project, “Akon Lighting Africa,” isn’t so much a celebrity whim as a major endeavor that hopes to electrify 1 million homes by the end of 2014 with solar energy, which is cheaper and more portable for rural villages. The Grammy-nominated star is putting some of his own money behind the project and the remainder will be financed via a public-private partnership with governments, banks, NGOs, and Akon’s own Akon Corp.

A nine-country tour in February, where Akon and partners met with heads of state and energy ministers, resulted in early success, he says. “We’ve closed four contracts and another three are still being in negotiation. So it’s looking really really good,” he says. “We’re close 200,000 [homes electrified], so I’m thinking by the end of 2014 we should be able to achieve that goal for sure.” In each country, the partners are funding the electrification of one village to demonstrate their work. The rest will be financed by investors, where countries will pay back the loans, Akon says. The group will be hiring and training locals to build and maintain the installations.

Electrifying 1 million households sounds ambitious but it’s still a drop in bucket compared to the energy needs of Africa. The International Energy Agency estimated in 2009 that 587 million people still live without electricity on the continent.

Akon, a celebrity in the U.S. but an even bigger one in Africa, is learning a lot about development as he’s worked on the project and met with leaders in each country. He says “putting all the politics together to make it work” has been the biggest challenge so far.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.