It’s “a no-brainer.”
That’s how hip-hop and R&B artist and producer Akon described using solar energy to bring power to hundreds of millions of Africans.
“Africa needs to be sustainable for a long time and be a crutch for the rest of world instead of the other way around,” Akon told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “A stable Africa helps the world.”
Akon joined five prime ministers representing Benin, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, and Togo who gathered in the Ivory Coast’s economic capital of Abidjan for the West African Energy Leaders Group — a conference for business and political leaders working to develop strategies to address the region’s energy crisis.
“Because of the [lack of infrastructure] in Africa, we need more financial institutions to be a part of it, and partner with people who have a vision for Africa as well,” Akon said.
More than 1.3 billion Africans have no access to electricity; and only 5 percent living in sub-Saharan Africa have electricity.
Those staggering figures prompted the certified platinum recording artist to launch the Akon Lighting Africa (ALA) initiative in 2014, which aims to bring solar power to nearly half — 600 million — of the Africans who live without power.
So far, ALA 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.
The lack of power “stopped us from doing the things we need to do,” he said. “There wasn’t enough electricity to pull from,” to get Africa on par with the rest of the world developmentally, and solar was “the biggest and quickest solution.”
Global prices for solar modules have significantly dropped over the last decade, hitting a record low in 2014. ALA works with a $1 billion credit line from a Chinese solar system provider, allowing countries to pay back the debt over time.
“We want to empower the people to develop their own opportunities,” Akon said. “[But] before you empower people you have to educate them. So we developed the university,” which focuses on solar energy delivery and maintenance, “so they can [eventually] invent technology of their own.”
Instead of dropping technology on unsuspecting villages, ALA also teaches citizens how solar power works and how to install arrays through an educational training program called the Solar Academy.
“In every village we go to, we want to keep that village sustainable,” and promote entrepreneurship, Akon said. “The involvement of the rest of the world will be key. It will have to be started by Africans, but the technology the world has to offer has to be shared.”
The July meeting was the first of its kind, focusing on partnerships between private companies and state agencies. “There’s no way around: The government and investors are going to have to come together to work this out.”
ALA isn’t the first solar energy project Africa has seen. For example, Mali-based Practical Small Projects focuses on water sanitation, health care, education and solar energy in West Africa. But Akon’s celebrity coupled with an aggressive mission to make solar energy production a work trade and a widely self-sustaining energy source with public-private partnerships, makes the project unique.
Since starting the project in 2014, media attention has warmed governments to the idea of investing in renewable energy sources. Ivory Coast Prime Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan echoed those sentiments during the meeting, saying independent energy companies are the key to developing Africa’s power grid, largely because of their financial capabilities.
“African states must carry out deep structural and sectoral reforms, notably the liberalization of the electricity sector,” Duncan said, adding that companies would shoulder the bulk of expenses because of “the often considerable investments that are virtually impossible for state budgets alone to finance.”
Duncan also said Africa holds 15 percent of the world’s population but only consumes 3 percent of the global electricity, greatly hindering the continent’s economic development.
“There are only so many institutions you can call on,” Akon said. “There are regulations and different laws [to abide by], and two or three countries may conflict. But ultimately it’s all coming together.”
The project has a unifying effect, he said, and focusing on solar has been a catalyst for providing a significant part of the globe closer to what’s available in Western societies.
Only 17 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa is online, and barely half could afford enough data to support texting and emails, according to Facebook’s 2015 connectivity report. Additionally, Sub-Saharan Africans with access to cell phones often have to travel to a charging station and pay $91 for the access, when many live on just a few dollars a day.
Akon hopes to expand ALA to 11 more countries by the end of the year, and all of Africa by 2020.
“We just really want to be the generation of execution and be in a position where you deliver. And when you deliver, it’s put out into the world and continued.”