By Mattie DeDoes
“There is no health without energy, no education, no commerce, no trade.”
Thione Niang, co-founder of Akon Lighting Africa, expressed this belief that increased energy access is the paramount requirement for improving quality of life in Africa.
Multi-platinum hip-hop artist Akon knows these struggles very well, having grown up in Senegal without electricity. Now, having made himself a household name and “seen a better life”, as he puts it, he hopes to use his fame to bring that better life to his home continent. Along with co-founders Niang and Samba Bathily, Akon created Akon Lighting Africa (ALA) in early 2014, a company dedicated to installing and maintaining solar energy solutions across the African continent. The triumvirate of founders all share the view that solar energy provides the biggest, quickest, and best solution to Africa’s energy problems. ALA wants to address these issues not only by providing providing power and light, but also by educating their customers on both the scientific operation and the social impact of solar energy systems.
With Akon as the brand, Niang as the politician, and Bathily as the businessman, ALA has begun to set a new standard for electricity production in a region where this type of push was sorely needed.
Africa’s Energy Struggles
According to an IEA (International Energy Administration) report more than 620 million sub-Saharan Africans lived without access to electricity in 2012. While many extensive efforts have helped this cause in recent years, rapid population growth still leaves sub-Saharan Africa as the only region in the world where the number of people without electricity access is growing. In addition to the countless ramifications imposed by the lack of electricity, the use of combustible fuels to support basic energy needs has had a great deal of adverse health effects on people across Africa. Without electricity, 3.5 million Africans die every year from pollutants or fires produced by burning organic energy sources, which are both costly and toxic.
Like Akon, Niang also grew up in Senegal with limited to no access to electricity. Niang points out interesting and specific challenges associated with living without electricity supply, considerations that we in the modernized world do no think about - such as having to “race the sun” to complete homework and household tasks as a child.
With the abundance of sunlight on the continent, harnessing solar energy may seem like an obvious solution. However, due to high costs and slow-developing technology, solar power systems did not present a practical or economically viable solution to Africa’s electricity problems in the past.
However, today is a new day. As costs continue to plummet and technologies for grid integration continue to advance, solar power is no longer a prospect for the future of Africa; it is a present reality.
In Akon’s words, “a no-brainer”.
The ALA initiative seeks to not only provide electricity and light to remote villages, but also to use these projects to create jobs and education opportunities for village residents. Through a training process, members of the community can make themselves valuable to the workforce by developing skills in solar system installation and maintenance. In addition, the mere presence of electricity in the village may allow new businesses to open and existing businesses to flourish, creating a great deal of new employment opportunities. In an attempt to determine the number of jobs indirectly created by their solar projects, ALA has started to monitor the activities of cafes, evening classes, and other small businesses and enterprises in the neighborhood that utilize the electricity produced from ALA’s systems.
The company focuses on three types of solar installations: street lighting, micro-generators, and household connection kits. So far, they have installed over 100,000 street lights, 1,000 micro-generators, and 200,000 household connection kits.
Many of these projects are quite costly, and local governments and businesses could not afford to pay for them in one lump sum. However, Bathily’s partner company, Solektra, maintains a line of credit with its Chinese suppliers, enabling both private and public customers options for long-term payoff.
Niang attributes much of the company’s success to its focus on sustainability and continuity within the villages, referencing failed projects where companies have installed solar lighting, made a profit, and left those systems unmaintained. In these instances, the projects eventually will no longer operate effectively, if at all. By focusing a great deal of their energy (no pun intended) and resources toward educating a workforce, and enabling that workforce to maintain the system on its own, ALA hopes to avoid these types of circumstances.
To this end, ALA has recently launched the Solektra Solar Academy in Bamako, Mali (link to 10). Inaugurated on December 16, 2015, the academy is expected to open in early 2016 as the first institute in Africa entirely devoted to solar technologies. Through an ambitious program, the Academy hopes to train 200 skilled technicians and engineers from all over Africa each year. As Niang puts it, the academy helps to build a “powerful ecosystem around solar technologies in order to create jobs and opportunities.”
This holistic business model being employed by ALA has caught the eye of solar enthusiasts and government officials around the world. In December 2015, Akon met with Antonio Carlos Magalhaes Neto, the mayor of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, to discuss the prospects of bringing ALA’s efforts to poor Brazilian communities.
The energy challenges facing the continent of Africa are quite substantial; but to view them as an insurmountable obstacle is a mistake. As Akon said in a National Journal article, “it’s important to start somewhere, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.” While the efforts of the ALA by no means provide an entire socio-economic solution, their comprehensive, broad-based approach to addressing so many issues on so many levels should be recognized, applauded, and replicated.
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