Bright lights on stage? Singer opts to light up rural Africa

Hip-hop star Akon (on right) with his business contacts at the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week last Wednesday. The singer aims to bring electricity to rural African villages through solar-powered grids.
Hip-hop star Akon (on right) with his business contacts at the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week last Wednesday. The singer aims to bring electricity to rural African villages through solar-powered grids.PHOTO: DAGENCY/DAVID MONFORT

You may know him as one of hip-hop's biggest stars, but the American singer known as Akon is far prouder of his work as a solar entrepreneur.

For the last three years, he has traded the bright lights of the stage for the rural villages of Africa, aiming to bring electricity through solar-powered grids.

Decked out in an immaculate navy suit and eye-catching diamond earrings, it is hard to imagine the Grammy-nominated singer behind hits like Lonely and Smack That getting water from a well and lighting kerosene lamps.

But it was precisely doing those things during a visit home to Senegal - where he spent his childhood - in 2008 that sparked the 42-year-old singer into action.

In an interview with The Straits Times in Abu Dhabi, where he was promoting his initiative Akon Lighting Africa at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week last week, Akon revealed that whenever he visited relatives in the town of Kaolack, he had to help out with chores.

"Every time I went home to visit, the basic things I could do in the US I couldn't do there. When you try to make tea, you have to get coal and find kerosene. When we had to drink water, we went to the well, literally pulled water, boiled water, and let it cool down," he said.

Frustrated that African cities lacked basic infrastructure for electricity, he looked for the best way to improve conditions, and eventually decided to start in rural areas.

In 2013, he launched Akon Lighting Africa with two co-founders to provide solar power in 10 African countries. The project now operates in 15 countries - a rapid scaling up that the singer says surprised him.

The star, whose real name is Aliaune Thiam, was born in St Louis, Missouri. Growing up in a family of musicians, the singer has his West African roots to thank for the success of his hits. Akon rose to fame with his debut album Trouble - his 2005 hit Lonely dominated music charts that year.

Music critics have credited his success to the exotic tone of his music, describing Lonely as carrying hints of Senegalese dance-hall music, which fuses Western music with traditional drumming and dance.

Akon clearly feels close to his roots, saying that his motivation for the solar energy initiative came from "patriotism". He added that he wanted it "to be sustained by Africans, and we want Africans to feel really empowered".

So far, the company has created 5,500 jobs, but Akon wants to do more. Last month, he launched the Solektra Solar Academy in Mali, which will train at least 200 young Africans a year to install and maintain solar equipment.

However, the singer was keen to emphasise that his is "a legitimate infrastructure building business" that aims to become a Fortune 500 company.

Akon Lighting Africa and the Solar Academy initiatives were launched by his company Solektra International, which raised US$1 billion (S$1.43 billion) in credit from international banks and companies. Solektra provides immediate access to electricity while allowing users and governments to pay in instalments.

One of his co-founders, Mali-born entrepreneur Samba Bathily, said he was "very surprised" when Akon first approached him with his business ideas.

"Generally, when you talk with artists, they know the music, but do not know the business. But Akon has a real business vision," Mr Bathily said by e-mail. "His vision was that we needed an entrepreneurial approach to address the African energy crisis, to ensure maintenance of systems installed and to engage the youth of Africa."

While Akon says he spent all his time in the last three years on his initiative, he will juggle both music and business this year. He will be expanding his project to 10 more countries, including India and perhaps even the Philippines. Fans can also look forward to a new single, come April.

But the singer said it is now clear for him where his passions lie.

"Akon Lighting Africa has changed my life tremendously... This lighting project gave me a sense of purpose," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2016, with the headline 'Bright lights on stage? Singer opts to light up rural Africa'. Print Edition | Subscribe