Charities don’t really work in Africa, said Akon, 42, a Senegalese-American rap star, entrepreneur and co-founder of Akon Lighting Africa, in an interview with TheGuardian.
“I think (charity) just holds the people down longer than it should,” said Akon, who just completed a Canadian tour. “I think the only way to build Africa is to build for-profit businesses that create opportunities and jobs for the people locally.”
The U.S.-based musician made his fortune as a multi-platinum recording artist with hits such as “Smack That” and “Locked Up.” Inspiration to sell solar lighting in Africa came from his memories growing up without electricity in Kaolack, Southern Senegal.
The goal of Akon Lighting Africa is to tackle insufficient electricity in Africa — especially rural areas — using a different approach to the usual methods of NGOs in Africa, TheGuardian reports.
Akon Lighting Africa focuses on rural areas because that’s where the need is greatest. “If you want to make an impact start there,” Akon said, according to TheGuardian. “My thinking is if you want to build Africa, you start from the rural areas because that is the heartbeat of Africa.”
Akon Lighting Africa is the star’s second venture into development. In 2007, he also founded Konfidence, a health and education charity, to provide African children with educational materials, health services, and a better recreational environment. Akon teamed up with Keri Hilson for the song, “Oh Africa,” donating some proceeds to the charity.
His past projects have underscored a common trend of not helping, but empowering, Nikita Redkar wrote in Fusion.
Akon said he’s tired of people associating Africa with a charity case, according to an interview in the NationalJournal.
Akon founded Akon Lighting Africa with Thione Niang, a Sengalese political activist and Samba Bathily, a Malian entrepreneur and CEO of the solar energy company Solektra International, TheGuardian reports.
He admits that his main contribution is his name and the marketing opportunities that come with it, TheGuardian reports.
The founders share a common belief that what rural African communities need is not overseas charity but affordable renewable energy, delivered by trained African professionals managing for-profit businesses. These will create jobs and build self-sustaining economies. They think Akon Lighting Africa could start an African energy renaissance that will put the continent in the center of a global solar power industry.
The for-profit lighting company has agreements with 16 African countries and hopes to be in business in 25 by the end of 2016. The deals are financed using a $1 billion line of credit funded by international partners including China Jiangsu International Group, and distributed by the pan-African bank Ecobank.
A Chinese manufacturer supplies the solar panels but the workers are mostly African, according to TheGuardian. The financing allows villagers to get immediate electricity access. Repayment plans are worked out on a case-by-case basis with individual governments.
The lighting company plans to launch within a month a training academy in Bamako, Mali where young people will train in construction, engineering, clerical work and project management related to solar lighting.
“Many cities in Africa have a lot of solar lights but after three years none of them work and nobody is there to maintain them,” Niang said. “So we thought it was important to train the young Africans in the local areas.”
Their efforts have been well received by governments who want greater energy access but struggle to find reliable partners, TheGuardian reports.
Here’s how Akon Lighting Africa dioes business in Africa: The company holds direct meetings with the countries’ leaders, then with the energy ministers, then with finance ministers and then they set up pilot projects before discussing how to increase scale.
“I’m a businessman first, then musician,” Akon told Al Jazeera in January. “Why not make money and change lives at the same time?”