Interview: Akon discusses solar opportunities in Africa

From music star to climate advocate – that’s quite a leap. What first inspired you to devote so much time and energy to the pursuit of solar in Africa?

Akon: Mainly for two reasons. One is because I felt like it was the right thing to do. Africa is in a position of development, and without energy it really cannot get started. So I looked at it as a way to also build my legacy, as an entertainer merging into real business. So it plays both roles. And my patriotism, the fact that I am African, also played a role. I want to see the youth of Africa be empowered and the development of Africa being advanced.

What is the main focus of the Akon Lighting Initiative, supported by Solektra?

Samba Bathily: Solektra is the execution arm, and we have just launched the Solektra Solar Academy in Mali to support the Akon Lighting Initiative.

It is progressing well and was launched on December 15. The idea is to train young generation leaders in renewable energy. The first step is to add education to those who can then be placed in a position where they can then train the trainers. Then the trainers will train the students, and as they graduate they will hopefully be ready to enter the workforce and assist on the solar projects that we are working on.

Respect for elders is very important in African culture, but how key is youth in Africa in helping to spread the message of solar power?

Akon: Youth engagement will be instrumental for Africa’s future, especially in the development of industry, maainly because 65% of the continent is young. There are more youngsters than adults, and it is these youngsters who are often more aware of how technology can be transformative, particularly from a digital standpoint. So they are very understanding of how renewables actually work, and are keen to find out more.

We are playing the role to educate the youth, but will also seek advice from them in regards to mistakes not to make, etc.

So what is the current level of understanding of solar energy on the ground, in the regions where you are operating?

Akon: There is a clear understanding, largely. Even the small vendors on the side of the road love to sell solar products. Whether it be solar lights, fans, cell phone chargers etc… there are a lot of solar products already out there. But what we want to do is bring bigger systems where the people can access more power, and also create mini grids that can power entire communities outside of the small nick-nacks being offered currently.

How important is it to be financially innovative when approaching Africa’s growing renewable energy landscape?

Samba Bathily: Very important. Financing is key. We have a financial structure where we engage local banks, local governments and also international banks. This is why it is important to move fast. Traditional financing takes time. But what we have seen from recent meetings, and here at COP21, is how we can achieve a mix of funding, where we can build something that is sustainable.

What kind of response are you getting from Europe and beyond?

Samba Bathily: Most stakeholders have shown great interest, and there is also progress in terms of the mentality – from the African side first and foremost. When we began, people in Africa still doubted the effectiveness of solar energy because their experiences with NGOs was disappointing – they would come, install, but after three years or so, nothing worked any more.

So things are moving differently this time. On the financial side today there are loads of initiatives and models. This synergy is helping us to reach the end goal – to give light to Africa.

Charity and handouts shouldn’t be driving Africa forward; you’ve reiterated that time and again. So how important is it for local communities to see that the decision-makers, the guys in charge, are all fellow Africans?

Akon: Ultimately, when a neighbor sees another neighbor in a better position, they want to be in that position too, so they ask them how that is possible. So it’s our job to expose those opportunities to the locals, so that way they see that those opportunities are available and they can be a part of the change as well. That is why we are careful to make it clear that for every project we put out, the locals are clearly involved and they are obligating every situation that happens in their particular communities.

Is this one of the reasons why you have been so successful in such a short space of time?

Akon: Absolutely. We’ve been able to mobilize the communities and involve them in the projects. They have become a part of it, they have that involvement, and can say that they have been part of that development. Not only are they beneficiaries of these solar projects but they are often the supervisors, too.

Such pioneering schemes are bound to face some difficulties, so could you explain what the main challenges have been so far?

Akon: The biggest challenge in the beginning was more about belief. Coming in, there was initial skepticism among some African communities concerning solar, rooted in how they were treated in the past by NGOs coming in, lack of follow up etc.

We have been careful with our model to ensure that the communities are taught how the product is going to be maintained, to see the quality of the solar product etc… and now they are seeing the same movement being implemented by other organizations, they now view solar as more believable and more effective at meeting their needs.

You’ve mentioned before the parallels between solar’s disruptive ability in the energy sector to how the music industry has evolved in recent years. So with this in mind, what are your hopes for solar’s ability to continue to disrupt traditional energy models in the future?

Akon: I see renewable energy in the same light as digital music, and how it transformed the music industry. Many CEOs in music didn’t understand this new digital format, the structure, or how it actually worked, so it was largely bypassed and ignored by the big, traditional music companies.

Then along came Apple with iTunes and now they dominate the music and film digital space, and the traditional big players in the industry have almost become slaves to them. They didn’t take the time to understand this new model, and it is the same concept with renewable energy – this is the new age, the new way to distribute energy: cleaner, cheaper, easier to understand and operate.

Every way you look at it, the new age of energy will be renewable-driven. The only question now is how do you merge the old with the new? And how does it make sense from a financial standpoint? We have to toss the old way of thinking out of the window to make room for these new approaches – getting people to change what they’re used to is the main challenge. But solar has shown that it can meet that challenge.