Through Akon Lighting Africa (ALA), Akon also known as the ‘Smack That’ artist, alongside African co-founders Samba Bathily and Thione Niang and a number of industrial partners, is seeking to capitalise on Africa’s average of 320 days of sun a year by rolling out off-grid and affordable solar technologies.

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With projects already up and running in 11 different countries in the continent including Mali, Sierra Leone and Senegal, the priority is to target isolated communities far away from capital cities.

Ranging from street lamps to domestic and individual solar kits, the existing projects have drawn on the support of Chinese trade body China Jiangsu International, engineering firm SUMEC and electricity specialist NARI along with a number of African governments to roll out the power projects.

Investing in the African sun

With a credit line of up to $1 billion secured from China Jiangsu International, Akon Lighting Africa, which models itself as a social enterprise, installs the infrastructure for the projects itself and gets them up and running before offering a payment-by-instalments option to the government and communities to take ownership. This approach has seen around $400 in investment so far at an average of $75,000 per village and created 5,000 jobs for the installation of one of its largest projects.

Explaining the approach, Akon said: "We invest our own money to get things started. We go in, plead our case to the country, put up pilots with our own dollars using sophisticated equipment and we make sure we do the installation right. It shows people that we’re not coming in to pull money out of the country, we’re there to provide jobs for the locals and to enable them to feed their families."

The Gates Foundation-funded Omni processor plant takes human waste and converts it into drinking water and electricit.

While continuing to expand access to solar power, having identified isolated towns and villages away from the major cities as the main priority of focus, the group is now seeking to improve the domestic engineering and solar expertise by launching a solar academy. Located in Mali’s capital city Bamako, the academy will build on the installation workshops that have been held to date to teach the local workforce the skills to assist on installing the projects that have already been completed.

Empowering African enterprise

Drawing on the expertise and resources of European industry, the academy will teach and develop a new generation of African born engineers and entrepreneurs. Opening later this year, it will focus on teaching students how to install the company’s systems and maintain them to ensure that the projects in isolated locations can be maintained locally. The co-founders also identified micro grid operations and maintenance as a key area of focus.

"We expect the Africans who graduate from this center to devise new, innovative, technical solutions," said Niang. "With this Academy, we can capitalize on Akon Lighting Africa and go further." Explaining the decision to expand into improving the skills base, Samba Baithily, said: "We have the sun and innovative technologies to bring electricity to homes and communities. We now need to consolidate African expertise."

With electrification rates as low as 14.2% in rural areas in the continent and an estimated 585 million with no access, the challenge of expanding access to electricity is gaining significant attention. The UN has offered its backing to ALA, giving it the stage at the Sustainable Energy for All Forum in New York to announce the academy.

There are a growing number of groups and companies seeking to take on the challenge with Juabar operating solar charging kiosks in Tanzania and M-Kopa Solar offering electricity at a daily charge of $0.45 to more than 140,000 homes and growing, but his high profile and the attention it generates offers an extra benefit.

With the technology and skills available to expand the project, the most difficult part, according to Akon, is "getting people to believe".

He believes that is where he can help: "Me being who I am raises awareness."

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