Lighting Africa

Akon discusses how his musical journey inspired his project, Akon Lighting Africa, which provided over 500 communities in 17 African countries with solar-powered electricity.

You know you’re dealing with someone special when that someone is internationally known by a single name: Elvis, Madonna, Prince. Another to add to the list is Akon. His recent endeavor Akon Lighting Africa,, plans on electrifying all 48 countries in Africa with sustainable solar energy. Since its launch in 2004, a number of households, villages, community houses, schools and health centres located in rural areas of 17 countries, have been connected to electricity for the first time. As a result, Akon Lighting Africa has become one of the leading solar providers in all of Africa. In the Global Citizen Forum 2017 Montenegro, Akon was bestowed an award in honour of his outstanding humanitarian initiatives. Born and raised in a small village in Senegal called Koular, Aliaume Damala Badara Akon Thiam grew up with no electricity or running water, and by age 7, moved to the States with his family. After a relatively turbulent few years stealing cars and serving time in prison, he entered the music scene in 2004, with the release of his first album Trouble. Soon after, his first hit single Locked Up stole the charts at the No.1 spot around the world. Further successes followed as he became the first solo artist to hold the number one and two spots on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, not just once, but twice! Singing in many languages including Spanish, Hindi and Tamil, Akon earned the distinction of being listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the artist with the most selling ringtones in the world. Aside from being a singer, he’s also a songwriter, actor, record producer and businessman, producing songs for Lady Gaga, Leona Lewis, and T-Pain. Forbes ‘Power Rank in Forbes Celebrity 100’ listed Akon in 80th place in 2010, and in 2011 he ranked 5th in ‘40 Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa’. Though he is known for his hit singles and charming smile, we took a deeper look into his personal story, and how it led to his philanthropic journey today.

What does being a global citizen mean to you?

A global citizen is recognized for their goodwill and contribution to the world regardless of color, gender, culture, way of life, among other things. It means to view humans for who they are and the impact they are having in their communities be it family, work, schools, villages, cities, countries and beyond. Being a global citizen is fulfilling that desire to make your life mean something more and having a purpose. Working on projects that have an impact and touch people’s lives. Projects that are bigger than the individual. Personally, being nontenured, recognized and appreciated at the Global Citizen Forum in Montenegro was a reminder to me of the good I am doing in the world and the personal and family sacrifices I have made.

Tell us more about Akon Lighting Africa. What was your inspiration behind the project?

A few events and situations in my life made me realize the importance of energy. First of all, growing up as a child in Senegal, I have memories of the lack of energy and the impact this had on my family. Later in life, I would go to Senegal to visit my family year after year, and I realized ‘It’s been over 5, 10, 20 years, and still nothing has changed’. People in rural areas and certain communities still did not have access to energy. Finally, I performed at a concert in Liberia, and after a few songs, the lights went out, almost causing a riot amongst over 50,000 fans. I realized that without energy I could not even perform music in Africa. This is what really inspired me to start Akon Lighting Africa. But now that we are active in Africa, it’s humbling to see how access to energy can touch so many lives, especially in smaller villages. Access to energy boosts the level of confidence in people. It affects security. Home life also benefits, as children can do their homework and study for exams in the evenings. Access to energy has an incredible impact on commerce and businesses. Before, for example, merchants wanting to do business would have to fully dismantle their storefronts and kiosks and get home before sundown, and even then, run the risk of being robbed on their way home. With energy, merchants can stay open until late. Markets stay open later and attract people to come out after dark and socialize more. Everyone deserves access to clean energy.

What are your goals for the next ten years?

One of my primary goals over the next ten years is to develop Africa. In addition to continuing Akon Lighting Africa and solving energy poverty in Africa with solar solutions and other renewable energy solutions, I plan to get involved with other development projects. All the projects will empower Africans and develop Africa. Other projects will include anything from eco-systems, technology, financial structures, clean water solutions, agriculture to education. Personally, I want to accomplish as much as possible to leave a legacy of positive impact and empowerment.

Where do you see solar energy in the future?

Solar energy in the future will be the dominant force of energy in rural areas. And in developed areas and cities, solar panel rooftops and new technologies will support efficient ways of saving and utilizing energy consumption. Solar is a clean source of energy and it’s affordable. We need to take advantage of the sun and generate energy and have a positive impact on climate change.

What did the Global Citizen Forum in Montenegro mean to you?

I was happy about the Global Citizen Forum. The event attracted a unique group of people; all having a positive impact in the world. It was satisfying and rewarding to know that people are paying attention to the work I have done beyond music with the Akon Lighting Africa initiative. I was very grateful to receive the Global Citizen Forum Award, and it made me realize how I have inspired others. On the other hand, I was also humbled and inspired by the people I met at Global Citizen Forum, and their initiatives to do good in the world.

A few personal notes. What are your main influences, favourite cities, and food?

The key person who has influenced my life and inspired me is my dad. Musically, I am inspired and influenced by Bob Marley. From an entrepreneurial business perspective, I am inspired and influenced by Elon Musk. A close second is Richard Branson. In Africa, it’s Aliko Dangote and Sayyu Dantata. My favourite city is Sao Paolo, Brazil. I just love the energy, the people and the diversity. And my favourite food is Jollof rice and chicken, a classic African dish.