Artist and R&B singer Akon took fans and the business industry by surprise in late 2015 when he announced his vision to bring solar power to millions of Africans living without electricity. Through his latest project, Akon Lighting Africa, now operating in 15 African countries, the Senegalese-born social entrepreneur aims to bring light to the nearly 600 million people living in the dark in sub-Saharan Africa.
Earlier this year, Akon and his partners announced the launch of the Solektra Solar Academy, an initiative establishing a pipeline for solar power to be engineered, installed and managed by locals. Courses are staged in different modules which include both theoretical and practical classes focusing on issues specific to the continent. Topics include the development of decentralized rural electrification systems, general dynamics of the solar market and more. By the end of the year, Solektra Solar Academy aims to train 200 people in Bamako, Mali.
We spoke with Akon about the academy, his future vision for being a resource to create programming in India and Latin America, and how he plans to scale the impact of lighting communities through training local people at all skill levels.TriplePundit: The Solektra Solar Academy launch is a small part of a big initiative to train, employ and empower various African countries through solar generation. Why does the academy development matter to your initiative as a whole to bring light to Africa?
Akon: There is a collective awareness on the subject of the energy crisis that the African continent is currently going through. Solar solutions seem to be the answer that governments and local authorities are willing to develop all across the continent, but it was obvious to us that to achieve this objective a long-term strategy had to be adopted. Indeed, many projects in different sectors have failed because after few years people were not able to maintain the installations, and didn’t really feel like that they should take care of this equipment.
Our idea, with my partners Samba Bathily and Thione Niang, when we launched Solektra International as a company and the Akon Lighting Africa initiative, was to promote inclusive development by bringing light to Africa. Creating the first African institute entirely dedicated to solar technologies in Mali, and welcoming students coming from various countries around Africa, is a way to anticipate and accompany the solar revolution — now we will need more and more expertise and skill across the whole continent.
By providing latest simulations equipment to our trainees and making sure that they get the best practical training thanks to an experienced team, we will lay the foundation for a sustainable future. To us, trying to bring light to Africa without supporting youth empowerment and skills development could not be sustainable over the long term. The Solektra Solar Academy is the logical extension of our ambitions, and we hope to be able to identify amongst trainees future employees for Solektra International.
3p: Can you explain a bit more as to how you and your partners developed the concept for the academy?
Akon: If we work to develop sustainable solutions to face the energy crisis in Africa, we will for sure need people to deploy those solutions, to install and maintain them.
We realized that we have the opportunity to create jobs in the markets in which we operate but that we need to hire people with a background that meets our specific needs in the solar industry. We wanted to develop a sustainable business model with Solektra International following the idea that African youth can play a key role in developing renewable energy in Africa.
3p: What are the options for employment for people that complete their training at the academy?
Akon: In 2016 during the first academic year, all the tuition fees and related expenditures will be covered by Solektra International.The ultimate objective of the Solektra Solar Academy is to create a strong network of African skills workers, technicians and engineers capable of supporting the development of the solar industry across the continent by working for solar energy companies and also by becoming solar entrepreneurs setting up their own business. The solar academy training will fill a gap by addressing the needs for technical expertise. Our trainees will be in a good position to find jobs at Solektra International, in other companies, and within regional electrical agencies.
3p: In terms of scalability and the ambitious plans to bring the academy to other continents, what are your overall goals and potential timeline for achieving them?
Akon: For now, we focus on making the academy successful and fostering exchanges with other technical/energy institutes throughout Africa. It is true that we are currently exploring opportunities to develop our business model in other regions of the world, including Latin America, India, Asia … We might be in the position to open other academies outside Africa, but this is not our immediate objective.
3p: What lessons are you learning in this business about renewable energy and social entrepreneurship?
Akon: When you hear that 600 million Africans do not have access to electricity, you may think it may be too complicated to change that situation. However, we realize that this huge energy crisis could be solved quickly by adopting a long-term and 360-degree vision. Concrete solutions are there; they need to be financed and supported by public and private investors. African people need to believe in their own potential and future. As social entrepreneurs, we try to have a positive impact on climate change and on communities thanks to solar energy. We work to make people realize that their daily life can change for good without leaving Africa and their mother country.
3p: What do you believe will be the long-term impact of this project? (On citizens, communities, government, business, etc.)
Akon: By providing a qualified workforce in the sector of solar energy, this project will support the growth of the solar industry across the continent. We will give to our students a better access to the labor market and make sure that communities feel that every equipment belongs to them and participate in its maintenance. Promoting youth training in an expanding sector is also a way to concretely support government action regarding education.
3p: How can others support your work? Are you currently seeking out resources or references for partnerships, etc?
Akon: For the Solektra Solar Academy, we have already decided to partner with Lucas-Nülle -- a German company specializing in the manufacture and marketing of high-quality, state-of-the-art training systems and education equipment for further and advanced technical, engineering and vocational education. Lucas-Nülle training systems are used all around the world; they are considered as a benchmark for quality, efficiency and technology. We are also working on setting up academic partnerships with international universities and some international organizations.
On the business front, for example, the Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (ECREEE) of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has accepted to partner with the Akon Lighting Africa initiative through the installation of solar microgrids in rural areas of each member state, thus creating additional jobs.
3p: How can people stay plugged in on the success of the academy and your efforts? What websites and social media channels should they follow?
Akon: All details relating to the courses (topics and duration), the profiles of eligible candidates, applications, selection and registration procedures are now available on our dedicated website. You can also follow Solektra International and its Akon Lighting Africa initiative on Facebook, Twitter and at www.akonlightingafrica.com.
Photos via Solektra International
Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.