Samba Bathily gives ESI Africa exclusive insight into both the business and personal aspects of the Akon Lighting Africa Initiative. Pic Credit: Akon Lighting Africa
Samba Bathily gives ESI Africa exclusive insight into both the business and personal aspects of the Akon Lighting Africa Initiative. Pic Credit: Akon Lighting Africa

“You just know you’ve done the right thing when you see grown men and women crying in wonder because it’s the first time they’ve ever seen artificial light”-Samba Bathily

In May 2015, the Akon Lighting Africa Initiative announced the launch of a solar academy aimed at giving young African engineers and entrepreneurs the skills needed to develop solar power in Mali, West Africa.

Internationally recognised Senegalese-American musician Akon, together with Thione Niang and Samba Bathily, collaborated to form the lighting initiative which aims to deliver solar generated power to over 600 million Africans living in rural communities.

In May 2015, Samba Bathily, gave ESI Africa exclusive insight into both the business and personal aspects of the initiative. An edited version of this interview will be included in ESI Africa issue 2-2015.

ESI:  How did the Akon Lighting Africa (ALA) initiative start?

SB:  The idea of launching the Akon Lighting Africa initiative came up at the end of 2013. We started discussing what we could do to actively help drive Africa’s transformation. We agreed that the top priority was to invest in energy, particularly in rural and semi-urban areas, because this was the essential foundation for everything else – education, health and economic development.

Our plan came to life very rapidly. By combining our networks and expertise we were able to launch the project in February 2014. Since then, we have put everything into the project, raising a $1 billion (ZAR12 billion) credit line with international banks and negotiating win-win partnerships with African states, continuing to extend this initiative and amplify its impact.

Siguiri Guinea march 2015_2
Akon Lighting Africa team installing a solar powered street light in Siguiri, Guinea in March 2015. Pic credit: Akon Lighting Africa

ESI:  What are the criteria used for selecting the countries which ALA gets involved with?

SB:  We invest where we can make a tangible impact for people and economies. The Akon Lighting Africa initiative is already making an impact in 14 African countries through the provision of solar street lamps and solar kits. The 14 countries are Mali, Republic of Guinea, Benin, Senegal, Niger, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso and more recently Nigeria, Namibia and Madagascar. We look forward to investing in new countries and developing the existing projects.

The initiative has created a virtuous circle, extending far beyond energy – to technical innovation, tailored financing and new jobs. So far, the project has created 1,500 direct jobs where local young people are trained to market, install and repair solar kits within their communities.

With job creation and skills development a top priority, each of our projects has gone through the same process:

  • A review of needs on the ground, conducted in partnerships with local governments and authorities
  • A definition of priority areas
  • An inventory of requirements to select the most relevant products (street lamps, domestics kits or community kits and training programme for local youth)

ESI:  How was the $1 billion credit raised?

SB:  Akon Lighting Africa is based on a unique financial and business model. Equipment is prepaid and then repaid at appropriate pace, thus making electricity available immediately. The system operates in a much similar way to a prepaid phone card, we offer prepaid clean energy thanks to credits from partnering banks.

Once the $1 billion credit line was in place, we approached African governments and micro-credit agencies that saw the feasibility in this approach—they can indeed repay these loans at the appropriate pace over 3/5-years.

As a result, solar kits offered to households and small communities are pre-financed in order to be made readily available. For households, we are looking at a new service-based model which charges less than what households are currently paying for candles, kerosene and batteries. Our service-based model will operate on a monthly average of $10 for access.

Senegal
Akon featured with the beneficiaries of the solar powered street lights in Senegal. Pic credit: Akon Lighting Africa

ESI:  You have been setting your sights high with this initiative, which is the type of drive that Africa needs. Besides the solar academy, what is next on ALA’s agenda?

SB:  We have a long term approach with the ability to deliver fast. We have tangible results to show that we can power up Africa. Out of the $1 billion credit, we have already used $400 million in 4 countries (Niger, Guinea-Conakry, Mali, Benin) that have reached phase 2** of the project  and we demonstrated that the private sector is able to deliver solutions and move faster than development aid.

We now need to amplify these results by investing more, by receiving larger commitments from the private banking sector and by developing more productive public-private partnerships.

Our ambition is to simultaneously set up a global programme to support African entrepreneurship in the energy sector – we’re currently working on training local young people to develop the solar business and operate from solar kiosks located in communities, where people could find products, services and finance facilities.

We could set up a solar business network over the continent. Energy will unlock the continent’s potential. Africa has the youngest population in the world, with 70% under the age of 35. Artificial light will enable more access to information through media and social media, while allowing small businesses to continue operating and spur the development of new enterprises. If we can shift the development paradigm from “aid” to fair “trade” with trustworthy and solid entrepreneurs, then the world will gain greater access to the ideas and talent coming from the next generation of Africa’s youth.

** Note: Phase 2 = large projects set up through official contracts, generally following public tenders.

ESI:  How have you selected and vetted the partners involved in the ALA initiative?

SB:  We built the ALA initiative by combining our strengths and experience: I could bring onboard some of my business partners to supply solar expert solutions, Akon could mobilise and influence the project’s international network and Thione could innovate an approach to leverage energy as an enabler for job creation and inclusive growth.

Mali rooftop
Members of the installation team installing rooftop solar panels in Mali. Pic credit: Akon Lighting Africa

ESI:  What prior skills are the learners required to have and what will they leave with?

SB:  The Solar Academy is open to all African students and/or young professionals. Since the announcement, we have already received numerous application requests from students in electronics and engineering from Nigeria, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Mali and Guinea – as well as from young entrepreneurs whose motivation and innovative mindset looks very promising!

Learners will be taught by qualified and renowned experts in the field, including systems technicians and electrical power engineers. Initially, courses will cover a wide range of basic theoretical material, and later focus on project-oriented and didactic training.

Students will have access to high-quality, state-of-the-art training systems and education equipment, as well as the latest solar photovoltaic (PV) technology (panels, installations).

ESI:  What certification is given and is it recognised within the solar industry?

SB:  Each student will receive a diploma – and most importantly – will leave the Solar Academy with the right skills to enter the labour market in a strong position. In the context of high demand for qualified African workforces in the solar industry, I have no doubt they will find a job rapidly – or become entrepreneurs in their own right.

Mali
The Solar Academy in Mali is a project dedicated to the African youth. Pic credit: Akon Lighting Africa

ESI:  Why was Mali selected as the pilot location for the Solar Academy?

SB:  This project is being introduced under the patronage of Solektra International, Akon Lighting Africa’s main partner, based in Mali. However, the Solar Academy is not a Malian project – it’s an African project dedicated to the African youth and young professionals.

There will be at least two students from each African country, totalling approximately 110-120 students. There won’t be any successful transformation of our economies or any inclusive growth until we offer high-quality education and professional training to our youth and the generations to come.

We have decided to launch this professional training centre of excellence to reinforce expertise in every aspect of installing and maintaining solar-powered electric systems and micro-grids in particular, which are really taking off in rural Africa. The academy is a first on the continent and targets future African entrepreneurs, engineers and technicians.

By investing in teaching the young skills and training to young African professionals, we will also give our continent a competitive advantage in the global economy.

ESI:  Do you feel that your initiative should serve as a benchmark for others to get involved and invest in energy education in Africa? If so, why?

SB:  To quote a famous author, Africa is definitely “the bright continent”. Economies are growing at an unprecedented rate but building inclusive growth is still a challenge. There is a vibrant, ultra-motivated and dynamic new generation of young economic, civil society and even institutions leaders.

But offering good education to our children and reducing youth unemployment across Africa are still pertinent issues. Greater vocational and industrial training programmes can definitely be part of the solution—not only in energy and clean technology, it has to include agriculture, health, telecommunications, financial services and logistics.

Senegal community
Beneficiaries of a solar powered street light in Senegal. Pic credit: Akon Lighting Africa

ESI:  How did you, Akon and Thione come to find each other?

SB:  I first met Thione at an international meeting to promote investments in Africa. Thione presented the Give1Project – an initiative he created to promote young promising entrepreneurs worldwide.

At the time, Akon and Thione had known each other for several years. They both grew up in Kaolack, Senegal, a town that was not connected to the conventional power grid.

In September 2013 in Washington DC, Akon and Thione began discussing what they could do to actively help drive Africa’s transformation. Thereafter, Thione introduced me to Akon. As an entrepreneur from Mali specialising in solar energy, I was able to provide specialised energy solutions through my company, Solektra International, which supplies solar-powered equipment in Africa.

It was at this point that Akon Lighting Africa was born. From this very moment it progressed to where we are today at rapid speed. Recently in New York, we were invited by the United Nations to present our initiative at the Sustainable Energy for All Forum, where the ‘Wall Street Journal’ mentioned our unique growth rate.

It’s true that the first year has been even more successful than we expected! Most importantly, we have a model that works, a sound economic model offering “prepaid” energy, prepaid access to energy. Solutions exist and Africa’s needs for energy are massive. We now need to keep moving forward – and go faster and wider.

Samba, Thione, Akon
Co-founders of the Akon Lighting Africa Initiative (Left) Thione Niang, (Centre) Akon, (Right) Samba Bathily. Pic credit: The United Nations

ESI:  Yourself, Akon and Thione have a diverse skillset.  What would you say is the unique characteristic which each of you has brought to the project which has driven its success?

SB:  We built this new model by combining our strengths and experience: I offered some of my business partners to supply solar expert solutions, Akon has mobilized and influenced the international network and Thione created an approach in order to drive energy as an enabler for job creation and inclusive growth.

When we started this project, the three of us had the same conviction: it would and should go beyond supplying solar kits. Upon leaving Africa, we saw how artificial light enriched innovation, learning and creativity.

ESI:  What are the top three challenges which you and your partners have faced in starting this project?

SB:  Our biggest challenge was building confidence with the Governments which we eventually achieved by bringing tangible results with strong and direct impacts on local communities and economies.

ESI:  What do you consider have been your biggest wins to date?

SB:  Our biggest win is that we have started to shift the paradigm: only a business approach can help address the huge challenge of electrification in Africa. We have demonstrated that the private sector is able to deliver solutions and move faster than development aid. Let’s continue to build productive public-private partnerships with African governments.

Akon and community
Developing public-private partnerships with African governments is key Samba Bathily says. Pic credit: Akon Lighting Africa, Senegal

ESI:  Do you feel that by having a celebrity supporter, the ALA has drawn attention to the reality of electrification in Africa?

SB:  Akon can connect to a huge audience and mobilise an amazing international network. When you send a call for action to billions – you certainly have an impact. Together, we all have clearly and highly contributed to draw more attention to the reality of access to energy in Africa – and more importantly to what can be done to solve it.

Can you tell our readers what your top three predictions for the African electricity sector for the next five years?

  1. Renewable energy investment will keep rising – mainly because of the recent drop in cost of solar or wind technologies which have made it more competitive and more accessible.
  2. This one is more a hope than a prediction: Africa needs to attract investment in key energy infrastructures like dams – which will drive the integration of regional African markets. Indeed no one will invest billions in a dam if there are no power export deals with neighbouring countries – as we all know that local domestic and industrial consumption is not enough.
  3. The future of the electricity sector highly depends on our ability to develop and implement more robust public-private partnerships.

The Solar Academy aims to open its doors in mid-July 2015 in Bamako, Mali, although this date may change.