Candles around Western Africa are burning out: slowly, one by one. In 14 countries and counting, light bulbs are stuttering into life, flicking and fading uncertainty to illuminate the dust in the night air. Children begin their homework later than usual, communal events continue on when the sun goes down and doctors tend to the sick in the dead of night.

It’s not a vision the rest of the world has had to live with, but for Africa, and especially Senegal, a prodigal son has returned and he’s brought with him the most amazing gift.

Photo: Dai Kurokawa / European Pressphoto Agency

Former hip-hop star Akon has a diamond tether to Africa’s sufferings and progress. Flitting between Senegal and the United States for much of his young life, the acclaimed rapper has never forgotten his family, his hometown, or his true Senegalese name: Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Bongo Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam.

Along with his chart-topping hits in the mid-Noughties, various stints in U.S prison and a procession of ill-judged controversies brought Akon onto quite consistent footing in the Western media. He faded into obscurity after 2010 to work on what has become a recently unearthed philanthropic project – bestowing Africa with the life force we constantly take for granted.

70% of the entire continent has no access to electricity. That’s the base fact that makes for grim reading when compared to the worldwide equivalent of 20%. Electricity, where it does exist, is centered in big cities, leaving rural communities and 600 million Africans continent-wide in perpetual blackout.

In some cases, whole countries such as Liberia are almost entirely without power, which is a horribly unyielding obstacle when crises like the Ebola outbreak hit. The problem, of course, is money, but in a continent that averages 320 days of sunshine a year, there is one very obvious and inexpensive solution.

Photo: Eminence Advisory

For Akon and business partner Thione Niang, solar energy has been Africa’s long-awaited saviour. From humble beginnings doing homework and housework by the light of a single candle, the two, along with Malian entrepreneur Samba Bathily, have pooled together their new wealth of resources to create Akon Lighting Africa, the company changing the face of Africa, one electron at a time.

The idea was simple from the start. Huge solar panels transmit the sun’s rays to street lamps, communal generators and people’s homes. It’s a relatively cheap process, making the end result relatively cheap for the consumers, meaning the benefits can truly be felt from the ground up. So with 600 million Africans standing to benefit, why has this not broken the internet? Well, unfortunately for Akon, Mark Zuckerberg simultaneously announced that his wife was pregnant.

It’s the sad reality of the media that the imminent arrival of a celebrity’s sprog can overshadow the pending improvement of over half a billion lives. In fact, it’s quite likely that if the project didn’t have Akon’s name stuck on the front of it, it would have garnered no traction at all.

Questions could quite easily be asked of the decision to turn such an ethical enterprise into what is essentially a brand, but the fact is that the vast majority of Western support has been accrued solely from the inclusion of a hip-hop star’s profile. Earlier this week, it emerged that Uruguay had turned a huge dependency on fossil fuels into running off 95% clean energy.

It’s a remarkable achievement, but one that’s flown completely under the radar because it wasn’t endorsed by Lethal Bizzle. That’s another sad reality of the media, and it’s unlikely to change any time soon.

Photo: Lawrence Murray, Creative Commons

Fortunately, Akon’s long-term project goals are to be completely absolved of his own involvement. It has never been about him; it has always been about his fellow Africans, the ones in exactly the same positions he has found himself in before.

With that in mind, December 15th sees the opening of the first of many ‘solar academies‘ in the Malian capital, Bamako. These schools will be devoutly committed to giving young Africans the training necessary to install, operate and develop solar equipment throughout the continent. With an eye always on the future, co-founder Niang believes that this is the only way for the project to continue running smoothly for years to come:

“We are doing more than just investing in clean energy. We are investing in human capital. We can achieve great milestones and accelerate the African transformation process on condition that we start training a new generation of highly qualified African engineers, technicians and entrepreneurs now.”

Photo: Dagency

Each endeavour like this is geared towards getting the most out of a country caked in potential. 70% of Africans are under 35 years of age, meaning solar academies are more than mere places of learning: they’re a very real investment in Africa’s long-term future. Akon Lighting Africa is a shining beacon in a part of the world with untapped wells of relentless solar energy and resilient human spirit.

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