When the news broke about Akon’s initiative to bring solar power to 600 million Africans, social media was awash with praise and mainstream media felt compelled to spread the word. The Senegalese-American recording artist/entrepreneur officially became the face of the plan that he had dropped hints about for a year. Upon first glance, you couldn’t really blame anyone for extending their adulation. The world’s second largest continent and its 54 nations have repeatedly been a target for imperialism, colonialism, and conquest so seeing a descendant “give back” to the people struggling to keep their heads above water was indeed a refreshing moment.
The official Akon Lighting Africa (ALA) webpage is a spectacle to behold: Akon’s visage and signature adorning his words in the form of a quotation “…bringing hope to millions and ultimately giving Africa a better future” greet you as the page loads; three major bullet points outlining the programme’s overall goals to bring light to the African masses neatly line up next to that. For lots of people – the global black diaspora, notwithstanding – this move is beyond major. Akon’s peers in the entertainment industry – particularly black artists and/or actors – were very vocal in their support. Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Tyrese, Timbaland, and Lil Jon used their respective spaces to tell their fans and affiliates about this incredible academy. Mike Bloomberg and organisations including the United Nations also spoke highly of Akon’s efforts. Countless Africans tendered their gratitude to Akon for stepping forward and using his stardom to make a significant difference in their lives. Truly, it was marvellous to see all of this positivity abounding. Or at least… it seemed marvellous at the time.
Not even a day after ALA was officially announced, Snoop Dogg took to Instagram to air a grievance. He bemoaned the fact that major media outlets prioritised the coverage of Caitlyn Jenner over Akon’s solar academy, insulting Caitlyn – a transgender woman – in the process. Of course, I was appalled by the labelling of Jenner as “a science project,” and when I took to Twitter to air my own views on the discourse (calling out the attention ALA wasn’t getting using that kind of transphobic language is quite crass and wholly unproductive, I feel), I saw that valid questions were being asked about ALA.
JJ Bola – author, poet, and educator – was one of a few people I noticed looking at the ALA initiative critically. “Where does that 600 million figure come from? That’s half the continent,” he tweeted. He’s not far off: The estimated total population of Africa is 1.111 billion people. Half of that is 550,500,000 – very close to the number of people that ALA has said they will deliver a clean, renewable energy source to. Even allowing for lofty ambition, I still believed the target was achievable considering ALA’s $1bn line of credit and the substantial political networking ALA has already done to get this realised. And then, I was presented with a blog post in the Corge that made no bones about why they thought ALA was merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Their lengthy essay laid out major concerns, stating Akon is nothing more than a “scumbag torch-bearer for the new imperialism that is coming” to the continent. Initially, the whole thing read to me like an aimless rant, effing and blinding and throwing out all manner of insults to Akon’s character. Thankfully, there was a decent amount of substance to the concerns and a bit of righteousness to the anger. It also provided answers to my own questions about ALA, upon further research and fact-checking. Consider the following:
Who is funding ALA? ALA has been provided a $1bn line of credit via China Jiangsu International, a state-owned international conglomerate, headquartered in Nanjing, China, specialising in economic cooperation and foreign trade. China Jiangsu International was founded in December 1980 and has more than 30 overseas subsidiaries, offices and branches to extend their reach and influence to roughly 80 countries around the world. According to their website, “CJI has exported chemical products, API, electrical equipment, and materials exports, exceeding a total volume of $10bn USD per year.”
Is this a private venture or is ALA not-for-profit? How will it be paid for? It appears ALA isn’t what you’d call a completely philanthropic endeavour, to say the least. Quoth Akon: “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…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.” So what does he mean by this? According to the ALA website, the average investment per village is $75,000 USD and will see the partnership of public (read: government, heads of state) organisations and private firms (read: Solektra, Give1 Project, Akon Corp, Sumec, Nari, and Huawei) in order to oversee the delivery. Given the private companies getting involved and private dollars getting spent, one would expect these companies to see a return on that investment. Sure enough, Samba Bathily – one of the cofounders for ALA and head of the holding group that owns Solektra – dropped more knowledge on the subject. “It means anyone who installs our systems can make payments over [several] years. Most of these countries couldn’t allocate the money to pay for a big project up front, but they can afford if they pay by installments.” [REF.? this I think is the embedded link at “knowledge” above] At this stage, one would be well pressed to make ALA out to be altruistic.
Will the government front the capital necessary or will it come as a cost to the people? Interestingly, this question is a bit of a grey area. Given the fact that ALA is merely fronting the capital to start with and governments are taxpayer-funded (read: by the people), one could conclude that the cost burden falls on the people to pay off. On one hand, it seems a worthy investment. On the other, could one really consider it ethical to be loaning money to a country that isn’t wealthy enough to pay for the project up front? I leave that to you to decide.
Now here are where the concerns lie amidst all of the wonderful things Akon Lighting Africa are promising and why some might feel compelled to label Akon’s venture imperialist.
Akon’s political stances are undoubtedly controversial. He already owns a diamond mine in South Africa, so as far as having business interests on the continent goes, this isn’t his first rodeo. While owning a diamond mine is problematic in its own right, Akon’s outlook on the politics of the diamond trade certainly make for interesting discussion. When asked about “conflict” diamonds and those criticising the ethics of the trade, Akon said to MTV: “They are talking about it and haven’t even been there. What are they talking about? They are talking about what they heard in the press and on TV, what they are seeing in the movie.” When asked about the situation writ large – the claims that four million people died in wars funded by blood diamond trade – Akon responded with: “I’m sure in certain mines and in certain areas, there’s probably some illegal activity going on so I will not sit there and defend no mine, period. But at the same time, in any corporation there is a lot of illegal activity going on. If I had to put emphasis on anything, I would talk about the damn oil. I would call that ‘blood oil.’ The oil is killing more people. Diamonds are the least of our worries. All that (attention on blood diamonds) is really to (distract) you from what is really going on.”
When Folly Bah Thibault asked Akon about recent incidents of racist police violence in the US in an interview for Al-Jazeera earlier this year, he replied: “I always felt like Africa was for Africans. So when I see African-Americans dealing with all these issues, my first question is, ‘Why don’t they just go back home, back to Africa?” Expanding on his thoughts, he continued: “Even if it’s just for knowledge, just to know where they came from, just to get an idea of what that is. There is so much fear instilled in them that they wouldn’t even want to go there to visit. You mention Africa, they start shaking.”
Taking this into account, consider Akon’s remarks on ALA’s methods for persuading leading politicians: “In Africa, you’ve gotta manipulate them. You have to. You have to trick ‘em. No, like, really: You’ve gotta trick ‘em.” This is in reference to reports that ALA has resorted to “manipulating” the electoral system in countries where they plead their case. Often, ALA has pitched to these officials right around the time they are campaigning in an election. Using the villages they have already invested in as an example, they lean upon the candidates to pressure them to include it in their campaign promises. Akon was quoted saying: “Once that village was lit up, now the neighbouring villages would bring pressure to the government and ask those same questions, ‘How come we ain’t lit up?’” While these manoeuvres may well have positive intentions, one feels compelled to look at the bigger picture.
This is why it seems valid to question why Akon chose to do business with China Jiangsu, a company that had sanction proceedings brought against them by the World Bank in 2014, which brought with it a period of ineligibility. From February 2014 until February 2017, China Jiangsu are barred from standing in contract bids for World Bank projects or “otherwise participate in new activities in connection with” World Bank projects. Bear in mind, Akon said one of the advantages of dealing with China Jiangsu was “to be able to go into a lot of countries and pretty much start the project immediately without having to go through the World Bank” and considering the World Bank’s own seedy and anti-competitive history, one can partly see the rationale behind the decision. But questions about China Jiangsu’s controversial involvement in Ethiopia and why ALA chose to look past that still remain.
On top of all this, there don’t appear to be any companies outside of Chinese organisations supplying ALA’s solar panels and equipment at present. Is it really sensible to provide equipment from one source when the solar power industry is far more diverse? Would it not be better for the future of these students in ALA’s solar academy in Mali to engage them with the latest and greatest in solar power technology being used worldwide? Finally, the United States placed steep import duties on solar products from China and Taiwan in 2014 in an effort to reduce anti-dumping and to make it even harder for Chinese producers to dodge duties imposed on them from 2012. Would it be reasonable to conclude that the ALA project is a grandiose yet convenient way around said duties for companies like China Jiangsu?
Personally, I am in favour of Akon’s vision for providing an electricity infrastructure for so many African people, especially when it’s powered by a renewable energy source like solar power. However, one cannot ignore the seedier elements that the vision relies upon for its final implementation. It ultimately significantly disadvantages the people meant to be benefitting from fruits of this labour. Corrupt moves – even those influenced by positive intentions – feed an already corrupt system and make no real lasting changes, apart from the way said corruption spreads. Doing what needs to and/or should be done to help human beings conquer their impoverished circumstances once and for all shouldn’t be this hard. But if there’s anything that Akon Lighting Africa has underscored, it’s that the reality is always a stark contrast from the ideals we look toward.
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Joseph Guthrie is a UK-based IT professional, musician, and writer. Originally from south London, most of his education was set in central Florida (United States). His nomadic life has seen him return to the UK in 2010 and when he’s not tending to the IT infrastructure of a major printing company, he’s the lead vocalist for the band Ships Down and is Nothing Ain’t Nice recording artist. He also contributes to music blog Sampleface.
This article was edited by Melanie Singhji
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