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West Africa’s off-grid solar market may have found an unlikely ally in the form of Senegalese-American R&B singer and rapper Akon.
Last month the star, born Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Bongo Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam and with hits including ‘Locked Up’ and ‘Smack That’, launched Africa’s first academy for solar installers and engineers, in the Malian capital Bamako.
Akon announced the academy at the second United Nations Sustainable Energy for All Forum, which featured United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank president Dr Jim Yong Kim, among others.
“The institution, scheduled to open this summer in Bamako, Mali's capital, will try to give African engineers and entrepreneurs the skills needed to develop solar power ,” Reuters reported . “European experts will help supply training equipment and programs .”
Akon has set up two organisations to promote solar power in Africa.
Akon Lighting Africa and a technology development firm called Solektra were both co-founded with Samba Bathily, described as “an important actor in the Malian economy”, and Thione Niang, “a public servant, speaker and consultant.”
“We have the sun and innovative technologies to bring electricity to homes and communities ,” said Bathily in a press statement . “We now need to consolidate African expertise and that is our objective. 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 .”
The boost comes at a time when there is increasing interest in the potential of off-grid solar for West Africa.
As former Solarplaza event speaker Terje Osmundsen , senior vice president for strategic projects at Scatec Solar, wrote earlier this year , across the continent “with the notable exception of South Africa and a few others, progress has so far been disappointingly slow .”
Daniel Zywietz, founder and CEO of Enerwhere , a Dubai-based solar-diesel hybrid rental company with exposure to the West African market, said: “If you look at North Western Africa it’s basically a question of financial resources and stability .
“The solar radiation is there and diesel prices are high, it’s just a matter of finding the right projects and having a stable environment. The business case should be there. ”
But Nigeria, sometimes referred to as the ‘Giant of Africa’ because of is huge population and economy (the largest on the continent), exemplifies the kind of problems that bedevil the region when it comes to solar market development.
“There you have rolling blackouts and very low confidence in the stability [of the grid] ,” said Zywietz. “If people were actually convinced the power would stay out for a long time, they would invest in solar.
“But you get the combination of instability with hope, where it’s like: ‘Well, we have a new president, maybe he’s going to give us power.’ And that’s a reason not to invest in a solar system. People just hope things will improve on the conventional side. ”
Against this backdrop it could take a lot to persuade West Africans to love PV. Perhaps Akon, who came fifth in the 2011 Forbes 40 Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa list , is just the man for the job after all.