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Another Celebrity Wants to Help Africa, And He's No ‘Band Aid’

Akon in West Africa for his electrify project with permission

Akon in West Africa for his electrify project with permission

Since the Live Aid Event organized by Bob Geldof and a bunch of his famous friends in the mid-1980s, Africa has known many world-famous celebrities who show a willingness to help the continent. Most of these initiatives, however, have fallen well short of their stated objectives.

For many in Africa, the Ebola epidemic has made clear the gap between celebrities’ awareness-raising campaigns and realities on the ground, where “parachuted initiatives” by Western stars collapse after brief runs in the global news. By now, the limits of humanitarian work by such celebrities—indeed Western humanitarian work generally—are well documented.

“Band Aid 30″‘s remake of “Do They Know It's Christmas,” for example, does little to expand—let alone acknowledge—Africans’ agency in the fight against Ebola.

Contrasted with the song “Africa, Stop Ebola,” created by African artists including Tiken Jah Fakoly, Amadou, and Mariam and Salif Keita, it's hard to deny the difference in tone.

Despite Band Aid 30's good intentions, Africans have long been offended by the patronizing tone of the “Do They Know It's Christmas” song's adapted lyrics. (The updated song includes lines like, “Where a kiss of love can kill you and there's death in every tear,” “Well tonight we're reaching out and touching you,” and so on.) On the other hand, the lyrics of the Africa Stop Ebola song emphasizes what citizens in the affected region can do to help stop the spread of Ebola. The song is performed in French and vernacular languages (Haoussa, Fula etc.) widely spoken across the region to ensure that the message is understood by the majority of the population in the affected region.

Amidst Band Aid 30's campaign and the backlash in Africa, a far lesser known initiative is getting underway: a project by American singer Akon, who has family ties to Senegal, to help electrify West Africa.

Akon, whose full name is Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Bongo Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam, spent much of his childhood in Senegal and was ranked Africa's fifth most powerful celebrity in 2011 (on a list that included 40 names). In a video on Vimeo, Akon explains his electrification project:

He adds:

The lack of electricity is currently a major problem in Africa. A significant number of households in rural areas and even urban cities do not have access to electricity. This is a real obstacle to Africa’s Sustainable Development.

In that perspective and within the framework of a Public-Private partnership, an alliance was signed between the private entities and the governments of different African nations to support the initiative. The project will consist of the installation of solar equipment in households and promote their energy sufficiency that also will allow millions of children to have access to electricity and improve their education through extended study hours.

Akon's project is planned to be long-term, separating it from the one-off efforts often carried out in Africa that typically require large advertising campaigns. Akon's work is not directed at a Western audience, and it isn't an awareness-raising campaign. He is currently on an extended trip through West Africa, where he's meeting local entrepreneurs and political decisionmakers. He will visit nine different countries: Senegal, Mali, Guinea Conakry, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo and Côte d'Ivoire.

In Guinea, Akon met with students at the Gamal Abdel Nasser University in Conakry and said:

I'm also a businessman, but I want to do business that benefits Africa [..] all the resources needed to develop Africa are at the disposal of the continent, and that all Africans needed to do is to take the driving seat.

In Cotonou, Benin, Arnaud Dounhmanmoun writes:

Au Bénin, une phase expérimentale a déjà eu lieu et c’est le village Avlo à Grand Popo qui a été retenu.L’artiste procèdera à la réception des matériels, Il s’agit des kits solaires pour les ménages ainsi que les lampadaires solaires pour l’éclairage public.

In Benin, an experimental phase [of the project] is already underway—implemented in the village of Avlo in the Grand Popo region. The artist [Akon] will be there to collect materials: solar kits for households, and solar lamps for street lighting.

In Mali, Modibo Fofana on Journal du Mali says Akon is also helping change the image of Africa with investors, despite the Ebola crisis:

Après une visite en Guinée, Akon est arrivé au moment où le Mali a connu le premier cas. Selon Akon, la médiatisation à outrance de cette maladie en Afrique contribue à ternir son image. “C’est à nous de changer l’image de l’Afrique. Quand les gens voient que je suis au Mali malgré l’annonce d’Ebola, cela va rassurer les autres.”

After a visit to Guinea, Akon arrived in Mali as it reported its first case [of Ebola]. According Akon, media coverage of the disease in Africa unfairly tarnishes the continent's public image. “It's up to us to change Africa's image. When people see that I'm in Mali, despite the announcement of Ebola, this will reassure others.”

While it is too early to tell whether Akon's approach will bear more fruitful results than the overhyped Band Aid initiative, at least, Akon has focused on the potential for Africa to self-sustain its development rather than wait for the ever-elusive western saviors.

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