For many people in sub-Saharan Africa lacking access to electricity, it means more than not being able to charge a phone, go online, or watch TV. Access to affordable, reliable electricity can be the difference between a lifetime of extreme poverty and the opportunity to build a better quality of life.

That’s where Thione Niang comes in as a co-founder and managing partner with the Akon Lighting Africa initiative and Solektra International.

“Very recently, we were inaugurating a village in Benin, with their Prime Minister. A lady got up and told us how before the lights came in, everybody was scared to come out because at night, after 8 o’clock everything stops in the community because of the snakes that come out to bite people. This tells us that without energy, you have no security.”

Thione Niang at the 2016 Powering Africa Summit in Washington, DC

Thione Niang at the 2016 Powering Africa Summit in Washington, DC

Niang is a Senegalese immigrant living in the U.S. who first made a name for himself as an author, mentor, political activist and international leader before teaming up with Akon and Samba Bathily to help bring electricity to all of rural Africa. Niang who grew up in poverty, says what motivated him was what he experienced growing up in his village.

“In our house we had no electricity growing up. I remember my grand father waking me up every morning to study because the night before the sun went down early.”

Through his foundation, Give 1 Project, Niang met Akon who had wanted to do something for people on the continent who were struggling to move forward with their projects because of how limited access to energy is in so many areas.

“We discussed what we needed to do for the continent but everywhere we looked, we needed energy to start so we said we’re going to. Remembering the past and both of us growing up in these conditions, we say we’re going to start our investments in energy first before we do anything else.”

Now, through Akon Lighting Africa and Solektra International, Niang has already provided electricity to communities in 14 different countries in Africa with plans for more in 2016. Earlier this year, they opened the Solektra Solar Academy in Mali to help train future generations in solar technologies.

“We are focusing on job creation to transfer our knowledge. We’re working on energy but not only energy. Beyond giving lights, we’re giving jobs and helping to make sure the transfer of knowledge is in place.”

Niang at an Akon Lighting Africa inauguration in Gabon

Niang at an Akon Lighting Africa inauguration in Gabon (courtesy: Akon Lighting Africa)

The lack of electricity in Africa remains one of the biggest barriers to the region’s development and prosperity, trapping millions of people in extreme poverty. The international advocacy and aid organization, ONE recently released these statistics.

  • 7 out of 10 people living in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have access to electricity.
  • 30% of health centres and over a third of primary schools in Africa have to function with no electricity at all.
  • 8 out of 10 people in sub-Saharan Africa heat their homes and cook food using open fires.
  • Nearly Half of African businesses say lack of access to reliable power affects their operations and growth.

For Niang, solving these issues and providing all Africans with access to affordable, reliable, clean, and safe energy is what continues to motivate him and the work he does.

“If we want to develop Africa, we need to tackle the energy issues today. This is something that we take on, we’re working on every single day until we’re satisfied, until we make sure everybody in Africa can have energy.” -Thione Niang