This article originally appeared on VICE US.
If you still think of Akon as that R&B singer from the aughts who sang “Smack That” and got in trouble for dry-humping an underage girl on stage, you’re woefully behind the times. Since retiring from music back in 2010, the St. Louis born and Senegal raised musician has been spending a great deal of his time in Africa, working on bringing 21st century stability and infrastructure to underdeveloped regions.
His first major effort came in 2014 with the founding of Akon Lighting Africa (ALA), a solar energy initiative that seeks to deliver electricity to the more than 600 million Africans living without it. Started with a $1 billion line of credit from Chinese investors China Jiangsu International, the program trains local engineers to install and maintain solar-based decentralized electrical grids in their communities. ALA has already been implemented in 15 countries with plans to increase that number to 48 by 2020. Unfortunately, exact figures for the program's efficacy and reach are in short supply, but the program claims to already have covered 480 communities and erected over 100,000 solar street lamps.
Through ALA, Akon has become one of the biggest celebrities on the continent, and the musician, whose full name is Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Bongo Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam, has just launched an even more ambitious project: a planned city in Senegal where the economy would run entirely on his own cryptocurrency, AKoin. Naturally, the proposed city has already been nicknamed the “real-life Wakanda.”
At the August 7th launch party for the coin, held in Los Angeles, Akon hosted its developers, financial backers, the press, and a handful of the entrepreneurs selected to play the roll of guinea pigs, testing the coin's viability with their small business ideas.
“This coin is focused specifically on Africa,” Akon told me at the event. “Businesses that could be utilized in Africa, the population that can be using it in Africa, and, more importantly than anything, the entrepreneurs that can be developed and honed in Africa.”
The singer believes that AKoin would best serve nations with currencies destabilized by runaway inflation or corrupt governments, as the public ledger of blockchain guards against malfeasance, and would allow users to “control their own economy and control their own destiny.”
As was the case when he announced ALA, concerns abound as to whether or not Akon is, with this new endeavor, consciously or unwittingly being used by China for the nation’s development plans for the continent. African critics of the Asian superpower claim that the Chinese government is exploiting Africans for their cheap labor so as to create supply chain infrastructure to export sub-market value natural resources under the auspices of altruistically helping underdeveloped nations. But as a recent Washington Post article pointed out, such fears might be overblown and political posturing masking a much more benign and mutually beneficial relationship.
Michael Kimani, the chairman of the Blockchain Association of Kenya, told the BBC that his skepticism about AKoin is more about it being too “pie-in-the-sky” than exploitative, noting that he could see “the need for cryptocurrencies, but within the context of small communities.” Kimani also noted the necessity of smartphones and expensive data plans that would cut into a sizable portion of average Senegalese's monthly income as potential hurdles to AKoin gaining traction.
Further to that point, Akon has been hesitant to get into the weeds about AKoin's hard numbers. His hypeman enthusiasm for the cryptocurrency and city's potential is infectious but, during our interview, he balked at my questions about transaction-per-second limits and profit generation. That said, his focus on the macro over micro is nothing new. When he first announced AKoin at Cannes Lions in June, he famously noted that he'd be letting "the geeks" figure out the technical aspects he was asked about.
Ryan Scott, a founding partner of both AKoin and ICO Impact Group, a crypto investment firm, insists that AKoin’s intentions are noble and its feasibility is grounded, noting the lack of transaction fees for users and the myriad ways citizens can earn coins while just going about their daily lives. Only partners—i.e. businesses wishing to operate on the platform—would pay to play. Scott likened the project to “an app store for African entrepreneurship.” By getting transaction costs down to zero, AKoin would hypothetically allow its users to passively earn by signing up to be on standby for some of the apps, pingable as first responders for local 911-esque services or peer-to-peer neighborhood watch groups. Picture it as, for better or worse, an all-encompassing expansion of America's gig economy side-hustling that runs entirely on a proprietary currency.
“They don’t call them this in Africa, but at, like, bodegas—wherever you can top off your minutes, you [will be able to] buy AKoin,” Scott told VICE at the coin launch. “We’re also striking deals now with point-of-sale providers so you’ll be able to spend it. So, this is really going to be one of the first consumerized cryptocurrency offerings that can be used practically on a day-to-day basis.”
AKoins creators hope the currency will eventually serve as a premiere crypto-crowdfunding platform.
“It’s no longer ‘save the child from another country,’” said AKoin founding partner Lynn Liss, “It’s ‘I’ll invest in your idea.’”
But in a continent where most transactions are still done in cash, a smartphone and crypto-only economy still feels wildly aspirational, even once all the "geeks" have figured out the nuts and bolts of the tech.
For now, while AKoin proves itself, the proposed 2,000 acre utopian Akon Crypto City will remain in the planning phase. Akon says he’s happy they’re taking their time and not rushing it into existence, lest his crypto city become another cautionary tale of businesses and investors left in the lurch.
“Dubai faced the same thing,” said Akon. “You’re building a city fast and there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of money spent. But it all depends on the person spending the money and how they project their funds to come back. There will be bankers [in the crypto city], financial advisors, business managers, and hedge fund managers. They’ll all be a part of this ecosystem.”
Ironically, Akon’s lofty promises and lack of concern with the details that make plans like these come to fruition are reminiscent of the politician he’s most vehemently critical of, Donald Trump. On top of his myriad projects in Africa, the artist has floated the idea of challenging the incumbent in 2020. When asked if he would still be able to pursue these political aspirations while AKoin and its crypto city were in their formative years, the singer said it would be hard to ignore the call to serve his home country.
“I haven’t finalized my decision yet, but I think I am going to do it,” he said about officially announcing his candidacy. “With all the things that’re happening, the temperatures climbing around the world, it’s necessary... The only way America’s going to move forward is if the young generation move it forward according to what’s happening today and how we’re growing.”
Here's hoping he announces his candidacy soon, because while there are scores of celebrities that have run for president and just as many who have shilled for a cryptocurrency, I don't believe we've ever seen one do both simultaneously.
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