The US-Senegalese music mogul Akon has said he is pressing ahead with lofty plans to create a futuristic Pan-African smart city in Senegal next year, built in the mould of Wakanda – the fictional, technologically advanced African nation depicted in the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther.
The 2,000-acre, surrealist, solar-powered “Akon City”, backed by the Senegalese government and funded by unnamed investors, was first announced by Akon in 2018.
On Monday, Akon, whose real name is Aliaune Thiam, announced alongside Senegal’s minister for tourism, Alioune Sarr, that he had laid the first stone for the city in Mbodiene, a coastal village 62 miles from the capital Dakar.
The plans depict gleaming skyscrapers, shopping malls, music studios and eco-friendly tourist resorts. They envisage that “Akoin”, a cryptocurrency founded by the R&B star, would be the central currency.
Akon City is not the first major development announced by the singer for Africa. Previous plans and grand promises have attracted criticism on the continent and questions around transparency.
Sarr hailed Akon’s launch for coming at a time when private investment in the west African country is scarce and badly needed, following the economic pain wrought by the coronavirus outbreak.
Akon said the city would provide opportunities for Senegalese people and an alternative home for African Americans facing racial discrimination.
“The system back home [in the US] treats them unfairly in so many different ways that you can never imagine,” he said. “And they only go through it because they feel that there is no other way. If you’re coming from America or Europe or elsewhere in the diaspora and you feel that you want to visit Africa, we want Senegal to be your first stop.”
Few details of the project have been made public. Investors for the estimated $6bn scheme could not be named after signing non-disclosure agreements, but a third of the funding has been secured, Akon said. The singer has in the past dodged questions about how his cryptocurrency will be viable in the planned city, saying he would leave it to “the geeks” to work out.
According to the US-based consulting and engineering firm KE International, it has been contracted to create the city, which “will define a new paradigm in design and architecture for Africa”.
Plans are being considered to franchise the project to other countries in Africa, replicating smart-cities, such as the Mwale Medical and Technological City scheme in Kenya.
The singer, born in the US to Senegalese parents and who grew up in Senegal, has been evangelical on the potential of African countries to redevelop and reduce dependency on western countries.
In 2014, he announced “Light up Africa”, a charity initiative in partnership with the World Bank and governments to subsidise solar power and provide electricity to 600 million people in rural communities, more than half of the continent’s then population. The project claims to have helped more than 32 million people in 25 countries to gain access to basic electricity through solar energy.
Questions around Akon’s operations in Africa grew when in 2015 he claimed to have manipulated African leaders. “In Africa, you’ve gotta manipulate them. You have to,” he told an Africa Day celebration at Coca-Cola, describing challenges in persuading African leaders to part-fund the projects.
In 2018, he said his Akoin currency, which relies on smartphone use, would become a “stable currency alternative throughout Africa”. Yet it has faced questions around its access in low income countries where data is expensive. Only a third of people in Senegal use a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Centre.
Michael Kimani, the chairman of the Blockchain Association of Kenya, dismissed the Akoin plans as “pie-in-the-sky” since it would need widespread usage across Africa to work.
Work on the city is scheduled to start early next year, with completion of the first phase set for 2023. The plans say the town will initially cover 55 hectares (135 acres) but grow to 500 hectares by the end of the decade, with plans for artificial islands and a marina that can accommodate cruise ships.
Sarr said he hoped the project would give the lie to “Cassandras … who always view new projects as pipe dreams” and vowed to help make sure it was completed on schedule.