By Adva Saldinger* [caption id="attachment_22826" align="alignleft" width="616"] Senegalese-American singer Akon (right, in suit) during a visit in Pahou, Benin. Photo by: Akon Lighting Africa[/caption] Senegalese-American singer Akon received a special welcome when he arrived in Benin in August, the last stop on his tour of six African countries as part of his Akon Lighting Africa initiative. Benin’s energy minister and other officials greeted him in the small, leather chair-adorned VIP lounge at the Cotonou airport. A fleet of gleaming white Ford Everests awaited his entourage outside, while he was directed to a black Chrysler. During the following two days, the on-the-go motorcade would keep its police escorts busy — from meetings with the prime minister and the energy minister to an event at the U.S. Embassy and a small ceremony to unveil a solar street lamp in a semirural area not far from the capital city. Thione Niang and Samba Bathily, Akon’s business partners in the Akon Lighting Africa initiative, joined him on the trip. The roles of all three are clear. Akon is the brand, Niang’s focus is on youth engagement and helping make political introductions, and Bathily is the businessman. While Akon’s name is a driving force in the initiative, and he’s involved in many of the decisions, he’s never thought of himself as an entrepreneur. He didn’t even know the definition until recently, he said. But he’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit — from buying 12 packs of Snickers bars to resell at a markup from his locker at school to the illegal business opportunities he later chased that landed him in jail. Back then, though, his motivations were different — he just wanted to be rich. In large part because of his fame, the roughly two-year-old Akon Lighting Africa initiative has drawn a lot of media attention, but also generated a fair amount of curiosity and skepticism. Some of the criticism seems to stem from a lack of understanding of its brand and purpose. Devex spent time traveling with the leaders of the organization and speaking with each in an effort to answer some of the lingering questions. While the the team touts rapid growth, especially in the past year, they’ve also been working to refine the initiative’s identity and priorities as it expands across the African continent.