Providing clean, sustainable energy to the 1.1 billion people currently without now has a new champion; a champion with a loud voice and global reach. Akon, R&B star and founder of the Akon Lighting Africa initiative, teamed up with Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) this week in New York, lending his voice to the cause and participating in the second annual SE4All Forum.

On the sidelines of the Forum this week, SE4All and Akon held a press conference to underscore the importance of universal energy access, as well as the other SE4All goals on doubling the improvement rate in energy efficiency and the share of renewables in the global energy mix.

Joining Akon on the panel were Kandeh Yumkella, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and CEO of SE4All; Adnan Amin, Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA); Neven Mimica, EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development; and Sheila Oparaocha, head of Energia.

Akon explained that meeting the needs of millions of people in Africa — including the 600 million who have no electricity — has always been a dream of his. Considering that more than 65% of Africa’s population is the youth, he said, he and his partners in Akon Lighting Africa, wanted to get youth more educated and involved in what needs to happen in order for Africa to prosper.

“Without infrastructure, Africa can’t grow in the way it needs to grow. And without energy, the infrastructure can’t even begin.” For all these reasons, he said, “Energy is the key to Africa’s development.”

Along with his partners, Samba Bathily and Thione Niang, Akon decided to focus on electrifying rural areas, what he called “the heartbeat of Africa,” where the majority of the population lives. The initiative, which has been in business for the last two years, started with a goal to light up a million homes in its first year, but within that year expanded its goal, and now works in 14 countries. In Guinea, for example, they are currently installing 30,000 street lamps and hundreds of thousands of home systems, employing over 5,000 people. They have deployed equipment to 11 countries and are training local people to install and maintain the equipment. And they created an innovative financing scheme that allows countries to pay within 3-5 years in instalments according to their energy budget, with some funding coming from consumers themselves through a pre-payment system.

Mr. Yumkella said that Akon’s engagement was “one of the best things that happened this year” for Sustainable Energy for All, and praised Akon’s decision that, to give back to the continent, to help alleviate poverty and to help the youth, energy is the key. “We have already felt his impact,” Mr. Yumkella added, in a huge spike on social media, and thanked Akon for “taking the message to the world.”