Akon, the pop star behind hits like ‘Smack That,’ is masterminding a $6 billion smart city in Senegal backed by a shadowy investor. Inside Akon City, where life will be funded by ‘Akoin’ and the singer hopes to reinvent his legacy.

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Akon doesn't want his legacy to be "Smack That."
  • Akon is moving forward with plans to build a $6 billion sustainable smart city in Senegal called Akon City.
  • The Senegalese American singer said the 2,000-acre futuristic metropolis would include a luxury resort, condos, offices, a hospital, a stadium, and an artificial-intelligence data center.
  • Residents will pay for everything with his cryptocurrency, Akoin.
  • The project's main financial backer is a Kenyan entrepreneur with a mysterious past and a history of being sued over allegations that he failed to repay debts.
  • Akon said the city would empower Africa's youth, but few details have been released on community involvement in Akon City, which has tapped a Los Angeles construction firm and an architect from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

There was a certain period of time, right around the year 2006, when you could barely turn on a radio in America and not hear Akon's voice. In the era of billboard toppers like Shakira, Justin Timberlake, and Kelly Clarkson, the Senegalese American crooner made his mark with megahits like "Smack That" and "Lonely."

But that's not what he wants his legacy to be, Akon told Business Insider on a recent call.

"One of my biggest fears was just being known for singing and dancing," Akon said.

Flash-forward to 2020, and Akon's music may no longer be blasting from teenage girls' cars, but the singer has been far from inactive. He's pivoted from churning out hip-hop and R&B hits to carving out a new identity as a tech entrepreneur in Africa. First there was his solar-power company. Then came his own cryptocurrency. Along the way, he bought a diamond mine in South Africa, The Guardian reported.

Now he's building a $6 billion sustainable smart city in Senegal that leaves little doubt as to the star power behind it. The name? Akon City. The cryptocurrency proposed to power it? Akoin.

"We plan to literally franchise the city," Akon told TMZ in August of the development on the coast of the West African country where he spent part of his childhood.

The 2,000-acre waterfront oasis is being designed to serve as a hub for business and tourism, and the renderings are the stuff of science fiction. Akon City's official website depicts a futuristic metropolis filled with gleaming twisting skyscrapers and palm trees. There are plans for residents to be able to use Akoin to pay for the tram, basic utilities, business licenses, and even their taxes. And if Akon has his way, this will be the first of several more Akon-branded smart cities throughout Africa.

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The plans for Akon City include condos, office buildings, a stadium, and a resort.

One of the key players in this ambitious endeavor is Akon's business partner Jon Karas, a former Hollywood producer. Karas is the president and cofounder of Akoin and the CEO and cofounder of Akon Legacy Ventures, Akon's business entity that encompasses his other pursuits.

"Akon City has been a dream and vision of Akon's for probably more than a decade," Karas told Business Insider on a recent phone call. "It was just the how and what, and having the team and resources to pull off such a massive undertaking."

In interviews with key players in the project and experts in the tech and sustainable-development fields in Africa, Business Insider delved into how this project is playing out. What we found is that Akon is helming a $6 billion project that teeters largely on a single named investor's backing — one who has a history of lawsuits on file regarding unpaid debts. And while several of the most prominent people involved in the city's development — including Akon — tout the city as a future job generator for locals, none were able to lay out a plan for how exactly locals would benefit from the construction of this gleaming giant.

We tried to answer the basic — and still unanswered — question that could overthrow Akon's proposed utopia: Is it possible, or will it become yet another abandoned plan in Africa's long string of failed smart cities?

'Bigger than Michael Jackson'

While Akon's star power may have faded in the US, it shines brighter than ever in Africa. In 2017, Forbes Africa named him the most bankable artist on the continent.

According to Karas, Akon, 47, is "bigger than Michael Jackson" in Africa. In an episode of the "Blockchain Journeys" podcast in March, Karas said they need a huge security team when they go to Africa "because of the number of people that just want to touch him."

Akon — born in Missouri as Aliuame Badara Thiam — spent much of his childhood in Senegal before his family moved to New Jersey when he was 11. He burst onto the American music scene at 30 years old with his 2004 single "Locked Up." Akon went on to sell more than 35 million albums worldwide and collaborated with stars like Lady Gaga, Eminem, Gwen Stefani, Michael Jackson, Lil Wayne, and Snoop Dogg.

It's unclear how much of a personal fortune Akon built up in those years, but in 2011, he ranked ninth on Forbes' list of hip-hop's top 20 earners and brought in an estimated $13 million. In 2018, BBC estimated in 2018 that Akon's net worth was about $80 million.

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Jon Karas and Akon at a tech summit in Portugal in November.

In recent years, Akon has put his music career on the back burner and launched projects in Africa that include Akon Lighting Africa, a solar-power project founded in 2014 that says it operates in 18 countries. The following year, Akon and Karas met in Los Angeles through one of the singer's endorsement deals. At their meeting, Karas said he asked Akon for a selfie.

"It turned into a meeting of the minds," Karas told Business Insider. "We started spending some time together. We liked each other ... We found out we believe in many of the same things, which is social impact, the power to make the world a better place, the rise of Africa, and rising economies generally."

Their meeting kicked off a partnership that has culminated in Akon's most ambitious venture to date.

Straight out of a science-fiction movie

Akon City is slated to be built on the Senegalese coastline about 62 miles south of Dakar and 35 miles from Dakar's new $575 million international airport.

Senegal, which has been called West Africa's most stable democracy, boasts 330 miles of Atlantic coastline. About 70% of its nearly 16 million people live in rural areas, while Dakar, Senegal's capital, is home to about 3.1 million people.

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Akon's proposed city is slated to be built about 62 miles from Senegal's capital.

In Dakar, the highest building is 250 feet tall. Akon Tower, on the other hand — the proposed centerpiece of Akon City — would stand at nearly 985 feet, making it the tallest building in Senegal by far. The highway from the capital to Akon's planned metropolis runs right along the coast at times and veers inland at others, passing through a smattering of villages.

Physically, Karas envisions the city as a "hyperdrive" version of various world-famous cities: a mix of the Barcelona coastline in Spain with the futuristic-looking skyline of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and a bit of New York City's Madison Square Garden thrown in for good measure. There will be an oceanfront boardwalk with restaurants, hotels, and condos, he said. And don't forget the office buildings, parks, schools, hospital, and sports stadium.

Renderings of the city show gleaming structures that twist and curve without a single sharp edge in sight. Some social-media users have chimed in to say that Akon Tower resembles a sex toy.

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"In 25 years, all the normal buildings will be looking like this," the lead architect said.

Hussein Bakri, the lead architect for the project and CEO of Dubai's Bakri & Associates Development Consultants, told Business Insider the city would be built from a mix of traditional construction materials and new materials developed specifically for Akon City. Among those are a lightweight steel and glass that generate energy. A transportation system will run both aboveground and underwater, Bakri said.

Bakri acknowledged the plans for the city may seem fantastical.

"In 25 years, all the normal buildings will be looking like this," Bakri said.

The city will be powered entirely by Akoin, Akon said. The cryptocurrency's white paper points to a 2019 report that estimated Africa would have 623 million mobile-phone users by 2025 — about half the population.

Akoin, which Akon said could be used with either "a smartphone or a dumb phone," will allow users to convert their unused prepaid mobile minutes to Akoin. Akoin can also be converted into government-issued currency outside Africa, as well as other established cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, he said.

Paul Martin, KE International's project manager for Akon City, talked about using advanced tech — blockchain, artificial intelligence, and the like — for job growth. "We're creating jobs around that really cutting-edge stuff," he said.

Akon echoed the sentiment: "We want to empower all the young entrepreneurs with the tools to be able to fuel their businesses."

Finding the funds for a $6 billion dream city

Akon's smart-city project has been years in the making, but 2020 has been the year that the dream has begun to take shape.

One key step in moving plans for Akon City forward was getting the backing of the Senegalese government, which Karas said was a "multiyear process." Over the course of multiple conversations with Business Insider, Karas reiterated that Akon City has the support of Senegalese President Macky Sall.

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Senegal President Macky Sall.

Akon told Business Insider Senegal's president and minister of tourism have been the main government entities involved in the project so far but that other ministers would come on board later. Business Insider made multiple attempts to reach both the president and the minister of tourism but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Previous reports that the president gifted Akon the 2,000-acre plot of land for the city were incorrect, Karas said. According to Karas, Akon wrote "a seven-figure check" to option the land. Karas said he could not provide documentation verifying the land deal because it was confidential.

"Looking forward to hosting you in the future," Akon tweeted alongside the announcement that the deal was finalized in January.

Another milestone came in April, when Akoin announced that the cryptocurrency would first launch in another smart city in Kenya, the Mwale Medical and Technology City (MMTC). Two months later, the Los Angeles firm KE International announced it had been awarded the $6 billion construction contract for Akon City. The firm had previously developed the $2 billion MMTC, which is about 90% complete.

According to the press release, KE International helped secure an initial $4 billion in investment for the city from "leaders in the healthcare and technology infrastructure industries," including Julius Mwale, the Kenyan technology entrepreneur behind MMTC.

Karas confirmed to Business Insider that Mwale — who is the only named financier of Akon City so far — was the lead investor. According to Mwale's spokesperson, he's responsible for the bulk of the $4 billion that's been raised.

Mwale is a benefactor with a mysterious past and a history of being sued over allegations that he didn't pay his debts. A former Kenya Air Force soldier, Mwale left the country in 2000 under "unclear circumstances" and sought asylum in the US, according to Capital FM, a Kenyan radio station. Mwale told the outlet in 2009 that he was "forced to flee the country" after a disagreement with government authorities over the technology research he worked on in the military. A spokesperson for Mwale confirmed Mwale fled the country after a disagreement with government authorities and said his life was in danger.

In New York, Mwale founded SBA Technologies Inc., a company that he said provided secure platforms for mobile banking and commerce. The Kenyan entrepreneur and his business have faced at least three lawsuits in New York, public records showed.

In March 2012, a New York court ordered Mwale and SBA Technologies — alongside another defendant, Fiona Graham — to pay more than $325,000 to two women who sued Mwale and Graham for what they alleged was a fraudulent loan. In 2015, a New York court ordered Mwale to pay more than $209,000 to the former landlord of his Manhattan office after Mwale was accused of failing to pay rent and other bills for nearly a year. And in 2017, Arthur Ntozi, a Ugandan tech entrepreneur, sued Mwale, alleging he failed to repay a $50,000 loan.

Mwale's spokesperson told Business Insider his lawyers would litigate any "frivolous judgements/suits within statute of limitation until justice is served." Karas said Mwale has been "appropriate, professional, and forward-thinking" when it comes to Akon City.

For now, the other investors and partners in the project remain a mystery. Karas, Mwale, and KE International all declined to name any other backers.

Karas said that while he couldn't yet reveal the other partners in the project, they are made up of "companies and high-net-worth individuals" from around the globe, particularly Africa and the Persian Gulf states.

The reality check

With the project still in its relative infancy, the question remains whether Akon's vision can be realized. 

On August 31, Akon, clad in a powder-blue suit and a white face mask, stood next to Senegal's minister of tourism, Alioune Sarr, as the minister laid the first stone in a ceremony at Akon City's construction site. They were surrounded by media, local politicians, members of Senegal's tourism agency, and residents of Mbodiene, the coastal village of fewer than 3,000 people that sits closest to the site.

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Akon, left, and Senegal's tourism minister, Alioune Sarr, on August 31.

The next day, Akon met with Sall at the Presidential Palace in Dakar to present plans for the city. 

Construction is expected to start in early 2021. The first phase of the city — including the construction of roads, residences, a police station, and a school — is expected to be completed in about three years. Within 10 years of the start of construction, the plan is for Akon City to be completed and running exclusively on Akoin. It will support up to 500,000 people, according to Bakri.

But right now, Akon City is an empty 2,000-acre plot of land. It's more than a two-hour drive from Dakar on a narrow two-lane highway, according to Google Maps. 

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The highway that stands to connect Dakar to Akon City.

And Akon is far from the first person to attempt to build a smart city in Africa. "African smart cities" has been a buzzword for the past 10 or 15 years, Mira Slavova, an assistant professor at the University of Warwick who wrote a research paper on smart cities in Africa, told Business Insider.

Many proposed smart-city projects, which are typically defined as developments that use technology to run more efficiently and sustainably, have stalled. Plans for a smart city in South Africa, once hailed as an "African Manhattan," were thwarted when the city of Johannesburg rejected the proposal because it didn't include affordable housing. And a proposed "Silicon Savannah" in Kenya is struggling because of "grandiose plans, red tape and a lack of funding," VOA News reported last year.

Then there's the matter of the money. Karas, who was previously involved in real-estate-development projects in New York City, acknowledged that many major development projects end up costing more than initially planned.

"My bet is it's going to be a little bit more money and take a little bit longer of time," he said.

Another person familiar with the project, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak about the finances, told Business Insider the total cost of building Akon City could very well end up being "double" the budgeted $6 billion.

The key players of Akon City also don't seem to agree on whom exactly the city is being built for. According to Bakri, the city will be open to everyone, from janitors to engineers to Hollywood stars. Martin, KE International's project manager for Akon City, said 30% of the city's housing would be affordable to "the lower half of the wage market."

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Akon City is far from the first smart city to be proposed in Africa.

Karas, on the other hand, described the likely initial residents as business owners, businesspeople, and "a certain number of Europeans looking for a vacation spot." And Akon said he could see "more of the elite local Senegalese living there first before the middle class."

That list includes himself: "Once it's up, that's where you're going to find me," he said. "That's where I'll be living."

Few details on local involvement 

For some in Senegal, the question isn't whether Akon can build a glitzy, sustainable smart city in Senegal — but whether he should.

Africa could indeed be an ideal place to develop smart cities because its booming young population is more likely to adopt the technology, according to a 2016 report by the consulting firm Deloitte. The continent is also home to a growing young population that's hungry for jobs in cities. In 2018, 60% of Africa's population was under the age of 25. And by 2034, the continent is expected to be home to the largest working-age population — about 1.1 billion people.

In the past two years, Senegal has launched the Delegation for Rapid Entrepreneurship (DER) — a $5.4 million annual fund that supports young entrepreneurs with a focus on digital technologies — and passed a "startup act" that offers tax breaks and other benefits to incentivize new business in various sectors.

But experts in sustainable development and smart cities, as well as leaders in the local tech scene, agree that Akon should include the community in the development process, rather than wait for the working class to trickle into Akon City after the elite crowd settles in.

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A beach in Dakar in April.

Slavova, the smart-cities researcher at the University of Warwick, said she had yet to see the construction of a smart city "done in a sensitive and considerate and inclusive way that takes into account local people. People don't want somebody to come from America and throw around bitcoins and solve their problems."

Fara Ndiaye, the deputy executive director of Speak Up Africa, a nonprofit organization focused on sustainable development, told Business Insider her group had not been contacted by anyone from the project. Similarly, Carine Vavasseur, an "ecosystem builder" at DER, Senegal's startup fund, told Business Insider DER supported many startups that could be involved in building Akon City but that nobody from Akon City had contacted the organization.

"Sometimes we have projects that are done exclusively with external people, and when it's done, you have a barrier with the population because they will feel like this has been done here but maybe it was not done with us — or for us — at the end of the day," Vavasseur said.

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Akon at a climate conference in Morocco in 2016.

And while KE International's Martin stressed that one of project's major goals was to create jobs for the community, Akon City's developers have shared few specifics on how they're involving local entrepreneurs in the creation of the city. The construction firm, KE International, is based in Los Angeles, and the lead architect is based in Dubai. When asked to name some of the project's local partnerships, Karas did not provide Business Insider with any specific names or organizations.

At a press conference in a Dakar hotel after the stone-laying ceremony last week, Akon said he initially wanted to tap a Senegalese architect to design Akon City.

"But honestly, I wanted to not overthink my project," he said. "In my research, as far as what I needed in the time that I needed, I could not find one fast enough."

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