As a child, Thione Niang used to listen to his mother cry at night, and promised himself he would change her life.
Creating that change meant escaping his childhood, spent growing up with 28 siblings in a polygamist family in Senegal.
Twenty-five years later, and after moving to the United States with $20 in his back pocket and no grasp of the English language, Niang was appointed an Ambassador of Energy by then-United States President Barack Obama.
While Obama’s presidency has ended, Niang is continuing to work to change lives, not just for his mother, but for people right across Africa, by teaming up with international music superstar Akon on sustainable energy enterprise Akon Lighting Africa.
As well as Akon Lighting Africa, Niang, who spoke to students at Bond University’s Transformer hub recently, travels the world speaking on social entrepreneurship, has his own government relations and public relations firm, and has published several books.
He’s come a long way, for a man whose career path began with his mother’s tears.
“At 12, at night, I was sleeping and hearing her crying because she didn’t have enough money to take care of us the next day. I never went through childhood, when kids my age were playing around, I was figuring out how to help her, how to feed my family, how to change the course of what was going on in the house.”
That change came from an unlikely place – a story his school teacher told about the United States and the journey of former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Inspired by Annan’s success, once he completed high school, Niang made his way to the United States, speaking only French and the Senegalese language Wolof, and with just $20 in his pocket.
Staying with a family friend in New York and cleaning tables to make a living, Niang immediately began making good on his promise to his family.
“The most beautiful day for me was the day I got paid $280. I ran straight to the Western Union…ever since, every month, I take care of my mother, and my father and my family.”
Moving to Cleveland, Ohio, to study public administration, Niang witnessed firsthand the state’s economic troubles, set against a backdrop of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Countless workers lost their jobs, as steel yards and factories closed their doors and companies moved offshore.
“A lot of homes were foreclosed in my neighbourhood, people were losing their jobs, their homes, their families, it was difficult in Cleveland.
“As a newcomer to the country, America has this thing that makes you feel like an American as soon as you come to the country, and I felt I had to get involved.”
Friends suggested Niang work on the mayoral campaign of then-councillor Frank Jackson. Jackson was successful, and has retained the Cleveland mayoralty ever since.
The same year Jackson was sworn in, Cleveland was visited by a young senator, who made an instant impression on Niang. The senator’s name was Barack Obama.
Niang joined Obama’s primary campaign as a community organiser in 2007, beginning a relationship which led to his membership of the finance committee for the 2012 campaign, and culminating in his appointment by the then-President as an Ambassador of Energy, in 2015.
Akon Lighting Africa was born in the summer of 2013, after Akon was one of Niang’s guests at a Global Leadership Programme he hosted at the White House, as part of his Give1 Project, focused on leadership and entrepreneurship.
They turned their sights to the issue of energy in Africa, where 600 million Africans still live without electricity, particularly in rural areas. The lack of power was an instant flashback for Niang, to his childhood.
“It was a reminder to me, growing up with no electricity in the house, that I had to study under the light of the sun. If there’s no light, I go to bed.”
However, he says the impact of a lack of energy in Africa stretches well beyond education.
“It’s also connected to security, because many of the villages we go in to, at night everybody is inside their homes because security issues are a problem, it’s pitch dark.
“We have such a huge population that needs to be fed, but we’re still working with manual agriculture, it’s old fashioned because there’s not enough electricity in the country.
“You go to hospitals, people die of things that other parts of the world don’t even think about anymore.”
Akon Lighting Africa works in three stages – after negotiating a contract with the country’s President or Minister of Energy the organisation rolls out street lights, followed by solar-powered mini-grid systems for purchase by universities, private companies and private schools.
The third stage is a private home-based pre-paid power system. After a year, the homeowner owns the system, while Akon Lighting Africa look after the maintenance of the system, using locals who they hire and train, providing employment.
Niang is open about the benefits social entrepreneurship can bring, both for African communities and for those prepared to invest to themselves make a profit.
“Where there’s problems, there’s possibilities. And those who understand it, they’re already coming in to make money out of it too.
“Africa, the growth is unbelievable. There’s money there, there’s a lot when you’re making a difference. I think we’re raising awareness, but I think also many investors have had to take the risk to come to our countries because not all the countries are politically stable, but those who are politically stable, there’s room to make money, so for everyone who wants to expand and wants to make some money and do good, Africa is the place to be today.”
Niang is both earnest in his hopes for his country of birth, and refreshingly open about the financial benefits of playing his part in its growth and future prosperity.
“It’s personal because I was born there. Senegal is like a mother to me and America is like a father. America allowed me to grow, but Senegal and Africa birthed me. And it just makes sense to me once the son is grown to look back to where the son came from. And when I look back and look at the issues in my continent, it is mandatory that I do something to make things better.
“You can do good in the community, identify the needs of the community, create enterprises around it, create wealth by having young people work, create new jobs, while you make money – there’s nothing better than that, to me.”