By Jonathan Griffin BBC Trending
RnB singer Akon says his long-delayed Akon City project – an African metropolis off the coast of Senegal – is “100,000% up and running”.
Although goats are currently grazing in the country, he claims revisions will look “super stupid” in the future.
In an exclusive interview with the BBC, the Smack That singer also assured supporters awaiting refunds from his Token of Appreciation cryptocurrency campaign that they will get their money, even if he has to pay for it out of his own pocket.
Widely known for his string of hits, Akon, who was born in the United States but partly raised in Senegal, announced two ambitious projects in 2018 that aimed to represent the future of African society.
The first was a $6 billion (3 trillion 700 billion 128 million FCFA) city of boldly curved skyscrapers. It was to work with the second initiative – a brand new cryptocurrency called Akoin.
But several years later, both projects have run into difficulties and delays, and the site where the city will be built remains a wasteland.
On a cloudy day in September 2020, Akon, dressed in a powder blue suit, walks confidently across a dusty wasteland. After meeting him, a group of journalists from all over the world gathered to witness the artist’s latest launch: a supercity with stunning architecture.
Neighborhood residents cheer as the veil is lifted from a plaque marking the upcoming construction site. But two years later, the question of whether the plans will ever come to fruition is dividing communities in the area.
“We thought we could work on it, but at this rate maybe our children will,” one local resident told the BBC. “We remain hopeful about the project. We hope our children stay here to work.”
Another resident said he no longer believed in the project, before adding “when he comes, if he finds us here, we’ll see how we can contribute.”
Akon City was initially compared in the press to Wakanda, the stunning African metropolis featured in the Black Panther movies and comics.
The first phase of the city, which includes roads, a campus, a shopping mall, residences, hotels, a police station, a school, a waste treatment center and a solar power plant, would be completed by the end of 2023.
But after multiple delays, little appears to have changed on the ground since the launch event.
“I’m only here in the presence of goats,” local journalist Borso Tall tells me.
“It’s completely empty…no sign of construction, just a long line of green trees and red dirt.”
But Akon remains confident that his ambitious plans will still come to fruition.
During our meeting in central London, he admits that in hindsight “I would have put more things in place before I promoted it”.
He also blames Covid, which he said would “put everything back for two years”.
However, the world was already in the throes of the pandemic when he hosted the Akon City promotion ceremony in front of the international media in August 2020.
“I plan to retire in this city,” he says confidently. “I don’t like to use the word ‘king of the city’. But that’s how it’s going to be.”
“We’re trying to build the city as quickly as possible,” he says, adding that he has a lease on the land for the next 50 years and that his project is “signed by the current president.”
The Senegalese government’s tourism office, SAPCO, recently reaffirmed its commitment to the project.
“We believe in Akon City and we all support Akon so that Akon City comes to life,” said Me Aliou Sow, CEO of SAPCO. “It will attract tourists and investors to the region and SAPCO is fully committed to the success of this project.”
Akon says he has changed both the construction companies and architects he is working with on the project, adding that his new partners understand Africa, the terrain and have “real global credibility”. Its overall objectives remain ambitious.
“We want big skyscrapers. My goal is to try to build something that people think is impossible in Africa, right?”
Several celebrity funding sites estimate Akon’s net worth to be between $60 and $80 million (37 to over 49 billion FCFA), leading some to wonder where the money will come from for a project of this magnitude. His team claims to have created an international consortium that will finance it with private investment.
Akon says excavation work at the site will finally begin before the end of the year, adding that further announcements will be made on a youth center he has built for residents of a local village. He admits that the construction work for Akon City is “not fully planned yet”.
Initial plans for Akon City were titled “Crypto City” and in August 2020, Akon revealed that the city’s financial infrastructure would be “built from” his cryptocurrency Akoin. But cryptocurrency has been plagued with its own obstacles and struggles.
“It wasn’t managed properly,” he admits. “I take full responsibility.”
Before launching its Akoin cryptocurrency, the Akoin website announced a pre-sale opportunity called the Token of Appreciation (TOA) campaign.
This campaign was announced more than two years before the Akoin cryptocurrency itself became available. This was a fundraiser to cover the costs of the subsequent launch of akoin.
Money sent to TOA was presented as a “donation” on the Akoin TOA website, but there was a special incentive to deposit money during this time. Contributors were told that for every dollar donated, they would receive up to four appreciation tokens which would then be converted into real akoin.
“I really believed in the ecosystem they were trying to build,” says Marcus (not his real name), who lives in the UK. Every now and then I added several thousand pounds.”
The token campaign ended in October 2019. Akoin’s official Twitter feed claimed to have raised $290,000 (179,023,690 FCFA). More than two years later, TOA donors have been offered a choice in the official Akoin Telegram group.
“We are now able to give TOA holders a choice,” the admin wrote. “Receive a refund of their initial donation or receive an Akoin MasterCard that will have the value of their initial donation.”
Some TOA donors have decided to wait for the promised rewards. Right now they are aware of a token of appreciation, but no functionality. Others tried to claim their money.
“I didn’t ask for a refund, they offered it,” notes Marcus, whose faith in the project is beginning to wane.
“The refund was supposed to come weeks later. We’re over a year now. And we’re back to where we were years ago with the lack of communication and now everyone is up in arms.”
Marcus is not alone. In the Akoin Telegram groups, I have spoken to a number of other people around the world who say they have requested refunds but are still waiting to receive their money.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” says Reggie, an American living in Asia who has also donated to the campaign. “Yeah, I got mad about it, you know, a few times.”
I presented cases like Marcus and Reggie to Akon, who denied knowing that donors to Akoin’s campaign were still waiting for refunds. He says he will work to remedy the situation until TOA’s donors are satisfied.
“Even if I have to come out of my own pocket,” he adds. “I’m very serious. I’d fly around the world just to pay them all.”
The Akoin cryptocurrency was launched on Bitmart in September 2021. Its value was then £0.23 (171 FCFA), but it has since fallen sharply, presaging a crash in the wider cryptocurrency market. Today, the price of Akoin is only £0.01 (FCFA 7).
Questions have also been raised about the legality of Akoin as a primary form of payment in Akon City.
The current legal tender in Senegal is the CFA franc, which is regulated and issued by the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO), which issues the money.
Yahoo Finance reported last year that “the institution has warned of the dangers of adopting cryptocurrencies and called them illegal.”
We asked the BCEAO to comment on the legality of a city operating with cryptocurrencies, but they did not respond.
“These are a lot of worries that I have myself,” Akon admits. “I want to make sure that however we incorporate cryptocurrency into the city, it’s in a way that complies with all the rules and regulations.”
Will ordinary transactions still be done in Akon’s proposed “Crypto City” with his crypto? It doesn’t seem clear. “We’ll have everything figured out by the time the city is in place, that’s for sure,” he promises.
But after two years of waiting, not everyone is convinced.
“I think a lot of us have been doing research, but it seems like nothing is happening,” says Reggie. “I would like to recover my funds and leave.”