With new investments, Israel again is looking to Africa

Sivan Borowich Ya'ari, Jewish Heart for Africa founder and president, teaching about solar energy at Lubuulo Primary School in Uganda.  (Jewish Heart for Africa)

Sivan Borowich Ya’ari, Jewish Heart for Africa founder and president, teaching about solar energy at Lubuulo Primary School in Uganda. (Jewish Heart for Africa)

HERZLIYA, Israel (JTA) — Soon after Israel itself was born, it began investing significant resources in development assistance in Africa.

Israel’s official development work there waned over the decades, but in recent years Africa again has become a target for Israeli development work by nonprofit organizations and corporations. Particularly in areas like water resource management, agriculture, renewable energy, infrastructure and telemedicine, experts say Israel has much to offer the developing continent.

“In the same way we are a high-tech power, we can become a development tech power, because our problems are their problems and our expertise fits their needs,” said Aliza Belman Inbal, a Senior Pears Fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Hartog School of Government and Policy.

New thinking is beginning to take root that it is in Israel’s interest both economically and as a tool to boost its international standing to again look toward Africa.

“So many things we do are so relevant for these countries,” she said. “We have the capacity to help Africa in ways other countries cannot and to help build a positive agenda to show Israel can offer good to the world.”

Early Israeli leaders such as Golda Meir had dispatched agricultural and other experts across Africa in a policy that mixed altruism with the hope that newly independent African states might become staunch allies.

The burgeoning interest of Israeli humanitarians, businesspeople and government officials in Africa can be seen in Israeli medical missions which have gone to the furthest reaches of war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo and business pouring resources into developing Africa’s booming cellular phone market, which is the fastest growing in the world. Small nongovernmental organizations are getting involved, like Jewish Heart for Africa, which introduced Israeli solar technologies to produce electricity in orphanages, schools and clinics in Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi.

“Israelis really do like to share their know-how, and we believe in helping build African communities,” said Shachar Zahavi, executive director of IsraAID, a consortium of Israeli and Jewish aid organizations that work in developing countries, including those like Japan and Haiti that require disaster assistance.

“We are seeing both a younger generation of Israelis who during their post-army travels want to do something meaningful with their time abroad seek out volunteering,” Zahavi said, “and at the same time we are seeing more and more companies looking to build and adapt their products for the developing world.”

On May 29, several hundred people gathered in Herzliya for an IsraAID-organized conference on Israeli involvement in Africa. Bob Geldof, the Irish rock singer who staged the 1985 Live Aid concert for famine relief in Africa and its 2005 counterpart advocating for debt relief, delivered the keynote address.

“It’s a great thing you are doing today because the world knows that this region is convulsed in its own problems,” Geldof said. In his speech, he urged Israel not to use the Israeli-Arab conflict as an excuse to refrain from engaging in the developing world.

“The Jewish people for centuries have used their intellect and culture to be open — that’s what you guys do,” said Geldof, who had a Jewish grandmother. “Do not be forced from turning away from the world.”

Israel’s development aid to Africa shrunk to its current low levels following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when most African states severed ties with Israel. That ended a period in which Israel sent some 5,000 experts in agriculture, water management and other fields throughout the developing world.

Mashav, the Israeli government agency responsible for aid programs, was one of the largest departments in the Foreign Ministry in the 1960s, but its budget has shrunk drastically. Today, Israel gives markedly less in overseas aid according to gross national income than most of its counterparts in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Israel currently has relatively little trade targeted toward Africa. In 2010, Israeli exports to Africa excluding diamonds reached $1.3 billion, as compared to $8.4 billion to Asia or $12.7 billion to the United States, according to Dan Catarivas, director of the foreign trade division of the Israeli Manufacturers Association.

But Africa’s potential as one of the world’s fastest growing economic areas is beginning to attract attention by Israeli and international firms.

A recent report by McKinsey, the international consulting firm, suggested that the future survival of global companies will depend on their ability to focus on what they term “innovation to win in low-cost, high-growth countries” like those found in Africa. According to McKinsey, in the next decade such emerging-market economies, now on the sidelines, will become central global economic players.

Signs of change are already here. There are many Israeli companies in Africa involved in building roads and hospitals and working in water management and medicine.

The Israeli irrigation company Netafim introduced low-pressure, low-cost drip irrigation systems for subsistence farmers, providing them with enough water to raise crops year round.

“We are a private company and our luck is that we are doing well by doing good by giving answers to problems like hunger,” said Naty Barak, head of sustainable development at Netafim.

In a Kenyan village called Kitui, Barak said that 200 poor, small-scale vegetable growers who adopted Netafim’s product saw a 140 percent increase of harvested yield and a 200 percent increase in income while saving about 60 percent of water resources. Previously, they had irrigated crops by hauling water from wells.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry also is becoming involved, inviting African business delegations to Israel to learn more about its industries and twinning economic attaches at Israeli embassies in Africa with Israeli companies to help scope out opportunities.

“We are sending the message that it is good to do business with Africa,” Rafael Harpaz, director of the ministry’s economic department that deals with the Americas and Africa, told JTA. “There is potential to grow, and we are looking for new markets to trade with. If the Israeli economy is going to grow, it needs these new markets.”

To that end, the Foreign Trade Administration, a department within the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, is seeking new policies that will help harness Israel’s competitive advantage in the developing world, including Africa.

Jewish Heart for Africa said that bringing Israeli know-how to Africa is particularly attractive to its donor base of young American Jews.

“Young donors like our projects,” said Sivan Borowich Ya’ari, the organization’s founder and president, “because we are not only helping Africa but helping Israel by helping the Israeli economy and Israel’s image.”

Recommended from JTA