Surrounded by an inhospitable mix of barren desert and malaria-ridden swampland, the fledgling State of Israel had little food with which to sustain its increasingly hungry inhabitants.
Fast forward a mere six-and-a-half decades, and the Little Country that Could is not only nourishing its own eight million citizens, but is also helping developing countries around the world do the same.
“We are the only country in the world that has come to such a high development stage in such a short period of time; it’s a miracle,” Yakov Poleg, head of the Agriculture Ministry’s CINADCO: The Center for International Agricultural Development Cooperation, told The Jerusalem Post, in a recent interview at his Beit Dagan office.
“The beauty is that Israel is willing to share all its development achievements with other nations,” he said.
Israel began its quest to become a key player in the international development sphere in 1957, with the launch of Foreign Ministry’s MASHAV (the Hebrew acronym for Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation). The creation of MASHAV was the result of then-foreign minister Golda Meir’s trip to Africa – a visit that strengthened Israel’s commitment to partnering with emerging nations in the neighboring continent.
“We were a country of refugees. There was a sort of austerity in Israel, but we transformed rather quickly to an OECD country – one of the 35 most developed economies in the world,” Gil Haskel, head of MASHAV, told the Post.
Along with the country’s growth into a modern state, Israeli technological demonstrations and training programs – in the sectors of agriculture, public health, education and women’s empowerment, among others – gradually began to appear around the globe.
In today’s agriculture sector in particular, government programs piloted by MASHAV and its professional arm CINADCO have been implemented all over Asia and Africa, focusing on horticulture, dairy and irrigation.
Countless Israeli private companies that specialize in farming technologies are involved in many of these projects and in their own independent ventures.
Since its establishment, MASHAV has trained some 270,000 participants from 132 countries in its various courses both abroad and in Israel – of which about 70% involve agriculture. While some of the instruction occurs in a traditional classroom setting, the Israeli government agency has gone out into the field, setting up a unique array of fully functioning farms around the world.
“Project-wise, we established from the very beginning demonstration agricultural farms all over Africa,” said Haskel, who served as Israel’s ambassador to East Africa from 2011 to 2014. “It intensified in the beginning of the ’90s when we established relations with new countries.”
Chief among them were India and Vietnam, while relations with Thailand received a significant upgrade, Haskel explained.
India: making up for lost time
Perhaps Israel’s greatest agricultural success story on a government-to-government level is its partnership with India, which has led to hands-on collaborations with farmers all over the subcontinent.
Prior to the establishment of official diplomatic relations in 1992, ties between Jerusalem and New Delhi were far from friendly, following a period that Haskel described as “44 years of lost time.”
“When we established relations with India, we started thinking about how to maximize lost time,” he said.
In 1996, the two countries first discussed establishing a demonstration farm in New Delhi, to exhibit Israel’s agricultural technologies, according to Haskel, who served as deputy ambassador to India from 1994 to 1998.
“As we went on, the Indians came and said, ‘We don’t only want the technologies – we want the entire value chain. Tell us how you made Israel,’” said Haskel. “Then the phrase ‘Center of Excellence’ came into being.”
Haskel was referring to a unique set of holistic farming facilities that do not only showcase Israeli expertise, but also promote “the entire value chain from the R&D to the implementation of the actual technologies.”
Out of this mutual aspiration – and a memorandum of understanding signed in 1996 – grew MASHAV’s largest venture in the world to date, the Indo-Israel Agriculture Project, launched in 2008.
“India specifically is a country that is confronting developing challenges, scarcity of water and food security challenges,” Daniel Carmon, Israel’s ambassador in New Delhi, told the Post.
Stressing that India does not fall into the OECD category of an Official Development Assistance country, Carmon explained that Israel was invited by India to share its technologies in an intergovernmental partnership to build the Centers of Excellence.
The Indo-Israel Agriculture Project is the combined effort of a number of bodies, from both the Israeli and Indian governments. On the Israeli side are MASHAV, CINADCO and the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi. On the other side is Indian Agriculture Ministry’s Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture, as well as many Indian state and federal governmental bodies.
“We are cutting, adapting and pasting the Israeli farms to the Indian scene,” said Carmon, who previously served as the head of MASHAV from 2011 to 2014 and ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2010.
The Indo-Israel Agriculture Project has been evolving in three stages, with the first occurring from 2009 to 2012, the second from 2012 to 2015 and the third in 2015-18.
Thus far, the project boasts 26 Centers of Excellence either operating or in the works, with 15 already fully functional, according to Dan Alluf, counselor for international cooperation for the Israeli embassy and MASHAV.
Dan Alluf (left), MASHAV counselor at the Israeli embassy in New Delhi, examines the drip irrigation system in an onion field at the Indo-Israel Agriculture Project Vegetable Center of Excellence in the Dharwad district of Karnataka, India, May 2016
“We as a state and as a partner of India look together at how we can benefit the local farmer,” Alluf said. “It really is a partnership. I cannot do it alone.”
The 15 active centers and 11 still in planning are located in nine Indian states, where they specialize in a variety of crops, like vegetables, mango, citrus, pomegranate, floriculture, dates and beekeeping.
As part of the third phase of the project, the hope is to see all 26 centers fully operational by the end of 2017, Alluf said. In addition, the Israeli and Indian partners would like to open another 10 to 14 centers in seven new states, he said. Another critical component to the project’s third phase will be the introduction of new technologies and expertise, like water recycling mechanisms and post-harvest management, Alluf added.
The partners meld their strengths particularly well in part due to what Alluf describes as an inherent “connection between Israelis and Indians” – cultures that both tend to be “very direct and hands-on.”
“The Indian partner is actually leading me,” he said. “He is guiding me on what the key crops are and what he would like to see as the scope of activity.”
“We always think, if the farmer would come to the center, would it be relevant for him?” Alluf said. “Can he implement it on his farm?” As the partners build each Center of Excellence, Haskel stressed that “the keyword of every developing project is sustainability.”
The Indian government provides the physical infrastructure, while the Israeli partners contribute the know-how, he explained.
“At the end of the day, the Israeli experts phase out and the project stays in the hands of the recipients, and if the recipients have the ability to maintain it, it will be sustainable,” Haskel said. “Once a partner invests in the infrastructure he has an interest in maintaining the project.”
The Centers of Excellence established to date have been so successful that they have been attracting visitors from both inside and outside the country. Within India, the centers have been particularly popular in the state of Haryana, where the local government announced in January that it would be launching 14 new facilities of its own – focusing on micro-irrigation and operating on the Israeli model.
For those involved in the Indo-Israel Agriculture Project, one long-term vision in mind is to see members of the Israeli and Indian private sectors reproducing the model independently in the future, Carmon explained. The private sector, he stressed, will be an increasingly critical player as cooperative ventures in agricultural development move forward.
Although the Centers of Excellence are generating a buzz outside India, they also continuously draw guests from a variety of neighboring nations.
“The idea is to see if they think that those centers can suit them, with all the differences between India and the other countries,” Carmon said.
Trainees have even come to the Centers of Excellence from countries that typically have no contact whatsoever with Israel, such as Bangladesh and Afghanistan, Haskel explained.
“This is a multiplying effect of knowledge that MASHAV is very proud to be the initiator of, especially to countries in need that we cannot reach otherwise,” Haskel said. “We try to put aside politics because at the end of the day international development caters to the human end of the value chain.”
Regardless of their countries’ diplomatic relations with Israel, visitors to the Centers of Excellence in India are very much aware of the Israeli contribution to the facilities, Alluf explained.
“We put a lot of effort and resources in branding the centers as Indo-Israel,” he said. “It starts with the flags and signposts and the messages about drip irrigation being developed in Israel.”
By partaking in the Indo-Israel Agriculture Project, Israel is continuing to “build a strong and sound relationship” with India and its people, Carmon stressed.
“We are actually doing things that are important to the leadership, important to the people, important to the farmers,” he said.
“Agricultural and food security and water are not less important to the Indian farmer and Indian citizen than other areas,” Carmon added. “If we can be a partner in this then we strengthen something that is much bigger.”
A model project for Rwanda
Although Israeli-led demonstration farms now exist throughout the world, the all-inclusive Center of Excellence model honed in India is beginning to spark the interest of foreign governments and industry stakeholders.
“Our project is really a model,” Alluf said. “It’s quite overwhelming how many people look into this activity and want either to partner with it or use the model of implementation.”
For the first time ever, MASHAV and CINADCO are now about to replicate this model in another country – in the rolling green hills of Rwanda, in equatorial East Africa. Located about 12 km. west of Kigali, the Rwandan Center of Excellence will serve as a hub for agricultural training, adapting Israeli farming technologies to local needs and increasing fruit and vegetable yields.
The Rwandan center, which is slated to be built by the end of 2016, will gradually become self-sustainable, with the aim of ultimately providing export quality fruits and vegetables, Haskel explained. In addition, the center will serve as a training site for local farmers, agronomists, academics and members of the private sector, he added.
Before work got under way on the facility, Carmon and Alluf said that a delegation from Rwanda came to India to learn from their experience.
“We always have to adapt to the local scene,” Carmon said. “We can never say, ‘this is the model – now you take it, cut and paste it.’ You can never paste it without adapting first. Each scene is different, each country has different kinds of needs.”
One key difference between the Indian Centers of Excellence and the future Rwandan site is that the infrastructure at the Indian facilities is completely funded by the Indian government; whereas, the Rwandan center is entirely a gift from Israel, Haskel explained.
Similar to the centers in India, however, the aim is to make the Rwandan site profitable, according to Poleg, the head of the Agriculture Ministry’s CINADCO.
“We want the project to be successful. We know it will influence other countries,” Poleg said. “After finishing the construction phase, we will send experts and make sure that local farmers and experts will come to this center and be involved in the training activities.”
Critical to the Rwandan center’s success will be the development of the entire value chain, which includes not only production but also post-harvest treatment and packaging, Haskel explained. The hope is that the facility will be self-sustainable within four to five years and exporting products within four, he said.
Until the center is functioning independently, however, MASHAV representative Boaz Medina will be on the ground full-time. Medina is striving to make an impact on Rwanda’s agricultural future, by administrating the center and visiting farmers at their homes, but his immediate goals are also humble.
“I’m not shooting for the stars and saying that we will change the way that people will do agriculture in Rwanda. That would be way too big,” Medina said.
“What we are trying to do is to try to demonstrate to them, to present to them, what the technologies are.”
Africa: food for the future
While Rwanda will be the first African nation to become home to an official Israeli Center of Excellence, it is by no means the first place on the continent to benefit from Israeli agricultural development projects.
“Africa is very much on the focus of the prime minister and the Israeli government, so we are looking at intensifying the activities there,” Haskel said.
With the global population set to increase by three billion by the year 2050, governments around the world will be under “tremendous pressure” to produce food in a more efficient manner with limited resources, less water and degraded lands, Poleg explained.
“Countries are looking into alternatives, and for the people of Africa I think it will be very important to learn from Israel how to better produce food, grow agricultural products – fruits, vegetables, milk, protein – and produce more with less,” he said. “This is something that Israel is doing very well – producing more with less.”
In addition to Rwanda, other African nations where Israeli agricultural projects are already at work include Ethiopia, Kenya, Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal, as well as smaller projects in Malawi and Burkina Faso.
In Ethiopia, MASHAV and USAID are jointly running a horticultural development project with the country’s Agriculture Ministry, focusing on avocados and mangoes.
The program recently led to Ethiopia’s first export of an avocado harvest, Poleg added.
One challenge faced by MASHAV’s long-term representative in Ethiopia is the lack of enthusiasm among local extension services to share knowledge with other rural farmers, according to Poleg. To ensure that some transfer of information does occur, the representative developed a “mobile nursery,” through which he is able to travel directly to farms and demonstrate beneficial skills, Poleg explained.
Just south of Ethiopia in Kenya, MASHAV and the German International Development Corporation (GIZ) have also been particularly active. Adjacent to the highly polluted Lake Victoria, which had been rich with tilapia, the partners have built fishponds so that locals can raise the fish they used to catch.
The launch of an Israeli agricultural field in Kenya, April 2016
Another program in Kenya is the Galana Kulalu Food Security Project, for which MASHAV and CINADCO are collaborating with the private Israeli firm Green Arava Ltd., to exhibit modern irrigation practices and cultivate maize. While Green Arava is running operations at the site, the Israeli government is overseeing capacity building and training – bringing course participants to learn in Israel and beginning to construct a nearby demonstration farm, Poleg explained.
Shifting westward to Central Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, Israel is also active in Cameroon – administering an agricultural training program. The program is the result of a three-year agreement signed in January 2016 with the International Fund for Agricultural Development and Cameroon’s Youth Agro-pastoral Entrepreneurship Promotion Program, to give young people the ability to improve their food security through profitable initiatives, according to information from MASHAV.
Through this program, which has already begun operating, Israel will be sending experts to academic institutions in Cameroon to help “train the new generation of farmers and entrepreneurs,” Poleg said.
While there, the experts will also provide guidance on initiating demonstration farms, he added.
“For the first time, we are not only showing and demonstrating our technology and our knowledge but also working with the government to enhance capacity in the most meaningful way – by sending an expert to teach and be part of their curriculum,” Poleg said.
Further along the Gulf of Guinea, in West Africa, Israel is cementing its presence in Ghana’s agricultural sector.
There, Israel has a variety of projects, including a citrus and beekeeping training program with the German and Ghanaian Food and Agriculture Ministries.
Also in West Africa, Israel has partnered with Italy in Senegal to introduce drip irrigation to local farmers. The project is able to extend its influence by establishing three demonstration farms – of which two are already operating well – within reach of 70 villages, Poleg explained.
The Israeli-Italian venture, dubbed the Techno-Agriculture Innovation for Poverty Alleviation – Support Program to the National Agricultural Investment Plan in Senegal (TIPA-PAPSEN), is based on MASHAV’s original TIPA program that began operating in 2006. TIPA involves implementing “low-pressure drip-irrigation, a mix of vegetables and tree crops, and a management package that leads to optimization of the production system,” according to MASHAV.
“This project also brings the communities together,” Poleg said. “The project forced them to work together.”
Through the program, the 70 villages have to think about how to share their water resources, and a great emphasis is placed on gender equality and empowerment of women, he added.
Moving forward with agricultural development partnerships, much of Israel’s focus will remain on Africa – particularly on West Africa, a region of the continent in which the Jewish state has been less involved until now.
This region of 15 countries – officially called the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – includes Ghana, Burkina Faso and Senegal, where agricultural projects are under way. Yet ECOWAS also contains countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations: Mali and Niger.
In December, however, Israel will be hosting a conference for the agriculture ministers of ECOWAS countries.
“This will be the first time that agriculture ministers from West Africa will come to Israel to get a first sight of Israeli development achievements in agriculture,” Poleg said. “Agriculture is a major economic development tool, a major economic development area in Africa.”
Developing new terrain
While Africa might dominate the focus of Israel’s next steps in agricultural development cooperation, other parts of the world, particularly Asia and South America, also remain attractive regions.
In South America, Israel already has an agreement with the government of Panama for a horticulture project, Haskel said.
Asia continues to provide an attractive space for agricultural collaborations, with existing projects thriving in a number of countries (in addition to India), including China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Projects are also in the pipeline for Myanmar and Nepal, according to Haskel.
Danny Zohar Zonshine, Israeli ambassador to Myanmar, said that a few short MASHAV courses have already taken place in the country where he serves, on subjects like irrigation, vegetable cultivation and beekeeping.
Agriculture study programs in Israel are also popular among Burmese students, attracting about 200 to 250 annually, he explained.
In addition, Zonshine said he recently accompanied a Burmese delegation to visit the Israeli dairy demonstration farm in Vietnam. The goal of the trip, he explained, was “to show them the Israeli way of doing things,” hoping that they would adopt some of the technology and management tools exhibited there.
While Israeli and Burmese officials are still in the phase of trying to determine what a government-to-government program might look like, Zonshine said that Myanmar has proposed a meeting for the stakeholders to discuss the possibilities. In Zonshine’s mind, a good option might involve a demonstration center for Israeli technology in irrigation or seeds, though such a facility could also be run by the private sector, he said.
“Myanmar is now moving forward,” Zonshine added.
“The opportunities are here. It’s an interesting and challenging place but might be rewarding.”
Another country in the region that recently demonstrated interest in Israeli agriculture expertise is the tiny, landlocked Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, a country sandwiched between India and China in the Eastern Himalayas.
In an early September interview with the Post, Agriculture and Forests Minister Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji of Bhutan – a country with which Israel has no diplomatic relations – expressed his eagerness to further agricultural cooperation with Israel during a first-ever visit to the Jewish state. Dorji, who was in Israel to witness the graduation of Bhutanese students from an agriculture apprenticeship program, discussed potential collaborations in citrus cultivation, dairy farming and irrigation.
“We have been sending students [to Israel] for the last four years,” he said at the time, noting that the program is a key “part of connection building” with Israel. “Some of them have started their own business, and some are able to share their know-how.”
Education in Israel
While Israeli agricultural technology has become an increasingly common presence in rural villages across Asia and Africa, the exchange of know-how is not limited to on-the-ground demonstration facilities. Each year, thousands of foreign students make the trip to Israel for three-week or 11-month programs in a variety of fields – ultimately bringing their experience back home.
About 2,000 to 2,500 postgraduates come to study annually from about 100 developing countries, with full scholarships for three-week training programs at MASHAV facilities in Kibbutz Shfayim and Ramat Rahel, as well as the organization’s Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center, Haskel explained.
In addition, programs sponsored by private companies bring about 3,500 people for 11-month programs annually, Haskel said. One of the biggest such courses is the AgroStudies apprenticeship program, which has educated about 7,000 students from 20 countries in the past 11 years, the firm’s CEO, Yaron Tamir, told the Post.
One of the newest tools that MASHAV is providing to graduates of its government-funded programs is follow- up support once they return to their home countries, Haskel said. These former students can apply for grants of up to $10,000, for projects based on the knowledge that they acquired in Israel.
Already, Haskel said, MASHAV is getting applications for such grants from all over the developing world.
“The idea is to have these projects as home-grown, grassroots local projects,” he added.
Gains for Israel: Sharing the entrepreneurial spirit
As Israel continues to sow seeds of agricultural development and forge lasting partnerships with governments – and their farmers – in Asia, Africa and across the globe, the project recipients are not the only ones to benefit from these ventures.
“The promise lies in the people themselves,” Poleg said. “Maybe we came to a country that is so difficult to develop and to succeed in because God wanted to show us that the promise lies in you.”
“We are trying to share with them the way to development, to share the entrepreneurial spirit, to show them how to be successful in a world of limited resources, to show them that challenges can also be opportunities in this regard,” he added.
In doing so, Israel also has the opportunity to strengthen its bilateral relations with the receiving countries, in areas like the economy, defense, regional cooperation and the fight against terrorism, Haskel explained.
“We need these countries in international forums,” he said. “On top of all that is the commitment of Israel as an OECD country to develop the economy, to assist the least-developed countries in the world. There is something that runs deep in the Jewish values of tikkun olam [repairing the world].”
Think others should know about this? Please share