Mitrelli's general hospital in Bengo Province, Angola (Courtesy)
Israel’s innovative diplomatic policy in Africa bears fruit
‘If you look back 2,000 years ago to the Bible, when we had a famine in Israel we came down to Egypt and Africa to be fed,’ Israeli Ambassador to Nigeria Michael Freeman told Jewish Insider. ‘Now, 2,000 years later, we are in a position to feed Africa and we are paying back our debt.’
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took his first-ever trip to Africa in 2016, he famously declared, “Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is coming back to Israel.”
During that weeklong visit, the first by an Israeli leader to sub-Saharan Africa in more than 30 years, Netanyahu visited Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia, and held a historic summit with leaders from some seven countries. At the time, he said his plan was to share Israeli security and technological expertise in exchange for new friends who might be less critical of Israel and offer support in international forums that are usually biased against the Jewish state.
Seven years later, some of Netanyahu’s African dream seems to have come to fruition.
Bilateral ties with several African countries are stronger than ever, prompting a tiny but visible shift in bodies such as the United Nations and the African Union. In addition, Israeli innovation from both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors is increasingly finding its way to the African subcontinent, providing life-saving solutions for some of the world’s poorest countries and helping some of the world’s most impoverished communities overcome the challenges of dry, desolate or underdeveloped land.
Two years after Netanyahu’s inaugural visit, Nermine Khouzam Rubin heard the prime minister speak at an AIPAC conference about his country’s technological progress. The Florida native already knew about the myriad challenges in Africa and, spurred by Netanyahu’s comments, envisioned a way to connect the two.
The result was Water 4 Mercy, an organization that utilizes Israeli technology to locate underground aquifers that can build sustainable feeding and farming options in some of the driest parts of Africa. In just five years, Khouzam Rubin’s nonprofit, working with Israeli NGOs and innovation companies, has positively impacted the lives of some 50,000 people in 12 communities in Tanzania, she said. And next month, along with a consortium of international donors, nonprofits, and for-profit Israeli companies, the organization will oversee the launch of its first sustainable farming center in Kenya.
“I saw what was happening in Africa, that there was a desolation, a drought and people had lost hope because they thought there was no solution,” Khouzam Rubin told Jewish Insider. “When I delved in, I saw that Israel had the solution to transform these places; that’s when I founded Water 4 Mercy with basically the intent of bringing Israel’s world-renowned technologies to transform Africa.”
Working under the umbrella of Innovation: Africa, a well-known Israeli NGO that helps find solutions for remote communities in Africa, Khousam Rubin explained, “The first thing we do is bring in water because water is life, and we are really seeing these remote areas being transformed.”
But, she continued, “What’s most interesting is that [the people there] know we’re from Israel and they’re in awe that you are bringing this technology from the country of God.”
For Terry Newman, the Israel-based founder and CEO of the MCC Group, a medical construction company that specializes in planning, designing and building state-of-the-art medical facilities in some of the furthest corners of the world, the experience was similar.
Israel’s work in Africa “is definitely a great story,” concurred Newman, whose company has been bringing field, mobile and tailor-made hospitals to countries such as Sudan, Nigeria and Rwanda “in times when it was still difficult to be Israeli in Africa.”
Now, he said, “The question in Africa is not, ‘What’s your company?’ It’s, ‘What’s your country?’ And Israel is seen as part of an elite group of countries with high sophistication and knowledge.”
Specifically in the health-care field, Newman added, “Israel is seen as a global brand.”
It’s true that both Israel’s diplomatic presence and its life-saving activities in Africa are not new. Even before Netanyahu’s 2016 trip to the continent, the Jewish state had carved out bilateral ties with some 40 African countries, and nonprofit aid organizations regularly provided relief in disaster zones.
However, on a broader, multilateral level, Israel still faced hard barriers. In the UN, the African bloc of countries regularly supported anti-Israel resolutions and the 54-member A.U. often condemned Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. While Israel once held observer-member status in the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the previous incarnation of the A.U., when that was disbanded in 2002, the Jewish state was refused the same recognition, despite its close geographical proximity to Africa and its close ties with a handful of African states.
Five years after Netanyahu’s Africa trip, Israel was finally granted A.U. observer status, although that privilege was suddenly suspended earlier this year due to ongoing disagreements among member states. In addition, a year after his inaugural trip, Netanyahu returned to the continent to address the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) Heads of State and Government Summit in Liberia, becoming the first leader from outside of Africa to do so. Speaking to some 10 African presidents, the Israeli leader reiterated his message that Israel was coming back to Africa and Africa back to Israel, adding that relations with Africa were among Israel’s top priorities.
“I think we are really seeing the fruits of this return to Africa,” Yonatan Freeman, an expert on international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told JI. With Israel’s suspension from the A.U. likely only temporary, Freeman highlighted instead a recent visit to Israel by Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema, noted that there have been changes in voting patterns in the UN among some African states and underscored that Israel has even been involved in mediating some of the conflicts in Africa.
“Logistically, this closeness between that continent and Israel is making it easier for all kinds of initiatives to move forward,” observed Freeman. “The fact we have African countries opening embassies here and Israel opening up new embassies and missions in Africa is making it more possible for nongovernmental organizations and others to get on the ground there.”
“The African strategy is not just what the government can do in terms of security and intelligence, but it is also setting the stage for the private sector,” he continued. “A continent with over a billion people means a lot of potential clients and the way Israel sees it, the more we help them, the more it can impact how they vote in different international bodies, and we’ve seen it happening with African states voting with us, abstaining or not showing up to vote.”
Freeman also pointed out that the presence of many Israeli companies on the continent is serving to “improve the ability of people there to become aware of what Israel is, become aware of our society, become aware of our people and it’s also a way to trust us.”
Data compiled for JI by Start-Up Nation Central shows that roughly 180 Israeli high-tech companies operate either directly in Africa or see Africa as one of their target markets. And the fields in which Israeli firms are most active are industrial technologies, with a focus on materials and electronic manufacturing, health-tech, agri-food tech, water and security technologies, including cyber security and data infrastructure.
Israel’s ambassador to Nigeria, Michael Freeman said that this influx of Israeli business and technology is good for both Israel and Africa.
“Countries with better trade relations have better diplomatic relations,” he noted, pointing to India, where relations with Israel began on a business level but have now deepened into a very warm, genuine, and supportive friendship between the two countries.
“Africa is an incredibly important continent, you cannot ignore the fact that 1.2 billion people live here,” Freeman, who took up his posting in Nigeria nearly two years ago, told JI in a Zoom interview from the capital, Abuja.
He said that Israeli technology and advanced innovation could make a huge difference in Nigeria, which has one of the largest economies in Africa, yet suffers from dire and abject poverty.
“The reality is we have technology that can make a real difference,” observed Freeman. “When you walk along the street here and see people living off $1.5 a day and you know that we have the ability to genuinely change people’s lives, then why not?”
He also pointed out that Israel is the only developed country that shares a land border with Africa and Israel’s responsibility to help these neighboring countries is logical.
“If you look back 2,000 years ago to the Bible, when we had a famine in Israel we came down to Egypt and Africa to be fed,” said Freeman. “Now, 2,000 years later, we are in a position to feed Africa and we are paying back our debt.”
He also highlighted that the country’s new leader, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who came to power last May, believes Israel is one of several countries that can address his country’s most dire needs, particularly in developing telecommunications, sustainable farming programs and water solutions.
Israel is now hopeful that Nigeria, which serves on a six-country ad-hoc committee to discuss Israel’s status in the A.U., will join other allies of Israel in Africa – Rwanda and Senegal, who also sit on the committee – to allow the Jewish state back in.
While the diplomatic benefits are clear, Iddo Moed, head of the African Affairs Bureau in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the country’s increasing presence, particularly its innovative edge, is an obvious extension of its international diplomatic outreach.
“Our activities in Africa are not tied to anything, it is just what we should be doing in Africa,” he emphasized.
However, Moed added, “We are seeing that by doing this kind of cooperation with these kinds of projects, Israel is being perceived as important and contributing to the development of these countries.”
And in that way, it is “easier to translate these excellent bilateral relations to multilateral support for Israel,” he continued. “We sense that it is more difficult for countries to translate from the bilateral to the multilateral, so we don’t condition our cooperation on anything, we just feel that we have to do this and we’re doing far too little, we wish that [we] could have a bigger budget to do more.”
Yaron Tchwella, CEO of Mitrelli, a Swiss-based company that works to bring all manner of Israeli innovation to Africa, agreed that the Israeli government could be doing more to pave the way for Israeli innovation to reach Africa.
“I would love it if there was more collaboration between the government of Israel and the private sector,” said Tchwella, whose company partners with public and private entities in Angola, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Mozambique building large-scale infrastructure projects and developing customized solutions to benefit local communities, particularly in the areas of food security, health care educational and vocational training. “Israeli innovation can bring change that is so needed in Africa.”
He noted that Israel is already a “very strong brand in Africa” but more could be done to enable the technological solutions that have earned Israel the label of a “startup nation,” making the desert bloom and creating economic prowess out of brainpower, to reach places where it is very much needed.
“[Mitrelli’s] goal is to be a bridge between the market needs of Africa and Israeli innovation,” Tchwella added, highlighting that there are thousands of Israeli companies “developing superior products and superior solutions” that can accommodate the African market.
“I believe that would be a win-win,” he continued, adding, “It’s not only that Africa needs Israel, but Israel needs Africa too… We all live in a global village and there are [environmental] things that are happening in Africa that will eventually affect us all.”