Environmental startup vows to return to devastated kibbutz and help rebuild it

Just two days before devastating Hamas attack, Kenaf Ventures met with partners at Kfar Aza, one of the worst-hit communities, to celebrate partnership, discuss future

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Kenaf Ventures manager Uri Shapira stands in a field of kenaf plants that reach around four meters (13 feet) in height, Kfar Aza. (Kenaf Ventures )
Kenaf Ventures manager Uri Shapira stands in a field of kenaf plants that reach around four meters (13 feet) in height, Kfar Aza. (Kenaf Ventures )

On October 5, a celebratory meeting was held at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, two kilometers (a little over a mile) from the Gaza border, between members of the farming community’s management, staff from a large kibbutz-owned plastics factory, and an environmental startup based there too.

Kenaf Ventures — named for a remarkable carbon dioxide-absorbing plant which is processed into green fossil fuel alternatives for the plastics and construction industries — was coming to the end of a successful seed funding round.

The plastics factory, Kafrit, and the kibbutz were the main investors, and those at the meeting talked about a bright future together.

Two days later, some 3,000 terrorists breached the border and fanned out throughout nearby communities, murdering some 1,200 people and abducting around 240 to the Gaza Strip.

Dozens of Hamas terrorists infiltrated Kfar Aza and slaughtered at least a quarter of the residents, committing unspeakable acts of atrocity.

Among the fatalities in the pastoral community was Kafrit’s deputy CEO Nadav Goldstein, who was murdered, together with his eldest daughter, Yam. Goldstein’s wife, Chen, and the remaining three children — Agam, 17, Gal, 11, and Tal, 9 — have been missing ever since, presumed abducted to Gaza.

Six members of the Almog-Goldstein family, two of whom were killed and four abducted by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 in Kibbutz Kfar Aza (Courtesy)

“Nadav gave us the first big hug,” Asaf Ofer, co-founder and CEO of Kenaf Ventures, told The Times of Israel. “He connected us to the area, to Kfar Aza. He was the one who would call me in the morning [Ofer lives in central Israel] and say how happy he was to see the kenaf growing.”

“We planned things together [with Kafrit and the kibbutz]. We had a common vision. There was a feeling that we were building something new.”

Kenaf, said Ofer,  was just one of many companies in agriculture, technology, and industry that were about to take off in the Gaza border area.

“People didn’t just lose a factory, a house, a field, or a tractor that was stolen. They lost their dreams.”

Goldstein was one of three Kafrit workers murdered on that black Saturday.

Kenaf’s six employees survived. Uri Shapira, the manager, who grew up in Kfar Aza, spent nearly 15 hours trapped in his bomb shelter, trying to prevent terrorists from opening the door, until the IDF arrived. He is currently in the US, telling people what happened on that day.

Asaf Ofer, co-founder and CEO of Kenaf Ventures (second from right) with other co-founders (from right) Ido Hershkovits, Avishay Morag, and Gideon Suzan. Aviv Spiner, the fifth co-founder, is missing from the picture. (Kenaf Ventures)

Ofer is hoping for permission to visit the company’s fields and factory next week. The latter only started operating early this year.

He and the other four co-founders are planning to repeat the funding round.

Was he determined to return? “That’s an understatement,” he said.

“People paid with blood to build this land,” he said, referring to early immigrants to Israel, among them Holocaust survivors. “And for them, the most important thing was that we should continue. We have the responsibility to stride forward.”

A tractor loaded with harvested kenaf, Kfar Aza. (Kenaf Ventures)

The government, he went on, was talking about aid, but not yet translating it into action. The government was failing both economically and emotionally, he charged.

“If this government was a company, it would have closed a long time ago,” he said.

Kenaf Ventures grows a species of hibiscus, Hibiscus cannabinus, that contains very strong fibers. The plant was first grown by the ancient Egyptians and used to create everything from bags to sails.

More recently, it has been found to be unusually good at absorbing carbon dioxide, whose emissions into the atmosphere are a major driver of climate change.

A demonstration brick made with kenaf fibers. (Kenaf Ventures)

According to Ofer, it absorbs around 73 tons of CO₂ per hectare (2.5 acres) over a growing season of four to five months and comprises 50% carbon when harvested. When used instead of high carbon dioxide-emitting fossil fuel-derived materials in plastics, building, and insulation products, it increases the environmental value of the product, while also making it more competitive, as the world moves towards carbon taxation.

Providing two harvests per year, it can be grown in poor soil, is resistant to pests, needs relatively little water, and is therefore very low maintenance, Ofer said. It also has potential as a protein-rich food crop.

Ofer said the plant held great income-generating potential for the entire Gaza border farming community and that Kenaf Ventures had planned to plant thousands of dunams all over the area.

That potential had already attracted curious farmers and agronomists, some of whom actually worked with the plants in the fields, alongside Kfar Aza kibbutzniks, he added.

A field of kenaf crops on Kibbutz Kfar Aza, with Gaza in the background. (Kenaf Ventures)

The company didn’t employ farmhands from Thailand, some of whom were murdered on October 7 and many of whom have gone home since the war, leaving the agricultural sector in the lurch, and dependent on volunteers.

“From my point of view, victory in this war isn’t to see [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar taken down,” Ofer concluded, “but to see all the friends and partners, and the people I don’t know, returning to their pastoral lives.

“For that, we all have to work hard, and we need the government to get moving. Lots of the people I’m connected with are looking forward, because there’s no other option.”

Most Popular
read more: