Israel’s solar ‘revolutionaries’ aim to bring light — and peace — to Africa

Entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz wants to bring more power to a billion people in the developing world — with all its attendant benefits

Yosef Abramowitz (left) and youthful residents of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village hold a solar panel. (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Yosef Abramowitz (left) and youthful residents of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village hold a solar panel. (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The hit US TV show “Revolution” shows what life would be like after an extended period with no electrical power. The picture presented in the J.J. Abrams-produced program is, to say the least, not pretty. But you don’t need a TV show to imagine how hard life is without power; all you have to do, says Israeli energy expert Yosef Abramowitz, is visit Central Africa, where some 90% of the population are still “in the dark.”

“For Africa and other parts of the Third World, where a billion-and-a-half people still live without power, electricity is the key to solving a myriad problems,” Abramowitz told The Times of Israel. “That’s why we are announcing a new project that will help bring solar-generated electricity to hundreds of millions of people in the Third World.”

Abramowitz knows about solar energy: His Arava Power Company established Israel’s largest solar field to generate electricity, in Kibbutz Ketura, and was the first company to sign a deal with the government for commercial production of solar-generated electricity. An astute businessman (Arava was an attractive-enough business for Germany’s Siemens to take a 40% stake in the company in 2009), Abramowitz is also known for his social activism (even setting a legal precedent in a free-speech case in the US Supreme Court), his work in Jewish education, and his advocacy for Ethiopian Jewry. In addition, Abramowitz has used his work at Arava to help the Negev Bedouin, supplying electricity for their villages and creating jobs for them.

Now, Abramowitz sees a great opportunity to help improve the lives of people in far-flung places such as Rwanda, the Galapagos Islands, and other developing countries, using solar power to bring electricity to places that either don’t have it, or burn diesel fuel in order to generate power. “Not only is diesel oil very expensive, especially for Third World countries that anyway have very little money, but it’s very bad for the environment,” said Abramowitz, citing the 2002 oil spill in the waters of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.

“The ship that ran aground spilled almost a million liters (250,000 gallons) of diesel fuel, which was being transported for use in electricity production. The spill caused irreparable damage to a UNESCO World Nature Reserve,” Abramowitz explains. Beginning next month, his production site in the Galapagos will start generating electricity; the goal is to significantly reduce — and eventually eliminate — the need to burn diesel for electrical production.

To that end, Abramowitz, along with partners David Rosenblatt and Howie Rodenstein, established a new company called Energiya Global Capital. Not that Abramowitz is giving up on Israel, but as enthusiasm for solar energy has waned in Israel over the past few years (with policymakers envisioning the natural gas riches that can be extracted from the Mediterranean), the partners that started Arava see a great humanitarian — and business — opportunity abroad.

“They are rolling out the red carpet for us in Africa and elsewhere,” proclaimed Abramowitz. “The prices of electricity production from solar have dropped so much in recent years that it makes sense for countries that don’t already have established fossil-fuel supply systems to deploy solar systems.” With the help of funding from the US and logistics from the UN and nongovernmental organizations, Energiya will be offering financing as well as technology, helping to set up production sites and assisting governments in paying for them.

The social-activism aspect of the project goes even further: In its African projects, Energiya is partnering with youth villages (based on the Israeli model of “Youth Aliyah” villages from the early days of the state), where kids from families whose parents have died or cannot take care of them are raised and educated. Energiya’s partner in Rwanda — the first African country where the company will set up a solar farm — is the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV), which houses 500 kids. “By next summer, Energiya’s project will be generating 10% of Rwanda’s electrical needs, and ASYV will be a partner in the profits from this project. We plan to do this all over Africa.”

Abramowitz isn’t only interested in bringing electricity to a few countries in Africa and Asia; he sees Energiya as an agent of change, even revolution, in the way the developing world solves its problems. “Our goal is to deploy $20 billion by 2020 to build 10,000 megawatts and supply green energy to 50 million people,” he continued. “Based on our experience in Israel and elsewhere, other companies and entrepreneurs get involved in the solar business when one company succeeds in a market.”

In fact, said Abramowitz, experience shows that there is a “catalyst index,” with new companies eventually producing 20 times the megawatts in a market that the first, pioneering company in a market managed to produce. “Our 10,000 megawatts will supply power to 50 million people, but as a catalyst, we will bring 20 times more power — which means that within a decade or so, some 1 billion people in the developing world will benefit from solar-generated electricity.”

The fact that it was an Israeli company that started the ball rolling won’t be forgotten, Abramowitz believes. “Israel, with all its technology, could make a big difference in Africa, helping with water and agriculture, with the many innovations and advancements made by local companies in these areas. But the key to all of them is electricity.” And with power comes peace, he added. “Many of the wars in the Third World are over the very limited resources available. Technology can help expand those resources. So, in a sense, solar-generated electricity could be a key factor in world peace. We feel privileged to be able to do this in the name of Israel and the Jewish people.”

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