Times of Israel Podcast

LISTEN: Israeli tech brings clean water and electricity to African villages

Innovation Africa, whose Israeli-made solar panels power schools, clinics and water pumps in 10 African countries, has changed the lives of 1.7 million people

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

IRINGA, Uganda — You could hear a pin drop as we all stood together just outside the door of the local clinic, focusing on a single light bulb above.

“One, two, three,” intoned Robert Khakhosi slowly, as the tension mounted.

The freshly installed solar-panel-powered light was switched on, and the air filled with the shrieks and joyful ululations of hundreds of Ugandan villagers.

For the first time ever, the local clinic in Iringa parish was now able to deliver babies in electric light around the clock. It will only now also operate a refrigerator for the safe storage of vaccinations and medicines.

The village-wide celebration marked the inauguration of the 279th project in Africa by an Israeli nonprofit organization, Innovation Africa.

Children in Iringa, Uganda, where Innovation Africa connected a clinic to electricity via solar power, December 21, 2019. (Sue Surke/Times of Israel)

Innovation Africa raises funds through private donors to bring solar panels to African villages. The organization has targeted three purposes for its projects: to light up schools so that pupils can study for longer, as well as the homes of teachers and principals; to power clinics to function 24/7 and to operate a variety of electricity-dependent machines; and to pump water up from underground aquifers and filter it before directing it along pipes to village faucets.

Sivan Ya’ari, born in Israel, raised in France, and educated in the United States, is the founder and CEO of Innovation Africa. Her interest began 20 years ago when she worked for a factory in Madagascar. Struck by the poverty she saw around her, she came to the conclusion that the main lever for change was energy. That pushed her to do a master’s degree in International Energy Management and Policy at Columbia University.

This newborn being breastfed at Iringa clinic was able to get vaccinated at birth thanks to solar-powered electricity that runs a vaccine fridge. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Over the past decade, Innovation Africa has completed projects in 10 African countries, helping to better 1.7 million lives.

Before solar panels (with storage batteries for after dark) were fixed onto the clinic roof at Iringa, a five-hour drive from Uganda’s capital, Kampala, doctors, midwives and nurses delivered babies by flashlight. Likewise, they traveled 32 kilometers (20 miles) by motorcycle to pick up vaccines whose shelf life was only six hours.

Ivan, the district medical officer, told The Times of Israel that with its new refrigerator, the clinic — which serves some 11,650 people, and delivers around 560 babies every month  — will now be able to give newborns their shots right away.

Four in five Ugandans in this former British colony of 35.5 million live in rural areas with poor to nonexistent infrastructure.

Mud structures are common — brick buildings denote status — and dirt roads are the norm, making travel long and bumpy. More than half of the population has no access to clean drinking water.

Everywhere, one sees women and children as young as three or four carrying plastic yellow jerrycans on their heads.

Solar panels are attached to the clinic’s roof at Iringa, Uganda, December 21, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Timesofisrael)

During the dry season, they might walk several miles to collect water from a spring or a papyrus swamp. After the rains, they’ll turn to closer sources such as streams or seasonal ponds.

Women and children fill jerrycans with water from a seasonal pond, Nayigunya, Uganda, December 21, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

In Nayigunya village, west of the city of Mbale, women and children were drawing water from a still and very cloudy-looking pond.

That water might have been contaminated by human or animal feces, pesticides or other waste materials.

In Nayigunya, as in most villages, people use pit latrines, literally holes dug into the ground. If not built properly, these can cause sewage to seep into the underground aquifers.

With dirty water comes diarrhea, typhoid, skin rashes, and other illnesses that can end in death, especially of children.

Access to medical care is improving in Uganda, but life expectancy still hovers around 55.

An elderly woman sits in her hut in Iringa, Uganda, December 21, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Every drop counts

Innovation Africa has identified the village of Nayigunya for a water project. Robert Khakhosi, who coordinates seven IA fieldworkers in the country and was our guide for the day, told the villagers that Israel was helping Uganda and that he hoped funds would be raised for this project.

Innovation Africa currently employs 40 Africans across the continent, each of whom has access to an Israeli-built, custom-designed remote monitoring system.

Robert Khakhosi, right, of Innovation Africa with Anton, a farmer on whose land drip irrigation is being piloted, Budoka village, Uganda, December 21, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The system collects data on how much energy is being produced and consumed and how much water is being pumped every minute in every village, sending it all to an online server. Fieldworkers access it via a telephone app.  If there’s a breakdown, they are the first to receive alerts so that they can fix equipment quickly.

From a small office in the coastal Israeli city Herzliya, Ya’ari monitors the same information. She says the equipment — all Israeli-made — is robust and rarely breaks down.

One of Israel’s most successful innovations is slowly coming to a select group of villagers’ farms: The organization is currently piloting a handful of projects to teach locals about drip irrigation.

Uganda, on the equator, has two rainy seasons a year. Anton, a farmer who has agreed to host a pilot on his land in the village of Butove, says his annual crop of tomatoes and corn has doubled.

This year, Innovation Africa wants to complete 30 new projects in Uganda, 20 of them to bring water and electricity to villages in the impoverished, famine-stricken Karamoja region in the north. Inaccessible until recently, this is probably one of the poorest areas in Africa, Ya’ari says.

A village in Iringa parish, December 21, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Across Africa, the organization is planning to establish a total of 200 projects this year, almost doubling what it has achieved so far. This translates into 70 projects in South Africa, 30 each in Uganda, Malawi and Tanzania, 25 in Zambia, and 15 in Cameroon. It costs $18,000 to bring electricity to a school, orphanage or medical center, and $50,000 to pump and provide clean drinking water.

Israeli tech ambassadors

Yaari says she and her staff emphasize the Israeli connection whenever possible.

Villagers from Iringa dance to celebrate the arrival of electricity at the local clinic, December 21, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Her work has had diplomatic value, too, as illustrated by the testimonials on the organization’s website. Uganda’s Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, a physician by training, writes that Ya’ari has been “the catalyst in accelerating the relationship between Uganda and Israel.”

Everyone wants a piece of Ya’ari’s success and she has been showered with awards, including the Innovation Award from the United Nations. Last year, UNICEF engaged Innovation Africa to connect 37 medical centers in Cameroon to water and electricity to serve refugees and asylum seekers, some of whom have fled the jihadist terror organization Boko Haram.

But Ya’ari well understands that Innovation Africa cannot deal with Africa’s problems alone, which is why she has been meeting with international organizations to try to convince them to use similar solutions.

“People have to understand the importance of energy and its impact on the villages,” she says. “Innovation Africa is still small. There are still 600 million people in Africa without energy and 400 million without access to clean water. It’s too big for one nonprofit. Our goal is to encourage others to bring solutions as well. They exist.”

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