New fund utilizes Israeli tech to help small farmers in Africa
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New fund utilizes Israeli tech to help small farmers in Africa

JDC program will give thousands of agriculturists access to low-interest loans in bid to improve their crop yields, ensure their products command a fair market price

A local farmer harvests hot peppers on a Tikkun Olam Ventures pilot site in Butajira, southern Ethiopia, in June 2018. (Courtesy JDC)
A local farmer harvests hot peppers on a Tikkun Olam Ventures pilot site in Butajira, southern Ethiopia, in June 2018. (Courtesy JDC)

An estimated 5,000 Ethiopian farmers will take part in a new $14 million agricultural loan and education program utilizing Israeli agriculture technology and improved seeds. The initiative, launched by the American Joint Distribution Committee this week, joins a number of Israeli agriculture improvement programs in Ethiopia and other countries in Africa.

In the pilot program, in the southern region of Ethiopia, the JDC will offer low-interest loans to large agricultural enterprises that work with local farmers. The JDC will also offer training in Israeli drip irrigation and the use of hybrid seeds for higher yields in small places.

JDC plans to expand to other countries in Africa in the coming years.

Israel has a long history of exporting agricultural expertise, honed by the country’s harsh desert conditions and a lack of space. The Foreign Ministry’s MASHAV program runs many opportunities for international farmers, including study and exchange programs in Israel, as well as agriculture training in many countries.

The economies of developing countries like Ethiopia rely heavily on agriculture. More than 70 percent of Ethiopia’s workforce is in agriculture, but 30% are still below the poverty line.

Farmers and teachers check out part of the drip irrigation system at a Tikkun Olam Ventures pilot site in Butajira, southern Ethiopia, in February 2018. (courtesy JDC)

The Ethiopian government is investing heavily in roads and infrastructure, but many small-scale farmers in rural areas are still cut off from markets because of poor road condition. When farmers use improved seeds and better farming practices, they can harvest better crops, like tomatoes that are firmer and larger and therefore have a longer shelf life. This enables farmers to command a better market price because their harvest can survive transportation, rather than the farmer being forced by geography to sell his crop in his vicinity.

A number of other Israeli agricultural startups are also working in Ethiopia, including Fair Planet, which deals with high-yield seeds.

Israel has also invested in massive projects in East Africa and Ethiopia specifically, such as a $200 million irrigation project for the Ethiopian government’s sugar company, carried out by Israeli irrigation company Netafim.

Currently, just 5% of Ethiopian farmland uses irrigation, but that number is increasing as partnerships grow. Without irrigation, farmers rely on the single rainy season from June to August, which has varied widely as climate change wreaks havoc on rain patterns. Irrigated fields enable farmers to harvest twice a year rather than once a year.

A farmer in Butajira, southern Ethiopia, tends to his field, which was equipped with an Israeli drip irrigation system after receiving a loan from Tikkun Olam Ventures. (courtesy JDC)

The JDC launched Tikkun Olam Ventures, the philanthropic agricultural loan program, this week. The program will offer $10 million worth of loans over a 5 year period. Currently Tikkun Olam Ventures is already in seven pilot sites in Ethiopia, which will expand to other countries in the next five years. Seth Merrin, whose wife, Anne Heyman, founded the Agagozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, Liquidnet for Good, and other philanthropists, created the loan fund. The JDC is also working with the Israeli Ministry of Economy and Industry, which contributed $4 million to implement the project.

Farmer cooperative unions and agricultural businesses will be able to access loans at low rates in order to allow farmers to purchase Israeli agtech and receive training and support from Israeli and local experts.

When the farmers repay the loans, the money will be cycled back into the program, enabling more farmers to tap into the project and new sites to open.

“By partnering with smallholder farmers – among the 1.5 billion people worldwide still using traditional farming methods – we’ll fight poverty, empower women and young people, and bolster economic growth,” JDC CEO David Schizer said.

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