Pears Challenge returns to bring Israeli tech to African farmers

With tech developed in Israel, those who grow the world’s food will be able to support themselves, says program director

Nitzan Solan (L) and  Mendi Pollak (R) flank Dr. Aliza Belman Inbal, who presents them with the $20,000 Pears Challenge award for Livingbox (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Nitzan Solan (L) and Mendi Pollak (R) flank Dr. Aliza Belman Inbal, who presents them with the $20,000 Pears Challenge award for Livingbox (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Most of the world’s hungry people live in Africa, many of them subsistence farmers who live on the output of small plots of land that do not produce enough food or money to support their families. Israeli farming techniques and technology could be a great help to these people – which is why, said Dr. Aliza Belman-Inbal, Tel Aviv University’s Pears Challenge for Innovation and International Development is once again recruiting Israeli entrepreneurs to develop new ideas that will help the small farmers in Africa.

“Africa is clearly the future of agriculture in the world,” said Belman-Inbal, the program’s director. “It has 60 percent of the available uncultivated arable land in the world, and with the world set to double its population in the coming decades, we are going to have to produce a lot more food than we do now. Israel has a lot of experience and knowledge in these areas, and we believe that we can contribute a great deal to improving the situation in Africa.”

The Pears program intends to focus its efforts on Kenya, a country that already has an active tech innovation scene. “There are dozens of accelerators and incubators in Nairobi – it’s sort of a Silicon Savannah,” said Belman-Inbal. “Our objective is to develop connections between entrepreneurs and developers in Israel and Kenya to develop tech solutions for agricultural needs, and deliver them to small holders in the country.”

The Pears Challenge is an eight-month program in which entrepreneurs will submit ideas, participate in an ideation lab exploring challenges and opportunities, learn about business models that work in emerging markets, participate in hackathons, and connect to people on the ground in Kenya. Entrepreneurs with the best ideas will be invited for a ten-day trip to Kenya, where they will meet with high-level representatives of agritech companies, government and aid agencies, and will set up shop, working in the country and connecting with local tech entrepreneurs.

The program is casting a wide net, and is looking beyond methods of improving drip irrigation and farming techniques, said Belman-Inbal. “One of the areas we’re concentrating on is smart farming, in which mobile phones are used for training and access to expertise, crowdsourcing of innovation, credit and financial services, diagnosing crop and soil problems, and connecting with markets, and supply and distribution networks.”

Belman-Inbal is encouraged by the success of last year’s program, the theme of which was “base pyramid” tech – systems to help the poorest to raise their living standards. The winners were the Israeli creators of a “mini-farm” that can grow vegetables anywhere with a self-sustaining “closed loop” of energy and nutrition, which won a $20,000 prize and was chosen as the most promising project to help developing countries grow their economies.

The Livingbox, according to project co-creator Nitzan Solan, “is the perfect system, because it lets anyone anywhere grow vegetables without the need for fertile soil, or running water and electricity, and with minimal farming skills. It could help feed people in the developing world, providing them with access to fresh, nutritious food, while helping them maintain a clean environment.”

The system is called “Livingbox” because it comes to users as a modular set of boxes that, when unpacked, are attached in an array. Users fill up the growing bed with fresh water, and place their seeds or seedlings inside, and then attach one (or all) of the three growing mechanisms the system uses. All three systems generate the nitrogen plants need to thrive, said Solan.

The “fish method,” in which water that the fish swim in is filtered and recycled, is well-known among fish farmers, with the recycling process removing the nitrogen from the fish’s water, and transferring it the growing bed. The fish get back clean, fresh water, while the plants get the nutrition they need. The fish, meanwhile get fed from leftover food added to their box.

In addition, Livingbox has a module that integrates with existing systems that convert leftovers and inedible food into biogas, which when released into the growing bed supplies the nutrition that plants need. The same technique is applied to organic waste from animals and humans.

“We apply well-known scientific principles to convert these materials into gas and ‘feed’ it to the plants, which thrive on the nutrients supplied,” said Solan. “Once the vegetables are grown, users can pick them and start the cycle again, just adding water, trash, and maybe some more fish, if they’ve decided to eat the ones that are getting too big for their box.”

Besides Livingbox, said Belman-Inbal, “we have six other teams from last year’s Challenge working on projects in Africa, several already in revenue phase. We’ve already gotten several dozen applicants for this year’s Challenge, and a number of them are experienced business people and entrepreneurs who have succeeded and want to give back to society – which is good for us, because he get a higher level of expertise. There’s a great business opportunity in Africa, and the Pears Challenge encourages entrepreneurs to develop ideas and build businesses that can help them, as well as the world’s neediest.”

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