When Aviv Havron returned from his sister Shoshan Haran’s house in Kibbutz Be’eri a week after she was kidnapped along with some 200 other civilians by Hamas terrorists on October 7, he brought with him a ceramic pot.
“It’s all that’s left from Shoshan’s house,” he said, sitting in the living room of his Tel Aviv home, describing the painful visit in a quiet voice. “The terrorists detonated the home with explosives after abducting Shoshan and nine other members of her family.”
Just a week before the terrorist attack, Havron, a journalist, phoned Haran from Bhutan after meeting the prime minister of the tiny Asian country and describing the work that Haran was doing to help alleviate poverty in the developing world.
“The prime minister was very excited about the prospect of bringing her project to Bhutan,” recalled Havron.
Haran is the founder of Fair Planet, an internationally acclaimed farming project that over the last decade has enabled tens of thousands of previously impoverished farmers to earn a good living while providing an estimated million Africans with a reliable source of food. The project has been growing steadily in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Rwanda and has the potential to expand exponentially to many more millions suffering from hunger. Now, with Haran being held hostage, it — like her life — is suddenly in jeopardy.
When asked what led Haran to launch a humanitarian project of such huge proportions, Havron mentions their family background, kibbutz values and Haran’s character.
“Shoshan is the kind of person who puts her heart and soul into everything she does,” said Havron, noting that this was a trait shared by their grandparents and parents.
“Both our grandparents were doctors in Stuttgart with expertise in orthopedic surgery. When they fled the country after Hitler’s rise to power, they started out with conventional medical practices in Jerusalem, but they soon decided to take on a greater challenge.”
The couple went to work at the newly founded Alyn Hospital, a rehabilitation center for disabled children, treating patients with polio and some of the most difficult physical injuries faced by children in those times, Havron said.
Their son Abraham — Havron and Haran’s father — also set out to take on a major challenge. “When he was 20 years old, he gave up the relatively comfortable city life of Jerusalem and joined in the founding of a kibbutz,” said Havron.
He describes how on a single night in 1946, in defiance of the British Mandate authorities, his father Abraham and hundreds of other Jews founded 11 new Jewish communities.
“The place he helped found became Kibbutz Be’eri,” Havron said, pointing out that the pioneers were able to turn the barren desert near what is today the Gaza Strip into lush, green, cultivated fields.
“Our father became an almost legendary dairy farmer in the kibbutz movement. He was still offering advice to younger farmers just weeks before he passed away last year at the age of 96,” said Havron. “He also managed to fit academic studies into his life and obtained a PhD from the Hebrew University, where he wrote a thesis on agricultural pests.”
Like her forbearers, Haran would also make a major shift in her career. After studying plant biology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Rutgers University in New Jersey, she built a successful career at Hazera Genetics, a leading seed producer.
“She could have easily stayed at Hazera. She had a well-paying job with lots of trips to Europe and other perks,” said Havron. “But something inside of her wanted to do something more.”
Havron suggests that Haran’s motivation grew out of the communal values of her kibbutz, which only in the last year has begun to privatize some of its activities. From its founding in 1946, Kibbutz Be’eri has been committed to the purest form of socialism: every member gives what they can and takes what they need.
Consequently, incomes are pooled and profits are divided equally.
As Haran put it in a documentary film made several years ago, the kibbutz idea of fairness has global applications.
“In the kibbutz there is this sense of equality and mutual support,” she said. “There’s a safety net that supports you if you fall. Giving the hungriest people in the world access to the high-quality seeds we have is our way of supporting them.”
The high-quality seeds that Haran refers to are the hybrid seeds that earn seed companies hundreds of millions of dollars a year in Western markets, adapted to the soil and climate conditions of specific regions in the Western world.
“No one was developing seeds for the farmers of Africa,” said Haran in the film, pointing out that there are years when pests wipe out the entire crop of many farmers. “Even in good years the seeds gathered at the end of the growing season offer low yields.”
In 2011, Haran quit her job at Hazera, and together with Alon Haberfeld, a seed expert, founded the Fair Planet NGO. Their idea was both simple and ingenious.
Unlike many international development projects, there was no need to provide expensive machinery or extensive training.
“Farmers already know how to grow crops. They just don’t have high-quality seeds,” said Haran in the documentary, noting that the seeds with the potential to benefit African farmers already existed. The challenge was to see which ones would suit a specific African region.
Over a period of two years, Haran and her team patiently experimented with numerous seed varieties until they found the type that best suited Butajira, a region in central Ethiopia, where a pilot project involving 20 tomato farmers was started.
The results of the first season’s crop were dramatic. The farmers’ tomato yield increased by an average of fivefold and they could sell their tomatoes at a higher price because they lasted longer without spoiling.
With the pilot program a success, Haran still had one more hurdle to pass. She knew that to be sustainable the project couldn’t rely on donated seeds. “We created a plan whereby we defer payment for the seeds until after the harvest when the farmer is able to sell his crop. We assumed that other farmers, observing the success of their neighbors’ crops, would want to obtain the same seeds. This would give the seed companies an incentive to create new markets,” she said.
In recent years, Fair Planet has expanded into Tanzania and Rwanda, and is having an impact on more than just farmers.
“Major players in the global seed industry have taken notice of our model and there are now four companies operating in Ethiopia on their own,” says Haberfeld.
He points out that the project could not have succeeded without Haran’s unique combination of skills. “She had to know her way around the boardrooms of European corporations while being able to rough it in the harsh conditions of rural Africa. She once broke a rib falling into a ditch on an unlit road in Ethiopia. Undeterred, she was back there as soon as it healed. I estimate she’s gone to Africa on at least 60 occasions.”
On one of those trips she brought along their father. “He was 91, but he trekked around with her, examining everything he saw with great curiosity. He was very proud of what Shoshan has done,” recalls Havron.
On another significant trip, Havron mentions that their father traveled back to Stuttgart for the first time since fleeing Germany in 1933 in order to attend the unveiling of a Holocaust memory stone at their previous home. The stone honors Julie Heilbronner, Havron’s great-grandmother who was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942, where she perished.
The family has another connection to Germany. Haran, along with her daughter and three grandchildren, all have German citizenship. Members of the family several days ago met with Germany’s ambassador in Israel in order to urge him to do all he could to help the hostages.
The kidnapped members of the family include Haran’s daughter Adi Shoham, \son-in-law Tal Shoham, grandchildren Yahel and Naveh, her sister Lilach Kipnis, and Avshalom’s sister Sharon Avigdori and her daughter Noam.
The body of Haran’s husband, Avshalom Haran, who had also been presumed kidnapped, was identified in Israel on Tuesday night. Haran’s brother-in-law Eviatar Kipnis was likewise identified.
Havron points out that he wants to continue hoping that Haran will someday be able to bring her work to Bhutan and other people around the world.
“Shoshan did what she could to help people in need of support,” said Havron. “Now it’s our turn to see what we can do to help her and the other hostages in their hour of need.”
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