Israeli agricultural know-how helps the developing world bloom

Agroproject consultants work with farmers in a mountain area of Java, Indonesia.When the US State Department discovered the extent of the proliferation of opium poppy farms in post-Taliban Afghanistan in 2004, they turned to Israeli agricultural consulting firm Agroproject for …

Agroproject consultants work with farmers in a mountain area of Java, Indonesia.When the US State Department discovered the extent of the proliferation of opium poppy farms in post-Taliban Afghanistan in 2004, they turned to Israeli agricultural consulting firm Agroproject for a solution.

As part of the post-Taliban government’s poppy eradication program, US AID provided the financing for Agroproject to launch a widespread plan in southern Afghanistan aimed at getting farmers to switch from producing poppies to producing legal crops.

“The State Department knew it wouldn’t be effective to simply try to force the farmers to stop growing the poppies,” says Dr. Dan Dvoskin, co-director of Agroproject. “We had to give them other options. They required a viable incentive to stop the illegal growing. That’s where we came in.”

Now, in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province alone, over 8,000 farmers are learning how to successfully raise and market ‘energy crops’, which are used in the production of more economic and environmentally-friendly alternatives to fossil fuels. The project has been written up as one of the US State Department’s most prominent success stories. All thanks to Agroproject.

This is just one of dozens of projects that the Yakum-based firm has handled since it was founded as a subsidiary of Israeli greenhouse and irrigation powerhouse Netafim, in 2003.

Since then, Agroproject has offered its comprehensive agricultural development consultancy services to private enterprises, public sector customers, and major international funding organizations concerned with bolstering the regional development and agricultural economies of more than 25 countries, most of them in the developing world.

Agroproject is a one-stop-shop; services start with a complete assessment of a locale’s natural resources, climactic conditions, existing farming techniques, local culture, regional marketing capabilities, economy, and local interest groups and cooperatives.

After a thorough evaluation encompassing all relevant factors, the company offers a proposal for development: which agricultural sectors to pursue, and which to avoid; and how to streamline existing operations. Agroproject then assists clients to implement solutions, from structural planning and project establishment, to production, management, and marketing.

According to Dvoskin, Agroproject’s 10 staff members are experts in fields including greenhouse agriculture; field crop irrigation and post-harvest treatment; integrated poultry production; dairy farming; aquaculture (closed production of fish, seafood, and aquatic plants in enclosed inland areas, coastal enclosures, or sea cages); and bioenergy, or energy crops, for the creation of biodeisel and ethanols.

What’s so special about Israeli know-how? According to Dvoskin, lots. “Despite its arid conditions, Israel has managed to become a country with one of the most highly developed agricultural industries in the world,” says Dvoskin, a bioenergy specialist, economist, and expert in regional agricultural planning, who grew up on a cotton farm on Kibbutz Naan, near Rehovot.

“Israel’s agricultural knowledge and technology is one of the country’s biggest achievements. Our country’s equipment and know-how can be extremely beneficial to other countries.”

Many countries around the world have indeed benefited from Agroproject’s expertise. In addition to ventures in Ethiopia, Greece, Dominican Republic, Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico, Ecuador, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, China, Russia, Turkey, and Romania, the firm has run projects in politically sensitive areas, including some countries that don’t even officially recognize Israel. In addition to Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates, India, Indonesia, Tunisia, and Philippines, have all reaped the benefits of Agroproject’s agricultural wisdom.

Dvoskin draws a distinction between hostile countries, such as Iran or Pakistan, for which he would never work, and those countries in which the government doesn’t officially recognize Israel. In the case of the latter, he says, there is a big difference between the government’s official stance – which more often than not is the price of maintaining strategic relations with more fundamentalist Arab countries – and the facts on the ground.

Take Indonesia, where Agroproject conducted a feasibility study on a greenhouse project in Batam Island; and a second study on a high value, horticultural development project in Java. According to Dvoskin, the Indonesian government told the media that it refused to accept aid from Israel after the tsunami, at the same time, however, it allowed the Israeli aid plane to land on January 12. He himself helped to unload the plane (he was there on a project at the time).

“The people were extremely grateful to Israel for having sent such a bounteous and prompt response to the crisis,” he told ISRAEL21c.

“There are a lot of commercial relationships going on. The reality is no different when it comes to agriculture. A lot of Arab countries are interested in Israeli know-how and they want to develop their agricultural industries,” he says, adding that Israel’s annual agricultural exhibition Agritech, which for 16 years has attracted thousands of agricultural industrialists from over 100 countries around the world, consistently includes the participation of individuals from countries that don’t officially recognize Israel. “There is oftentimes a very big difference between the stance of the government and the stance of the people. That’s just how it is.”

This is clearly the case with Afghanistan, says Dvoskin. In addition to helping wean farmers off poppies and onto energy crops, Agroproject introduced Afghani farmers to drip irrigation systems, and conducted an evaluation on the feasibility of returning the Kutchi nomads to the Registan area of southern Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan is not the safest place for any foreigners,” says Dvoskin, who adds that today, he definitely wouldn’t travel there. “But when I was there two years ago, I never felt any sort of discrimination because I am Israeli. On the contrary, we were received very warmly by the people there.

“The people of Afghanistan are tired of all the wars,” he says. “What interests them is developing their economy and helping their people. They want to become a real country.”

Still, working with Arab countries that don’t recognize Israel has its challenges. To start with, it means having to travel on a foreign passport. “I am upset about this sometimes,” says Dvoskin. “The whole situation, vis-à-vis these governments, is very sad. On the other hand, the people under the government officials appreciate our help so much. Improving their farming communities improves their lives directly. It’s about people helping people. That’s how I see it.”

Naturally, Agroproject encounters all sorts of problems with its client countries, besides political ones. The most common issue the company faces is what Dvoskin dubs, a break-down in ‘knowledge transfer’. In countries like the US and Israel, there is a government agency (in both cases, within the Ministry of Agriculture) charged with transferring the knowledge produced by agricultural research centers in centers of higher learning, to farmers who require education in order to apply the findings. In many countries in the developing world, such a public entity does not exist. So, even if the research itself is very advanced, the fruit of this research never reaches the farmers, who continue to use primitive techniques.

Agroproject is currently working on an assignment funded by the World Bank to find a solution to this problem, which is widespread across many countries of West Africa.

The fall-out of not educating farmers can be fatal, agriculturally speaking. Dvoskin says the worst case he ever witnessed was in Cambodia, where en masse, farmers began to slash and burn rainforest land to cultivate rice. “They were cutting down sections of the rainforest, depleting the nutrients in the land, and then moving onto another section of rainforest to repeat the cycle,” explains Dvoskin. “They have done tremendous damage to the rainforest; lots of areas will never grow back.”

Agroproject’s solution involved giving the farmers sections of arable, non-rainforest land, and teaching them about how to use fertilizer. “The idea was to move them into a sustainable situation,” says Dvoskin.

Even this solution had its challenges, since the vast majority of the farmers – Dvoskin estimates around 90% – could not read or write, so imparting the knowledge posed a unique difficulty. “They had to be given all instructions orally, and memorize them,” he explains.

Once they passed this hurdle – with the help of some local education organizations – the project really took off. “Originally [the government] hoped to move a few hundred farmers out of the rainforests,” he says. “But the project has been so effective, that thousands of farmers have gotten involved. We have nearly solved the problem completely.”

Like the farmers in Afghanistan, Agroproject has Cambodian farmers involved in the production of energy crops – in this case, palm oil and sugar cane – for the creation of biofuel. Not only are these sorts of crops far more profitable than rice, which has virtually no marketability in a place like Cambodia (where rice is the staple diet), but energy crops yield so many other benefits: they necessitate a whole refinery industry, which creates jobs; they provide a viable and renewable alternative to crude oil, natural gas, and coal, for energy production; their usage reduces air pollution; there is no limit to the number of farmers who can profit from the production of crops for energy; and the more biofuel production, the more economic and political stability, by virtue of decreased reliance on oil-producing countries.

According to Dvoskin, biofuel, which is already widely used in the US and Europe, is the most intriguing up-and-coming industry in which Agroproject is involved. The company has already begun biofuel projects in Ukraine and Angola, and hopes to start a new project in Mozambique, funded by the World Bank, in the near future.

“It’s about shifting agricultural production from food to fuel,” says Dvoskin, whose 35-year professional career began in the early 1970s, at the time of the first energy crisis. “It’s going to change the world.”

Changing the world is Agroproject’s business. “We don’t make a fortune on sharing our know-how, but making a big fortune is not really our goal,” he says. “Our goal is to change the world. Giving people around the world hope by sharing Israeli know-how, is the best payment I could ask for.”