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Kenya still has a lot to learn from Israel to win war against hunger

Drip irrigation. [File, Standard]

The errands I run for my employer have often revealed how one’s own beloved and familiar systems can sometimes get quite outdated, and how they could also be brought up to speed for higher productivity. The ancient proverb “the introvert who barely travels thinks that his mother is the best cook in the world” comes to mind.

Israel has become an important traditional bench-marking destination for many countries aspiring to copy its breath-taking technological advancement, effective arid and semi-arid land (USAL) management practices, and legendary resilience in the face of diverse and improbable odds. Even long-standing Arab adversaries such as the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are finally beating shields into ploughshares, and normalising relationships with Israel.

Kenya has in the past benefited significantly from Israel’s successful digital precision water-saving irrigation technologies, which find relevance in local irrigation schemes. Yet, as we currently experience our worst drought in 40 years, Israel’s drought-busting agricultural technologies are becoming more necessary than ever.

The Kenya-Israel intimacy has always been great. However, it was boosted significantly by the famous Entebbe raid of 1976, when Nairobi reportedly did more than a mere observer. This friendship has always been endearingly renewed whenever Kenya has experienced terrorist attacks and other crises. As everyone else flee ground zero, bold Israeli rescuers are often seen materialising almost in real-time to help save lives.

Besides mutual susceptibility to terrorist attacks, these two countries share many historical and contemporary commonalities.

Notably, they also share an Achille’s heel of tumultuous internal politics. Israel’s emblematic political flux played out for all to see during the acrimonious ouster of Benjamin Netanyahu in June 2021. He has unbelievably returned as the premier within the past few weeks!  

A subtle difference is that Israel’s internal systems remain largely intact during electoral cacophony. In Kenya’s case, tense political climaxes almost always bring the nation to an ominous standstill.

The divergences between Kenya and Israel are more glaring than their nexus. Firstly, our country exceeds its Middle Eastern ally in nearly all the natural parameters that should catalyse economic growth. Large swathes of Kenya are veritable paradises, so fertile and well-watered that the colonialist deemed them unworthy of black natives and designated them exclusive ‘White Highlands’.  

Besides, with 580,000 square kilometres of land, Kenya is one of the 50 largest countries in the world, well ahead of France (551,695 sq. Km.), Spain (505,992sq. Km.) and Germany (357,375 sq. Km.), all such huge economic bastions that a comparison with Kenya is best postponed.

By area, Kenya is 20 times larger than Israel. Yet latest statistics reveal Israel’s GDP to be an impressive 500 billion US dollars, while Kenya’s hovers around a mere 100 billion US dollars. What arid Israel lacks in the form of arable acreage and other natural endowments, is more than compensated by proactive research funding, excellent human capital, meticulously proactive national planning, a traditional ‘can do’ attitude, existential-grade citizen patriotism, and sustainable resource management.

As president Ruto goes about actualising his bottom-up economic revolution, I suggest that his economy minister begins by tackling the simple but baffling question of how a tiny and inhospitable conflict-zone, with a seventh of our population and a severely limited ‘strategic depth’, has incongruously conjured an economy five times larger than our own.

The most distinguishing feature of Israel’s economy today is, of course, its cutting-edge information technology sector. In 1998, Newsweek identified Tel Aviv as one of the 10 most technologically influential cities in the world. Its electronic integrated circuits  exports rake in billions of dollars.

However, unique agricultural technologies, some of them surprisingly novel and cheap remain the most replicable aspects of Israeli excellence that can have the greatest impact for sub-Saharan Africa countries. One young Israeli researcher famously piloted the practice of using owls to eat up rats and other crop-destroying rodents rather than deploying expensive environment-unfriendly pest-control methods.

In 2014, Israel was identified as the leading country globally for research intensity, reflecting the importance of research and innovation for its economic growth. Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for education Ezekiel Machogu recently ignited a firestorm by insinuating that government may cease funding public universities. It is important to note that Israel’s phenomenal success in IT-based agricultural breakthrough is fed by the proactive research funding provided by the Israeli Science Foundation in the form of competitive grants in the areas of exact sciences, life sciences and humanities. This is guaranteed by the existence of seven specialist research universities.

As a result of research and innovativeness, Israel now produces about 95 per cent of its own food requirements. Kenya has had to import as much as 18.9 per cent of its food during some years.