‘The only hope to move the continent forward is agriculture’
As he stood surrounded by neatly stacked rows of bell peppers, juicy citrus fruits and hybrid strains of wheat, Liberian Agriculture Minister Moses Zinnah marveled on Tuesday morning at Israel’s ability to overcome daunting climate conditions and achieve self-sufficiency.

“Israel has been able to survive in a very harsh environment. There is something unique about it.”

Zinnah spoke with The Jerusalem Post at the Agriculture Ministry’s Volcani Center (an agricultural research center) in Beit Dagan, on the sidelines of an unprecedented conference that drew officials from 10 West African countries this week.

Aiming to adapt Israeli farming expertise to their environments back home, the delegates were taking part in the first-ever Economic Community of West African States seminar held outside of West Africa.

The three-day conference, titled “Enhancing Sustainable Agricultural Productivity in Arid and Semi-arid Regions: The Israeli Development Experience,” is a collaboration between ECOWAS and the Foreign Ministry’s MASHAV (Hebrew acronym for Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation), along with the Agriculture Ministry’s CINADCO: The Center for International Agricultural Development Cooperation.

“I’m from Liberia,” said Zinnah, who was one of five agriculture ministers in the delegation. “We had a long civil war of almost 20 years. Coming out, we had destruction. Our only hope to revive the economy and create jobs, is the agricultural sector. So this visit is very, very timely. The only hope for us in Africa – to move the continent forward – is agriculture.”

ECOWAS is a 15-member regional group established in 1975 by the Treaty of Lagos, with a mandate of promoting economic integration among member countries. Agriculture ministers at the conference came from five ECOWAS countries – Cape Verde, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Togo – while other officials joined from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote D’Ivoire, Guinea and Nigeria.

“[The conference] corresponds with the Israeli trend to improve relations with Africa in general and with West Africa in particular. And we are trying to form a bond with ECOWAS as an organization, as a block and also on a bilateral level with each of the countries,” Gil Haskel, head of MASHAV, said.

In his opening address to the ECOWAS officials on Tuesday morning, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel emphasized the great potential he sees in the increasing cooperation with West Africa.

“I am convinced that there are many things we can learn from you and there are many things you can learn from us. Together, with the collaboration between Israel and ECOWAS, we can bring a clear message to the rest of the world. We want to continue the conversation with you,” he said, stressing his intentions to visit their countries.

ECOWAS commissioner for agriculture, environment and water resources, Tchambakou Ayassor, echoed Ariel’s sentiments, thanking him for the invitation and describing the mission as “historic.”

“I hope this collaboration will be very fruitful in the future,” he said.

Conference participants began their trip on Monday by learning about water and land management techniques, dairy technologies and agricultural extension, at the MASHAV Agricultural Training Center on Kibbutz Shefayim near the central coast.

They also met the same day with several Israeli agricultural technology companies and startups.

At the Volcani Center on Tuesday morning, in addition to meeting with Ariel, the visitors spoke with researchers and were shown a variety of fruits, vegetables and other crops grown in harsh climatic conditions.

“We are trying to develop the approaches to help African countries by identifying the issues of interest, to see how we can do better in different areas of production,” said Itamar Glazer, deputy director for research and development at the Volcani Center.

Some such issues, Glazer explained, might include animal productivity and post-harvest strategies, as well as training opportunities for West African professionals in Israel.

Later on Tuesday, the group traveled to the Negev to explore Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund afforestation projects and to visit the Ramat Negev regional research and development station.

On Wednesday, they were scheduled to tour Jerusalem’s Old City and take part in a closing discussion at the Foreign Ministry.

This week’s conference was the brainchild of MASHAV’s Haskel, following the visit of ECOWAS president Marcel Alain De Souza this summer.

“I told him that in Israel we make the impossible possible,” Haskel said.

“This conference is an example.”

While Israel is eager to bolster its cooperative activities with all sub-Saharan African countries, until recently, efforts have been predominantly focused on East Africa, which is much closer to Israel and English-speaking, he explained. Nonetheless, the country has generally been on good terms with West African countries, launching some joint projects there as early as the 1960s.

Consistent with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategic decision to focus on cultivating relations with Africa, Haskel said that the natural next step is to move west on the continent.

In July, Netanyahu visited four countries in East Africa – Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia – as the first Israeli prime minister to visit the continent since 1987. During the trip, he met with the leaders of seven West African states at a summit in Uganda.

At last month’s Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, Netanyahu spoke of his plans to travel to West Africa to meet with an additional 15 African leaders.

“We’re not abandoning the East, we’re improving ties with the West,” Haskel said.

Regarding Mali and Niger, with which Israel has no relations, Haskel expressed his disappointment that the countries did not join the others.

“We were hoping they would follow suit and join but it didn’t happen,” he said.

A few West African countries may have been missing from the delegation, but the 10 nations represented expressed keen interest in advancing collaborative opportunities with Israel in the agricultural sector.

Zinnah said he hopes to nurture partnerships particularly with the private sector, as Liberia seeks solutions in the poultry industry, aquaculture, energy and water management.

Lamenting the fact that Africa as a whole spends about $35 billion importing food, and Liberia alone spends more than $200 million, he stressed the urgency of revamping the continent’s agricultural sector.

“You cannot develop if you spend all the money on importing food,” said Zinnah. “If we don’t address food security it’s difficult to develop as a nation.”

The agriculture minister from Liberia’s northwest neighbor, Sierra Leone, likewise expressed his intention to cement partnerships with Israel.

“Israel is one of the leading countries promoting agricultural development in the world,” Sierra Leone’s Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security Minister Monty Jones said.

“I can give several examples where Israel is number one,” Jones said, mentioning the mixing of drip irrigation and fertilization, or “fertigation,” as an area in which the country excels.

Jones stressed his interest in cultivating partnerships both on a government- to-government and a government- to-business level.

“Whatever groups will want to work in Sierra Leone, we will be happy to receive them,” he said.

Jones expressed confidence that this week’s events would be profitable, not only to Sierra Leone, but to all the countries that participated.

“This shouldn’t be a one-time effort,” he added.

Gilberto Silva, agriculture minister of Cape Verde, said that the conference is proving particularly useful to his country, an archipelago with a dry climate off the coast of West Africa.

“Israel is an inspiring country for me,” Silva said. “We have the same natural conditions.”

Cape Verde is looking for a variety of different agricultural technologies and is eager to form partnerships with Israelis on water management, greenhouse use, advisory services and other areas, Silva explained.

“The cooperation already exists,” he said. “We are going to reinforce this cooperation by training courses and working together on different areas of agriculture.”

Yakov Poleg, the head of CINADCO, and the leader of the week’s conference alongside Haskel, told the Post that he was particularly moved by a conversation he had with Silva.

“Most importantly, what he thinks is missing in Africa is the entrepreneurial spirit,” Poleg said. “The promise lies in the people themselves. This is what the ministers would like to learn from Israel, how to bring this entrepreneurial spirit into their countries.”

Herb Keinon contributed to this report.