Israel’s relationship with Africa has ebbed and flowed over the decades. When Israelis first began working across the continent in the second half of the 20th century – whether it be in agriculture, healthcare, or security – they were lauded for their expertise and dogged, dare I say Israeli, mindset. During this ‘Golden Era’ as it came to be known, Israel built friendships with many of the continent’s newly independent nations. From Malawi to Mali and Lesotho to Liberia, Israel’s ability to provide much-needed technical support to African governments earned them the respect and friendship necessary to support their own development agenda: becoming a recognized and accepted Jewish state.
At the core of Israel’s foreign policy mandate in Africa has been the desire to build closer diplomatic ties and shore up support on the international stage, particularly within the United Nations. Since then, the relationship has evolved to encompass more economic elements including trade and tourism.
In 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an historic visit to the continent as part of a roadshow across Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Rwanda, making him the first Israeli Prime Minister to do so in several decades. During this trip he announced that “Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is coming back to Israel.” His words would not fall on deaf ears. In 2019 formal diplomatic relations were restored with Chad; in 2020 the Abraham Accords were ratified, formalizing Israeli diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Morocco. And in 2023 the first Africa-Israel Agriculture Dialogue was hosted in South Africa.
As Africa undergoes dramatic change: population growth, the threat of climate change, new and old actors vying for influence on the continent, Israel must be sincere about its future relationship with the continent. If it is to champion the ‘homecoming’ as Netanyahu described, forging strong relationships with countries on the continent, then it will need a value proposition which only it can provide; a strategy which leverages its key strengths in addressing the continent’s most pressing challenges. Here, the focus will be the application of Israeli technologies and expertise across the areas of agriculture, energy, and water.
“Israel has the capacity, technology, and the human resources to support Africa in improving agricultural production,” explains Dr Tomer Malchi, Director of CultivAid, an Israeli NGO which supports the development of local professionals and agricultural knowledge infrastructure in Africa. A key obstacle to Africa’s agricultural development – but in poetic terms, a major enabler of growth – is the continent’s smallholder community, of which there are 33 million farms contributing up to 70% of the continent’s food supply.
By some estimates Africa could produce two to three times more cereals and grains while similar increases could be seen in the production of horticulture crops and livestock. Much of this is contingent on addressing the challenges surrounding poor inputs and education, together with reducing post harvest losses. This alone would go a long way in reversing the continent’s food security crisis which sees 1 in 5 Africans go to bed hungry each night. A visit to East Africa reveals how CultivAid are addressing many of these key issues: they are training cohorts of young agronomists, strengthening commercial value chains within communities, and in the case of Tigray, supporting the re-establishment of the region’s agricultural ecosystem.
Complimenting agriculture is water. A terrifying statistic across the continent is that 418 million people still lack even a basic level of drinking water service while 779 million lack basic sanitation services. In Chad, roughly 1 in 7 deaths are attributed to unsafe drinking water. Meanwhile a recent cholera outbreak in a South African community resulted in upwards of 10 deaths, highlighting the dangerous precipice which many communities straddle daily. Then there are of course those reaches of the continent where, similar to Israel, water is scarce and measures are necessary to both preserve and maximize its use.
In both instances – water treatment and use – Israel has developed technologies which are directly applicable to the continent’s needs. NUFiltration has developed water purification systems which have been used to address cholera outbreaks in Cameroon, and Netafim, the global pioneer in drip irrigation, has established itself across 18 African countries.
Dr. Clive Lipchin is Director of the Centre for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, located in southern Israel. “Today Israel leads the world in seawater desalination, wastewater treatment and reuse for irrigation and water conservation initiatives,” says Lipchin, adding that because of this, “Israel is uniquely positioned to partner with African countries to share and mutually develop solutions to Africa’s water, agriculture and climate challenges.”
Energy is the third area where Israel can play a direct and impactful role. Over 640 million Africans have no access to electricity. Powering the African continent is necessary if it is to undergo sustainable and inclusive economic development, but more importantly, clean and renewable systems are going to be favored due to the myriad of financing opportunities as well as the relatively lower capital expenditure involved.
A “superpower for good” is what Yosef Abramowitz believes Israel can become when considering the small nation’s relationship with Africa. “Our industries of goodness – green energy, agriculture, water – are world class and could be transformative for any African country that truly seeks to better the lives of its citizens, especially in an era of the climate crisis” he adds. Abramowitz is CEO of Energiya Global Capital, a firm focused on financing solar projects worldwide. The company has recently launched a solar project in Burundi which provides 10% of the country’s entire energy capacity.
Yet despite all these success stories and the potential that Israel has in Africa, its presence remains small and fragmented. As the Director of one Israeli NGO operating in Africa observed, “Israeli’s can certainly work together in teams … but they are opinionated and often there is difficulty in joining forces.” Add into the mix a meagre budget for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a reluctance for Israeli businesses to enter African markets, and it is evident why Israel has struggled to manifest itself as a “superpower for good” on the continent.
But a comprehensive strategy can serve as the first step in changing this. By focusing on the major economic and social drivers of change, namely agriculture, water, and energy, Israel can play a significant role in improving both the economic trajectory of African economies while also protecting livelihoods. Forget about grandiose infrastructure projects and large-scale aid initiatives; Israel’s success in Africa is contingent on its ability to address the continent’s most pressing challenges using its key strengths.
But the government cannot do this alone.
As previously indicated, there are Israeli organizations working across Africa, all of whom boast tremendous expertise and networks within their respective jurisdictions, making them ideal partners for a strategy of this nature. At this juncture it is important to bring as many stakeholders into the tent as possible, including the global Jewish community who can provide technical expertise and support. For this strategy to be successful it will require clear terms of reference to be socialized among stakeholders and partners, all of whom will need to buy into the strategy and prioritize shared impact over individual accomplishments. But perhaps most important of all: Israel will need engage with their African counterparts, adopting a similar approach seen during the Golden Era of Israel-Africa relations. This is how Israel will forge closer ties – diplomatic and economic – with Africa.