Tania Pons Allon

Quenching a thirst… for progress

How the University of Arizona, JNF-USA, and local alumni from an Arava agricultural school are bringing water to Kenya
Tania Pons Allon and the governor at the ribbon cutting. (courtesy)
Tania Pons Allon and the governor at the ribbon cutting. (courtesy)

Hakuna maji — no water — is the first Swahili phrase I learned in Kenya. It’s one we heard in every community we visited as we looked for a partner for our sustainable agriculture project.

Coming from the Arava desert in Israel, a lack of water is something I am very familiar with, yet, thanks to Jewish National Fund-USA’s investments in water infrastructure, it has never limited our farmers’ productivity. The challenges the Arava faces are what shaped it into the place it is today: innovative, creative, productive, and a world leader in agricultural research & development.

The Arava has been fighting desertification, extreme weather events, and water scarcity, while creating wonders with few resources for decades. This is partly what inspired the creation of the Kasser Joint Institute for Food, Water, and Energy Security. By leveraging the existing knowledge and experience of the Arava and combining it with that of the University of Arizona, a world renowned institution covering similar fields, we aim to create a positive impact on the planet. We want to share the knowledge and teach others to do what we have learned.

It was Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who said: “In order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” This past July, we witnessed a miracle as we traveled to Kenya for the second time. On this occasion, we marked the beginning of our partnership with the community of lower Masimbani in the county of Makueni, approximately 140 miles from the capital, Nairobi.

Kenya is a big place. It is 26 times larger than Israel and just slightly smaller than Texas. As we stood on an empty plot, surrounded by 500 community members of all ages, in the presence of the governor of Makueni H.E Mutula Kilonzo Jr., Mashav representative from the Israeli embassy Mr. Eitan Hatzor, and many governmental officials, we realized how much the Kenyan people valued our support. That day we signed an agreement with the community that conveyed a promise to teach them what we had learned, and how to bring “maji” — water — back.

Over the coming months, an Agrivoltaic site, which grows plants under solar panels, will be established on that same empty plot we stood on. The solar power generated will operate water pumps and irrigate the local field, provide clean water and electricity for the nearby school, and show the farmers how to diversify their crops for market value and nutrition.

One of the most important aspects of a project like this is its sustainability. It is not enough to build something remarkable; the community has to take ownership of the initiative so they can operate the technology long after we have left. To achieve this, we are hiring local alumni from our agricultural school in the Arava that trains farmers from Africa and beyond to operate the project. They, in turn, will train the community and act as an important connection between the Arava and Kenya.

Over the first three years of this project, our Agrivoltaic collaboration with the Lower Masimbani community will be analyzed by our Kasser Joint Institute researchers from the Arava and the University of Arizona, to further optimize its impact.

Jewish NationalFund USA’s main mission is to support the land and the people of Israel, and by initiating the Kasser Joint Institute they made a clear statement: the Arava is a light unto the world and the Agrivoltaics project in Makueni is proof.

About the Author
Tania Pons Allon is the director of the Kasser Joint Institute for Food, Water and Energy Security, which applies research and exchanges relevant knowledge and experience with the Jewish National Fund-USA, the University of Arizona, and the Arava Valley.
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