In the face of difficult challenges, Israel delivered a remarkable agricultural transformation, emerging as a global leader in agriculture and water management.
What can developing countries learn from how Israel developed its world-renowned agriculture and water sectors? Many government officials from across the developing world regularly ask the Government of Israel this question. Together with Africa’s Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and Volcani International Partnerships, we set out to answer this question. Last month we published our report at a launch event at the Africa Green Revolution Forum in Accra, Ghana – Africa’s largest agriculture convention.
The event brought together an interesting mix of people: from the Ghanaian Minister of Agriculture to the Israeli Ambassador to Ghana, from Israeli agtech businesses to African government officials, from the Chairman of the World Food Prize in the United States to numerous development partners such as USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The discussion was both thought provoking and revealing. While Israel is not a natural nor seemingly sensible place for agriculture – two thirds of the land is semi-arid or arid and much of the soil is of poor quality – the opposite is true across most of Africa. Yet despite these challenges, Israel has not only managed to create a remarkable agricultural transformation, ensuring national food security and establishing thriving export industries, but has emerged as a global leader in agriculture and water management. On the other hand, many countries in Africa still record among the lowest farm productivity in the world and with extreme poverty increasingly concentrated in Africa, this is becoming an ever-greater and pressing global challenge.
So what made the difference in Israel?
While some factors of success are unique to Israel and not replicable, such as its strong ideological ties to agriculture and the pioneering mindset that it inherited, there are others that are.
Israel has not only managed to create a remarkable agricultural transformation but has emerged as a global leader in agriculture and water management.
First is effective government, particularly Israel’s approach in the 1950s and 1960s. It consistently showed visionary leadership in a long-term commitment to agriculture and water. In its early years, 30 per cent of its national budget was devoted to agricultural and water, with another 30 per cent being devoted to education. This led to early investment in an effective institutional architecture and a robust and targeted agro-industrial policy with dedicated and well-run crop boards that ensured specific sub-sectors, such as fruit and vegetables, could flourish in competitive markets. ‘Farmers cannot sell their crops in Covent Garden’, the former head of Israel’s citrus board tells us, ‘so they need a bigger structure above them to fix that problem.’
Second, is the organisation of farmers. From the beginning, Israel’s farmers were either organized into well-managed cooperatives (Kibbutzim and Moshavim) or were private farmers represented by an influential farmers’ association. This connection to a larger unit of production is critical to facilitating their bargaining power, enabling them to compete and function effectively giving access to finance, research, training, farm inputs and markets.
Third is an unequivocal market-oriented approach. The market serves as a guiding star for planning, prioritisation and coordination for both the government and farmers. Crucially, from the outset there was parallel development of both the domestic market for food self-sufficiency and the international export market for economic growth. The market is also key for Israel’s agriculture research, which has always been focused on how it can improve Israel’s competitive advantage in target value chains. This is how Israel has come to lead the world in numerous products including dates, pomegranates, oranges and tomatoes.
Each developing country needs to chart its own path to succeed but Israel’s agriculture and water transformation can truly serve as an inspirational solution for developing countries.
Fourth, Israel has a farmer-centric, multidisciplinary and innovative approach to solve farmer and private sector problems. Key to this approach is the golden triangle: the close relationship between researchers, agricultural extension workers and farmers. This is supplemented by agro-industry, which is essential to commercialise innovative solutions and make them available nationwide.
Finally, the way international support was channelled at Israel’s early stages of development meant that the government could spend these resources – from the diaspora, the United States and the United Kingdom, among others – according to its own development plan. In this way it could direct resources to where Israel needed them most. For example, as early as the 1950s it was used to build a 250 kilometre water pipe – a project deemed impractical by multiple engineers at the time – from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Negev Desert in the south. This is a big part of the reason why agriculture is thriving today south of Tel Aviv.
These are instructive and powerful lessons for delegates at conventions such as the Africa Green Revolution Forum, who are grappling with the challenge of transforming agriculture in developing countries in Africa and beyond. In particular, the power of fully backing the local national mission to make it real, clearly emerged at the launch event, especially through the intervention of Ghana’s Minister of Agriculture. Each developing country needs to chart its own path to succeed, based on its unique characteristics. But if governments, researchers, development partners, farmer representations and the private sector could apply these five elements of success to their work, Israel’s agriculture and water miracle can truly serve as an inspirational solution for developing countries still seeking such a transformation.