‘A drip revolution’ around the world

When he was approached in 1972 by the founders of the budding Netafim firm, Rafi Mehoudar had no idea he would soon develop one of the most widely used irrigation technologies around the world.

April 23, 2015 06:17

Netafim. (photo credit: COURTESY NETAFIM)


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'I said, ‘I don’t know what agriculture is, I don’t know what a kibbutz is, I don’t know what a dripper is,’” Mehoudar tells The Jerusalem Post. At the time, Mehoudar was a young engineer working on a pressure regulator for sprinklers. The founder of Netafim contacted him with the goal of improving the drip irrigation technology initially created by its inventor Simcha Blass. A partnership quickly crystallized, and – in conjunction with scientists at Netafim – Mehoudar went on to develop numerous types of dripper technologies over the years.

For his innovative work in the drip irrigation sector, Mehoudar is lighting one of the Independence Day torches this year.

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“I’m very happy that this year the government decided that all the people lighting the fire are innovators – innovators who had a serious impact on Israel and the world,” says Mehoudar, who is now 70. “This is very encouraging.”

At Kibbutz Hatzerim, the birthplace of Netafim, the decision to pursue the development of drip irrigation technology came out of necessity.

“We had undergone a very difficult crisis,” Netafim’s co-founder and Hazterim resident, 84-year-old Uri Werber, tells the Post. “They called it the ‘salt crisis’ – they found many layers of salt in our land. Therefore, we weren’t [producing] crops. We were very unsuccessful with agriculture. We came to an agreement that we needed industry.”

After hearing about Blass’s initial work on drip irrigation, Werber met with the inventor in 1964, and by August 1965 an agreement between Blass and Kibbutz Hatzerim was signed. In January 1966, Netafim was established.

“It was the first plant in the world with drip irrigation,” he says. “This year, we are celebrating 50 years of Netafim.”

Asked whether the kibbutz members had undertaken a significant risk by moving forward with such a brand new technology, Werber explains that they only made a small initial investment and were able to use an empty industrial building already equipped with electricity and water.

“There was a risk, but it wasn’t big,” he says, noting that all of the equipment could have easily been sold if the efforts did not pan out. “After about six or eight months... I understood that we were heading toward great success.”

While Blass’s invention brought the company some initial achievements, it was not until Netafim recruited Mehoudar and his knowledge that the firm began its trajectory of global success that it continues to enjoy today.

“The drippers that Rafi invented came after the drippers that we used of Blass and his son,” Werber says. “We thought that the drippers that we received were very innovative but [not quite good enough]. And Rafi brought with him dripper products that really were a superior quality.”

When Werber and his colleagues approached Mehoudar, the latter was a young engineer known for his work developing pressure regulators for sprinklers. At the time, the company was in need of improving the drip irrigation mechanisms so that they would be more resistant to pressure changes, temperature changes and clogging, Mehoudar says.

“They taught me, and after a short time, they gave me a wish-list,” he adds.

Although Mehoudar has always maintained his own independent research and development laboratory, Netafim has the sole rights for manufacturing and selling the systems that he has developed. As of today, he has 55 different patents for drippers, he explains.

“Today all the drippers that are manufactured are my innovations,” Mehoudar says.

Ran Maidan, who became the CEO of Netafim in February 2014, calls Mehoudar’s inventions “a significant leap” from the original models Blass had created, crediting him with creating “a drip revolution.”

“Simcha invented the dripper, but Rafi really developed the dripper,” Maidan says. “He created the culture and aspiration in the company for innovation.”

Asked if he is still working on further developments for the drippers, Mehoudar responds that he is “collecting ideas for the future and additional revolutions for the drippers,” and is constantly in close contact with Netafim.

In addition to his work with the company, Mehoudar and his son are building a laboratory at the Technion where young, high school-aged inventors will be able to receive consultation about their ideas in the fields of mechanics, electro-optics and electro-mechanics.

In terms of drip irrigation, however, Mehoudar stresses that it is still necessary to improve lower-end models and make the system cheaper and more accessible.

“Once you make it cheaper the potential market is much, much higher,” he says.

Along the way, Netafim has faced some challenges, particularly the initial resistance of farmers in many cultures around the world to embrace new technology over their traditional methods, Werber explains.

“Slowly, slowly we advanced,” he says, noting that the company was able to return its investments very quickly.

“There is no company [in Israel] that sells in so many countries around the world.”

Today, the company sells its products in about 110 countries, with 28 subsidiaries and 16 manufacturing plants – three in Israel and 13 abroad – Maidan explains. On average, farmers that employ the technology are able to achieve a 50% higher crop yield with a 50% lower input, he adds. “We are dealing with really the most important thing in the world, which is food scarcity,” Maidan says.

“What we are doing is growing more with less. I think that the strength of Netafim is that it developed itself from a small kibbutz factory to the No. 1 brand irrigation company in the world.”

As the company celebrates 50 years of activity, Maidan says his goals for the next 50 years involve maintaining the firm’s position as a leader in research and development and investments associated with drippers, as well as strengthening its role in new and emerging markets – such as those in China, India and Africa. While Netafim does have a presence in these regions, its position is still small relative to the potential there, he explains.

Maidan also emphasizes the importance of focusing more on commodity crops like sugar cane, corn and cotton.

All the while, he says, it is critical to “continue to give the best solution” to farmers and enable them “to grow more with less.”

“This is why we wake up every morning,” Maidan says. “We are just at the beginning of the journey, and the potential going forward is very big.”

For Werber, who has been with the company since it was only an idea, the Netafim of today is a far cry from what he originally dreamed.

“Early on, I was hoping for a successful factory, but in Israeli terms,” he says, never dreaming of its global presence.

“Our vision – and I feel that we are not far from achieving that vision – is simply to transition most of the world’s agriculture to drip irrigation,” Werber adds.

“When I arrive to some village in India or in South Africa or in Colombia, and I see the poor farmers, and how their quality of life is rising and how their crops are growing, thanks to drip irrigation – that’s my vision.”

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