While sustainability writer Leon Kaye has long been interested in Israel’s advancements in the “cleantech,” or clean technology sector, until recently his extensive travels in the Middle East were limited to the country’s neighbors.
“It is one of the few countries in the Middle East I have not been to,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Monday by phone from Israel’s Arava in the South.
“I’ve lived in the Gulf and visited other countries in the Levant like Jordan and Lebanon and I have not been here. I have been aware of the booming cleantech industry here.”
Kaye was one of five “online influencers” taking part in an all-expensepaid Vibe Israel Eco Impact Tour, a weeklong journey through Israel’s ecological and energy sectors that began on Sunday and concludes Thursday evening.
In addition to visiting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’s Old City, the participants are meeting with key leaders in Israel’s water, renewable energy and environmental policy arenas.
Vibe Israel, which has run 27 tours to Israel since 2013, is a non-profit organization that works to strengthen the country’s brand.
“Our aim is to reach out to people who don’t really have any opinion about Israel and can be drawn into a conversation about Israel – but it has to be something they care about,” Vibe Israel founder and CEO Joanna Landau told the Post
The organization first decides on a specific topic for each tour. It then conducts open source research to generate a list of dozens of potential influencers who might join that group. After narrowing the list to about 50 names, Vibe sends invitations to those candidates to apply for that trip.
This is the second Vibe tour to focus on environmental issues. The first was in 2013.
“Israel is a global leader in solutions for the environment,” Landau said. “We don’t necessarily implement them broadly enough in Israel, but we certainly have the solutions. It’s also a very important topic for a lot of people around the world who care about the globe.”
Among other activities, participants have already learned about drip irrigation from the industry’s leader Netafim; visited Arava Power Company’s solar fields at Kibbutz Ketura; and met with representatives of Hagihon, Jerusalem’s municipal water company.
During the rest of the week, they will meet with a number of agricultural startups and companies that specialize in smart city technologies, as well as visit a desalination plant.
Kaye, who was invited to be on this tour, stressed that the importance of the trip goes beyond cleantech and sustainability.
“I think in the United States we have such a limited view of what Israel is,” he said. “You think of Israel and you think of Middle East conflict. I think it’s important to remember there are a lot of people here, eight million, and life is normal like it is anywhere else and life has its challenges.”
Kaye is based in Fresno, California, where he writes for Triple Pundit, a website dedicated to sustainable business that has 500,000 followers. He also founded GreenGoPost.com, a personal site focused on the idea that economic development and sustainability are not mutually exclusive.
While he has written about Israeli companies in the past, Kaye said that doing so from afar is “not the same as actually being here on the ground and physically meeting people and having that contextual experience.”
He described California as facing many of the same challenges as Israel does in water management. As a result, he expressed confidence that much can be learned from Israeli advancements in the sector.
“You’re limited with the resources you have,” he said. “It’s a pretty impressive turnaround.”
Kate Zerrenner, the manager of energy- water initiatives at the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, Texas, said she has long been interested in writing about Israel’s water sector, but “kept getting stuck in the politics.”
The non-profit organization – with a monthly online following of 250,000 people – works to find practical solutions to urgent climate threats.
“I am already feeling better about understanding the context,” Zerrenner told the Post
In her job she works to advance clean energy options that reduce impacts on climate, water usage and air pollution, with an emphasis on the nexus between water and energy.
On Monday, looking out her bus window, the predominantly desert regions of the Arava reminded Zerrenner of much of the western and southwestern United States.
“There are a lot of parallels and a lot of things we can learn,” she said, referring specifically to the water sector.
“Israel for all intents and purposes has solved this problem.”
Zerrenner is involved in a few cooperative projects with the Austin Chamber of Commerce focused on simultaneously reducing energy and water footprints. She said that partnerships between Israel and Texas are in the works.
“Sometimes in Texas we feel like we’re big and we’re brash and we know how to do it,” Zerrenner said. “But Israel is one of the places where Texans will listen. There’s kind of a connection in that sense. There’s a creative energy and an innovative approach and we face a lot of similar issues in terms of our resources – oil, natural gas, huge potential for solar and water resources. Texas will actually listen to Israel.”
Also joining the tour is Ontario, Canada-based Katherine Martinko, a senior writer for TreeHugger, one of the world’s leading environmental news websites, with a monthly following of about 5 million people. At Tree- Hugger, Martinko writes about food, agriculture, health and fitness, zero waste living and a variety of other subjects.
Lucy Wang is a design editor for Inhabitat web magazine based in Taipei, Taiwan also on the tour. The website, which also has about 5 million monthly followers, covers the future of sustainable technology, innovation, design and architecture. Wang has a background in landscape architecture and is passionate about eco-friendly urban design.
Another participant is Alessia Andreotti, who splits her time between Milan, Italy, and Amsterdam, while working for Next Nature Network, an organization with 70,000 monthly followers.
Andreotti specializes in popular culture, with an emphasis on nature, technology, design, fashion, travel and Internet culture.
This is the 27th Vibe Israel trip since the organization’s founding. The Eco Impact Tour is one of seven expeditions this year, according to Landau. Next year, Vibe hopes to offer eight trips.
“Each year we’re hoping to scale up,” she said.
About 95% of the money for the fully funded trips comes from Jewish family foundations around the world that are concerned how Israel’s image might impact their lives at home, Landau explained. A small amount comes from suitable corporate sponsorships, and when relevant, from municipalities.
Landau said the investments have paid off in countless favorable comments and conversations about Israel.
“It’s very measurable,” she said. “You can basically tell the viral effect of everything.”