Avocado diplomacy: Jerusalem’s push into Africa

A visit to an Israeli-run agricultural project illustrates how Israel is making inroads into Africa.

Ofer Kahani (left) and MASHAV project promotor Shigute Balcha (right) at MASHAV’s avocado nursery and training center in Butajira (photo credit: HUNTER STUART)
Ofer Kahani (left) and MASHAV project promotor Shigute Balcha (right) at MASHAV’s avocado nursery and training center in Butajira
(photo credit: HUNTER STUART)
IN 1960, prime minister David Ben-Gurion said Israel’s aid to newly independent countries in Africa was “not a matter of philanthropy.” Israel, he said, was “no less in need of the fraternity of friendship of the new nations” than they were of Israel’s assistance.
Though it’s been 66 years since his remarks, Ben-Gurion’s sentiment is no less true today, and Israel’s efforts to hammer out a mutually beneficial relationship with Africa can be seen on a small farm in rural Ethiopia on a recent July morning, where a 59-year-old Israeli agronomist plods through the mud with a crowd of curious, giggling children trailing behind him.
The agronomist, Ofer Kahani, is the coordinator of an agricultural project in Ethiopia that trains local farmers how to grow and sell avocados to lucrative markets abroad. Kahani is an employee of Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, perhaps better known by its Hebrew acronym “MASHAV,” which runs the project together with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture.
As a division of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MASHAV’s goal is to use Israeli knowledge and technology to promote economic, social and environmental development in Second- and Third-World countries. MASHAV was founded in 1957, and since then the agency says it has trained over 250,000 people in 132 different countries around the world.
In return for imparting its agricultural expertise, Israel hopes that Ethiopia will consider it an ally.
Jerusalem is making new efforts to get closer to sub-Saharan Africa, in the hopes that Africa will support Israel at the United Nations and at other international forums where it faces intense opposition from much of the Muslim world.
Israel’s friendship with Ethiopia goes back 3,000 years to the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Jerusalem, where she was said to have had intimate relations with King Solomon and given birth to his son on her way home. Ethiopians and some historians believe that the son, Menelik, later went to visit his father in Jerusalem, returning to Ethiopia with a number of Israelite noblemen, who stole the Ark of the Covenant from the First Temple in Jerusalem and brought it with them to Ethiopia. When he returned to Ethiopia, Menelik founded the Solomonic Dynasty, which ruled the nation for thousands of years thereafter. Meanwhile, the Ark was placed inside a small chapel in northern Ethiopia ‒ or so the Ethiopians believe.
But it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s, when both Israel and Africa were emerging as newly independent states, that ties between the two strengthened and became official. As prime minister, Ben-Gurion invested in building relationships in East, Central and West Africa. Israel had much in common with many of these countries. “Like them, we had shaken off foreign rule; like them, we had to learn for ourselves how to reclaim the land, how to increase the yields of our crops, how to irrigate,” said Ben-Gurion’s foreign minister, Golda Meir, who made many trips to Africa during that time.
Israel “had been forced to find solutions to problems that large, wealthy, powerful states have never encountered,” she said, and, was therefore, perfectly suited to partnering with them.
Ben-Gurion saw Ethiopia as one of the cornerstones of regional Israeli support. In the 1960s, he strove to build ties with three influential, non-Arab countries: namely, Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia. Ben-Gurion hoped these three alliances would form a large triangle of support around the Jewish state, and he called his grand theory “The Alliance of the Peripheries.” (Iran at the time was a Western-friendly nation, and Turkey was more secular than it is today.)
Though it was a young nation, Israel had relatively advanced agricultural, medical and military knowledge that it deftly wielded to forge tight bonds with the new African nations, Dr. Emmanuel Navon, an international relations lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, tells The Jerusalem Report.
In Ethiopia, specifically, Israel sent military advisers to aid the ruling regime of Emperor Haile Selassie, who claimed to be the 225th descendant of King Solomon, and who ruled Ethiopia from 1941 to 1974. Israeli intelligence helped Emperor Selassie keep the status quo; even helping him to crush a coup attempt in 1960 by his Imperial Bodyguard, which had been swiftly engineered while Selassie was on a state visit to Brazil.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the advantages of befriending Ethiopia and other African nations included, first and foremost, the fact that they had votes at the UN General Assembly. Now and then, one of the African countries that Israel had invested in would earn a seat on the UN Security Council. (In June, Ethiopia was elected to a non-permanent seat, where it will serve from 2017 to 2019.)
Kahani says he can still recall a tractor donated by USAID to the kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley where he grew up in the 1960s. He remembers the logo on the tractor ‒ it was an image of two hands shaking.
Like Golda Meir, he believes that Israel’s relatively recent experience as a developing nation makes it more effective at development work in Africa.
“We are more flexible than other Western countries,” he says. “We have a better ability to improvise because of our experience. The Europeans and the Americans are very conservative. They can only do what they know.”
For the agriculture training project in Ethiopia, USAID contributes 75 percent of the $700,000 annual budget for the program, with MASHAV paying the rest. The program started 11 years ago, Kahani says, and is scheduled to end in October 2019.
Although agriculture is a huge industry in Ethiopia ‒ it employs almost 80% of the population and contributes 42% of Ethiopia’s gross domestic product ‒ most of the nation’s farms are small and disconnected from one another. The Ethiopian government, which still hasn’t reformed many of its old Communist ways, owns almost all the country’s land. This makes large-scale, commercial farming difficult.
The cool, mountainous climate of Ethiopia makes it the ideal environment for growing avocados, which originally come from Mexico, Kahani says, while inspecting a fat avocado tree on the farm, which belongs to a handsome Ethiopian farmer named Kidane Tesfaye. This tree started as a MASHAV sapling a few years ago, and it is part of Kahani’s job to make sure it’s being grown properly.
“Many times, the farmer in Ethiopia gets something for free and he doesn’t care about it,” Kahani sighs.
But this particular tree is doing well ‒ in fact, the whole farm is. Kahani says that last year, two tons of avocados were harvested here. He believes that as soon as the farmers see that they can make money by growing avocados, the industry will thrive in Ethiopia. The fruit from the trees Kahani is inspecting today are bound for markets in the Persian Gulf and in Europe.
The $175,000 a year the government of Israel spends on the MASHAV program in Ethiopia is very little compared to what other countries (such as the US, UK or Germany) spend here.
“We use our money efficiently,” he says. “Because there are many problems in Israel that we could be spending it on, and we think of it in that context.”
MASHAV has helped set up six nurseries around the country that grow saplings of fruit and vegetable trees to distribute to local farmers. When the project concludes in 2019, the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture plans to take over where the Israelis left off, and replicate it 80 times over.
Israel’s efforts to befriend Africa in the 1950s and 1960s fell apart in the 1970s. At the time, the Arab world had suffered two humiliating defeats by Israel (one in 1967 and the other in 1973), and began to pressure sub-Saharan Africa to sever its ties with the Jewish state. If Africa kept up close relations with Israel, the Arab world ‒ led by Saudi Arabia and Libya ‒ would raise prices on the oil it sold to Africa, on which Africa depended to survive. Most of sub-Saharan Africa, including Ethiopia, acquiesced and cut ties with Israel accordingly.
To the new Jewish state, which had invested relatively heavily in its new partnerships, the severing of diplomacy was a betrayal, said Navon, and it took decades to mend the broken relationships.
In Ethiopia, the Communist “Derg” regime, which came to power in 1974 after dethroning Selassie, had a friendly relationship with Israel, but hid it from the world.
Since 1991, when a coalition of rebel forces led by Ethiopia’s northern Tigray tribe defeated the Derg and installed themselves as the country’s new rulers, Ethiopia has had a sunnier relationship with Israel. Meles Zenawi, who was prime minister of Ethiopia for 17 years after helping to overthrow the brutal Derg, visited Israel in 2004.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now says he wants to take Israel “back to Africa.” Netanyahu made a four-day trip to East Africa in early July, where he visited Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. He was the first Israeli prime minister ever to visit Ethiopia, and the first to visit sub-Saharan Africa in 30 years, perhaps signifying how badly relations had frayed after the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s.
The purpose of Netanyahu’s trip was not only to win votes at the UN (although that strategy has begun to pay off for Israel: in 2015, Nigeria and Rwanda abstained from a Palestinian statehood resolution at the UN, causing the measure to fail by a single vote). Netanyahu is also trying to persuade African leaders to grant Israel “observer status” at the African Union (AU), the 54-member body whose mission is to increase cooperation across the African continent. The AU’s headquarters are in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Promoting economic ties was another of Netanyahu’s reasons for the Africa trip. Eighty business executives representing 50 companies in Israel accompanied him on the trip, presumably to forge partnerships with African companies.
Israel’s exports to Africa last year amounted to about $1 billion, which is just two percent of its total exports. But Ohad Cohen, who is head of foreign trade at the Ministry of Economy and Industry, told The Wall Street Journal on July 4 that Israel is working to send more of its exports to growing markets in Africa, as a safeguard against increased volatility with traditional trade partners in the EU and US. What’s more, Netanyahu’s administration said recently that it’s planning a $13 million development package to strengthen economic ties and cooperation with African nations.
Ethiopia’s position as a Christian-ruled nation in the sometimes volatile horn of East Africa makes it a crucial Israeli ally, Arye Oded, who was an Israeli diplomat stationed in Africa in the 1960s, said in a recent phone call with The Report. Ethiopia is surrounded on almost all sides by Muslim regimes, and it has a long border with the failed state of Somalia, for example, where the militant group Al-Shabaab rules large swathes of territory. Al-Shabaab has successfully carried out deadly attacks in Ethiopia, Kenya, and elsewhere in the area, says Oded, who is currently Head of the Africa Unit at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Truman Institute.
Ethiopia, which is the second most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa (after Nigeria) also has a sizeable Muslim population, which has grown rapidly in recent decades. These days, Muslims are said to make up about half of Ethiopia’s population of 97 million. The Ethiopian government itself is dominated by one Orthodox Christian tribe known as the Tigray.
Although the current government claims to grant equality and freedom of religion to all Ethiopians, in practice, it tends to favor Ethiopia’s large Christian minority (about 41 million people).
All of this is to say that Israel has an interest in keeping Ethiopia a Christian stronghold in a Muslim-dominated region.
“If Ethiopia fell to the Muslims, it would be like an open hole, because it’s the gate into Africa,” Kahani says later that afternoon, over plates of shiro at a restaurant in the nearby town of Butajira.
Demographic problems aside, Ethiopia also has been dealing with an uptick in internal unrest lately. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has responded to mostly peaceful protests by the Oromo ethnic group in recent months with shocking violence, killing hundreds of people by opening fire on demonstrators, or torturing people to death in detention. The protests by the Oromo, who are the largest of Ethiopia’s 14 ethnic groups and many of whom are Muslim, began in November 2015, when a government-sponsored plan to expand Addis Ababa (population 3.5 million) onto their ancestral lands sparked outrage.
Though the government says it has put the Addis Ababa expansion plan on hold, its rough handling of the protests has created new resentments.
Anger over the government’s sale of land to foreign investors, such as China, only stokes the flames of Oromo indignation.
“Holding things together in Ethiopia is difficult right now,” Kahani says. “And it’s not so clear, especially to a foreigner, what exactly is happening.”
A young journalist I met in the eastern city of Harar in July, who is Muslim, said he had been imprisoned for three months by the Ethiopian government as punishment for having published something to which the government objected.
Media freedom groups have criticized Ethiopia for a tightening clampdown on the press, and that clampdown may explain the current inscrutability of what’s happening in the country.
Unfortunately, Ethiopia is also being further destabilized on a grand scale by climate change and is currently experiencing its worst drought in half a century. The drought is thought to be the result of warming ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, a weather pattern that’s popularly known as “El Niño.”
Rising ocean temperatures, in turn, have caused rains to fail in large parts of central and eastern Ethiopia, which has led to shrunken harvests and the death of up to 1 million livestock, according to a recent article in Time Magazine by Daniel Speckhard, who’s president of Lutheran World Relief, a US-based non-governmental organization that does development work in East Africa.
Perhaps even more worrying is that the drought is predicted to cause a food crisis that will require humanitarian aid for at least 10 million people.
Nevertheless, Ethiopia has a lot going for it: The International Monetary Fund says it has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with growth rates consistently hitting 8-11 percent over the past 10 years. Poverty rates have plunged, and primary school enrollment has quadrupled in the past two decades, according to the World Bank.
Yet, the official figures clash with what one sees on the streets, where children in ragged clothes swarm around foreigners begging for change, and most families live in tiny, one-room houses with dirt floors and open gutters in their front yards.
A schoolteacher in Lalibela lamented that the $90 she earns a month is hardly enough to feed her four children, let alone send them to university when they finish secondary school. Still, she’s faring better than 17 million of her fellow citizens, who are unable to find a steady job, even a low-paying one.
Ethiopia is also beset by frequent electricity outages, even in the capital, and the Internet, when it works at all, crawls along at a snail’s pace. Foreign banks are largely prohibited from making loans in the country, and are not allowed to open international branches here, which discourages investment.
“There’s no free trade in Ethiopia,” says Kahani on the drive back to Addis Ababa, while expertly avoiding the livestock and people walking on the newly paved highway. “Communism is still in the blood. Everything is under state control.”
As we enter the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Kahani peers through the window at a partially constructed building that is silhouetted like a cement ribcage against the gray sky.
“You see buildings like this one all over. It’s been standing empty like this already a few years,” he says, questioning why Ethiopian banks continue to give loans for projects that go nowhere.
Ethiopia’s government aims to make the country middle income by 2025. But if Ethiopia wants to pull itself out of the Third World and into the community of developed nations, it has a lot of work to do. And if the government can’t alleviate the suffering of its own citizens, avocados or no avocados, it may not make a very useful ally for Israel.