Agriculture without borders

Sowing the seeds of innovation at the Arava International Center for Agriculture Training

Students at the Arava International Center for Agriculture Training. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Students at the Arava International Center for Agriculture Training.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The hyper-arid central Arava region, south of the Dead Sea, might seem like an unlikely place to find the beating heart of Israel’s advanced agricultural innovation.
Despite covering approximately 6% of Israel’s territory, a mere 4,000 citizens call the area and its extreme weather conditions their home. Six decades after the first communities settled in the area, the dusty valley on the Jordanian border is a vibrant hub of tireless Zionist ideology, modern-day agricultural pioneering spirit and produces approximately 60% of the country’s fresh vegetable exports.
“[Prime minister David] Ben-Gurion always spoke about making the Negev bloom and sent advisers here, asking what is possible to do in the Arava,” said Hanni Arnon, who moved from Jerusalem to the Arava agricultural community of Moshav Idan in 1981. “The advisers came here and said the Arava is dead land, so Ben-Gurion requested new advisers. He wanted to do something here. That is exactly what is happening here – we bloomed.”
Unsurprisingly, the unlikely success story of the Arava has caught the attention of agricultural workers far beyond the region’s borders. In the mid-1990s, the Thai Embassy in Israel was the first to approach local authorities, eager to learn how to settle along borders and develop agriculture in the hardest places.
Determined to share the agricultural knowledge and expertise developed in the region, Arnon established and has served as executive director of the Arava International Center for Agriculture Training (AICAT) since its establishment in 1994.
The center, located in the community of Sapir, commenced by teaching 25 Thai students in its first year of operations. Now, it welcomes 1,200 students annually from Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands in three different educational programs, with almost 20,000 graduates completing their studies at AICAT to date.
“We bring students from developing countries where traditional agriculture is key. There is a multitude of nationalities, religions and cultures. It really is agriculture without borders,” said Arnon. “We just want to bring food everywhere to everyone. We encourage young people to see themselves as agricultural entrepreneurs and change their mindset.”
With the assistance of the Foreign, Interior and Agriculture ministries and Jewish National Fund-USA, AICAT manages to bring the most talented students from a long list of agricultural universities, including from countries with whom Israel does not have diplomatic relations. There are about 80 students from Indonesia currently studying in the Arava, said Arnon.
Walking around AICAT’s campus is an extraordinarily multilingual and multicultural experience, meeting students from Vietnam, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Vanuatu and Gambia, to name but a few, in a location way off the beaten path. Educational programs are based on a combination of classroom studies and learning by doing – working in the field with local farmers employing innovative farming methods.
“Before we even teach, they see the desert, the lack of water and, yet, Israel developed drip irrigation. They learn how opportunity can grow from difficulty. You will never hear them say ‘we have a problem.’ It is a challenge. Where there is a challenge, there is motivation,” Arnon said.
“Our students come from very different places and are exposed to the human capability. Despite the tough conditions, they can learn not just to sow seeds and wait for rain, but to treat illnesses, understand the market, to feed their town and country, and not just their family.”
AICAT currently offers three programs: a diploma program for undergraduate students, lasting 10 months; an MSc degree in plant science, focusing on food safety and security, in partnership with Tel Aviv University; and professional short-term courses for organized groups either in Israel or their country of origin.
Okto Prandi Sihombing, a diploma student from Indonesia, said he already knew about Israel’s agricultural reputation prior to spending time in Israel. Yet he was surprised to learn of the origin of that success.
“I thought Israel’s agriculture success was due to the advanced technology but, after I arrived here, I can see the difference,” said Sihombing. “The reason why agriculture here is successful is due to the mindset of the people, the farmer and the system. When we go back to our country, we want to apply the mindset in our own community.”
Chit Ko Ko, a group leader from Myanmar, explained that his country of origin is struggling the opposite challenge to those faced by Arava farmers. The Southeast Asian nation is rich in natural resources, but poor in technology.
“When I return to Myanmar, I want to cooperate with farmers, NGOs and also with government,” he said. “If we cooperate, even when we have very big challenges, they can be solved and solutions can be found.”
Understanding the importance of combining technology with the right mindset was also highlighted by Chuc Anh from Vietnam, who emphasized that adapting to the extreme heat in the Arava proved difficult at first.
“Before we came here, we only knew about Israel through the media, about war and conflict. The reality is not what people talk about on network television - they need to come and see it with their own eyes,” said Anh. “When people think about agriculture, they only think about soil and water. In the Arava, when we talk about agriculture, the natural resources are less important. People are the most important.”
The lecturers and staff at AICAT are all residents of the area, and many spend the majority of their time at the Central and Northern Arava Research and Development Center nearby. While passionate about their work, the true sense of satisfaction arrives after the students have returned to their home countries and start making small changes.
Scrolling through hundreds of WhatsApp photos on her phone, Hanni says she is in constant contact with AICAT alumni, who are busy implementing the new techniques they learned in the Arava.
In Indonesia, she said, one girl is growing lemongrass, but for the cosmetic industry. In Thailand, a graduate diverted a source of water to places which were previously unsuitable for crops. In Myanmar, graduates decided to establish a new agricultural school, spreading the knowledge they learned in Israel.
The center’s greatest source of pride is found in Nepal, Hanni emphasized, in the aftermath of tremendous damage and loss of life caused by the April 2015 earthquake. The devastating natural disaster that struck central Nepal left almost 9,000 dead and over 22,000 were injured.
“All the students came from the region hit hardest by the earthquake – everyone lost their homes. Their families said we don’t need another mouth to feed,” Hanni said. “I begged the authorities to let them stay for another year. The majority remained and we built a new program for them.”
After completing a second year of study at AICAT in May 2016, almost 50 students came with an ambitious proposal to the center’s management team: “We are going to build the first moshav in Nepal, with both the agriculture and the community built on trust.”
Almost 200 people currently live on the moshav established later that year, near the central Nepalese city of Pokhara, modeled on the communities the students discovered in the Arava. After recently purchasing additional land, the group now plans to establish an agricultural training center and R&D facility to further their expertise.
“There are places where the nation provides support and there are places where it comes from the people,” said Hanni. “The success story is empowering the students. They learn that they can do more.”