When Dennis Tomoina left his small rural community in Oloitokitok, Kenya, he was young, innocent, and a little frightened. He had never been out of the country, yet he was full of hope and eager to learn. Armed with a BSc in Management of Agroecosystems and Environment, he landed in Israel in August 2017 and was whisked away to the vast Arava desert to begin his studies at Jewish National Fund-USA’s (JNF-USA) affiliate, The Arava International Center for Agriculture Training (AICAT).
Dennis had signed up for AICAT’s Diploma Program, a 10-month, practical, on-the-job training program for university graduates to further their studies in agriculture and make a difference in their communities. Aimed at farmers from developing countries in Asia and Africa, the program is based on the principle of “Learning by Doing.” It gave him the opportunity to gain practical experience on an advanced and modern Israeli Moshav (a cooperative agricultural community of individual farms) while participating in theoretical studies, experiencing community life, and receiving guided tours of the area.
Over the past three years, Dennis graduated from the program, returned home for a year, spent a second year at AICAT as a group leader helping other African students from Kenya and The Gambia, and was named one of the first three recipients of the newly-implemented Dean Family Fellowship Grant program.
“I can’t believe what has happened since I arrived in Israel,” said Dennis. “I was only 23 and so naïve and scared. I had never been so far from my family and community and didn’t know what to expect. You hear so much about Israel in the news, yet we were welcomed with open arms, and everyone was so warm and friendly.”
Accelerating Startups Through Strong Partnerships
The Dean Family Fellowship Grant program is a 5-year partnership between JNF-USA, the Dean family from Philadelphia, PA., and AICAT. The program aims to provide encouragement, financial backing, and mentorship to deserving students who have the vision, courage, and determination to make a difference in their local communities, in their own lives, and across borders and cultures.
Being a recipient of the first-ever Dean Family Fellowship Grant has taken the Kenyan’s AICAT experience to a new level.
“As a group leader, it has been an honor to be able to offer personal guidance and leadership to others from Kenya and Gambia so they too can benefit from my experience. I understand their fears, their needs, the challenges they face when coming to a new country, and I can be there for them. I am also the bridge between them, the farmers, and the AICAT staff,” said Dennis.
Kenya is home to many subsistence farmers with few households producing enough surplus product to sell. Most grow maize and beans, but their crops often fail due to unpredictable weather. Dennis Tomoina formed a group with two AICAT graduates from Kenya to develop an agricultural startup that will benefit their community – and the Mhogo Village-Cassava Farm was born.
“We were very lucky to win this grant and we’re very excited about it,” Dennis said, “but it’s my community that has won. The cassava development project is going to be my gift to my community. We’re very grateful to the Dean family, JNF-USA, and to AICAT for making this possible.”
Sharing Agricultural Innovation with the World
AICAT opened its doors in January 1994 in Sapir, a small community in the central Arava. Having started with a small group of 25 students from Thailand, with the support of JNF-USA, AICAT now trains more than 1,000 students annually from academic institutes in mostly Asia and Africa, including Indonesia, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Myanmar, Nepal, Kenya, The Gambia, and many more.
According to Hanni Arnon, AICAT’s executive director, the past 27 years have seen tremendous growth of the AICAT program and resulted in developments that she didn’t expect.
“I could never have imagined that we would grow so dramatically and have such an enormous impact – not only in our students’ lives, but also in their communities,” she said. “In addition, Israel’s ties with the countries that send us students have grown stronger, and in cases like Indonesia, created ties that didn’t exist before.”
Another significant development is the AICAT campus. AICAT previously shared buildings with government departments and various organizations. However, thanks to the generosity of the Perlman Family of RI, JNF-USA built the Claire and Marc Perlman Campus and AICAT now “has a dedicated campus that is a second home for our students,” she said.
A Love of the Land: L’dor V’dor – From Generation to Generation
The Arava has been connecting the Dean family to the land and people of Israel for three generations. David Dean visited the desert on Israel’s eastern border in the 70s when there was very little around. He saw the enormous potential at the time and passed his views onto his son, Morris, and grandchildren Daniel and Ilana.
Morris and his wife Beryl have been supporting JNF-USA in one way or another for the past five decades, with a particular focus on the Arava. Morris, one of the most well-known lawyers in Philadelphia, started taking his family to the Arava before most people even knew where it was. In addition, Daniel’s sister, Ilana, is a member of the JNF-USA’s Board of Directors for Eastern Pennsylvania.
Four years ago, when his son, Daniel was planning a trip to Israel, Morris asked him to visit the Arava to find out what developments were being made and how best they could support them.
With the help of Marina Furman, JNF-USA’s executive director of National Major Donor Advancement, Daniel was introduced to JNF-USA’s CEO Russell Robinson. After many discussions about the various opportunities, Russell arranged a tour of the different ventures, projects, and companies. Daniel was impressed by the growth of the Arava and what was happening in the area, yet he was deeply impacted by one of the projects in particular – the Arava International Center for Agriculture Training (AICAT).
“AICAT was attracting students from countries that had a long history of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment and they were spending at least a year in Israel, learning from Israeli farmers, being taught Israeli methodologies, falling in love with the country and the Israeli work ethic, and seeing firsthand Israel’s determination to help the rest of the world,” said Daniel.
“After I left Israel, promising to find a way to support AICAT, I was told that they needed new dormitories among other things,” he said. “However, I wanted to do something that would have an impact over a potentially far longer term. I realized that if we could help them achieve their goals by providing seed capital to develop and grow a sustainable business, mentor them to help them succeed, and give them a second or even third round of funding once they’d reached each milestone, this could help them and their communities become independently wealthy and thus, less vulnerable to governments or big companies that would take advantage,” he said.
Accelerating Startups Through Strong Partnerships
Not long after Daniel’s visit to the Arava, with JNF-USA’s support, the process to find candidates for the inaugural Dean Family Fellowship Grant began. Modelled on the Wharton Business School (Daniel’s alma mater) grants to entrepreneurial students, a business plan contest for teams of three or more second-year students (team leaders) was launched, and 14 teams, made up of students and alumni applied.
“In November 2020, after narrowing the numbers down during different stages of the contest, three extremely worthy winners, who presented excellent business plans, were announced,” said Daniel.
Dennis Tomoina, Menawati ‘Mena’ Hutabalian, and Vanna Re became the first recipients of the grant.
Mena, a young woman from Indonesia, is looking to prove to her highly patriarchal society what women can achieve with her newly-founded “Harpe Model Farm – Chili Peppers for All Seasons.”
Vanna hails from Cambodia. He aims to help rice farmers with his “Dried Rice Production” business, which will help with drying the rice and providing storage solutions.
Most rice farmers in Cambodia sell their produce only during harvest season, due to their inability to dry or store rice without the crop spoiling. This project will offer farmers the service to dry, store, and sell their rice all year round and not just at harvest time (when the price is at its lowest).
Additional Support Grows Second Grant Program
Not long after the inaugural grant program was launched, an anonymous San Francisco donor doubled the amount of the existing grant for the second year, enabling the Dean Family Fellowship Grant to reach more than double the recipients.
This year, there will be 10 grants awarded, each for a minimum of $5,000, to be paid in two installments based on the progress of the projects.
There is no doubt that Daniel has embraced the Dean family’s legacy, which lives on in the Arava. Their contribution will have a far-reaching, sustainable impact on developing communities throughout the world well into the future.
For more information about JNF-USA’s work in the Arava supporting sustainable agriculture, contact JNF Chief Israel Emissary Tali Tzour at [email protected] or visit jnf.org.