Wine Therapy: A most ‘illuminating meal’

Sivan Ya’ari is providing solar panels to remote African villages, granting much-needed electricity and access to water using Israeli technology.

NBA basketball star Dikembe Mutombo with Sivan Ya’ari at a village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (photo credit: COURTESY SIVAN YA’ARI)
NBA basketball star Dikembe Mutombo with Sivan Ya’ari at a village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
(photo credit: COURTESY SIVAN YA’ARI)
Over the months that “Wine Therapy” has been interviewing interesting personalities and celebrities, this has to be the most surprising and exciting interview yet. It is a story that spans the African continent – with all its heartbreaking poverty and destitution – has a warm Jewish heart at its center, features some egocentric witches and overall is a lesson in ingenuity, courage and hope.
Sivan Ya’ari is a young Jewish woman, in her early 30s, married, with three children.
But she is also the founder of Innovation: Africa, one of the most enterprising ventures taking place in the developing world. While many world superpowers and social organizations claim to come to the aid of the struggling continent, Ya’ari and her team are succeeding in lighting up entire areas with solar energy and providing access to water in more than 80 of the most remote and isolated villages.
You can call it tikkun olam (“repairing the world through good deeds”) or simple compassion, but above all, Ya’ari can give the Western World an important lesson in care for other human beings. We are betting on her winning a Nobel Prize for Peace, and don’t forget where you heard about it first.
The Goal: To discover how Sivan Ya’ari has succeeded in lighting up Africa.
The Means: A gourmet meal at Eucalyptus in Jerusalem and Nahal Katlav Wine from the Katlav Winery.
What motivated you to establish Innovation: Africa?
I think that my background and the way I grew up in Israel motivated me to begin helping others. I was born in Rishon Lezion, to a middle class/poor family. My father lost his job at El Al when I was young and could not find a new position for two years. Finances were extremely tight so we moved to France where he and my mother opened a pizzeria. When I was 20 years old, I decided I wanted to learn English, so I traveled to America, where I worked as a waitress while pursuing my studies.
While living in New York as a student, I was looking for a summer job and one day I came across the Jordache jeans company, owned by the Nakash family. I told Mr.
Nakash I was looking for a summer job. He asked if I spoke French and when I said “yes,” he said that he had a denim factory in Madagascar and suggested sending me there to supervise the quality of the jeans. I needed the job, said “why not,” and headed to Madagascar.
Today, Madagascar is still one of the poorest countries in the world. This was the first time I had encountered poverty. The poverty I experienced in my youth was nothing like the scene I saw before me. People were truly thirsty, searching for water, food and for wood. On the way to the factory I saw the corpse of a woman lying on the side of the road, her baby still trying to nurse from her. Not a normal scene.
Jordache owned seven other factories in Africa and I was sent to these other locations as well. What I saw were the same problems – no water, limited food and everyone looking for wood to burn for heat and cooking. This sounds like an unpleasant experience. But it is what made me realize that this problem was not contained to this road in Madagascar, but that it is widespread.
So how did the solution start to ‘brew’ within you?
I decided to pursue further studies and while I was at Columbia University studying toward a masters degree in energy management I realized why the people I met in the villages didn’t have water. Sub-Saharan Africa has a great deal of water. The issues is that the water is below ground and needs to be pumped. Pumping water, though, requires energy, and the African continent suffers from extreme energy poverty.
Once you leave the airport or the capital, there is no electricity. At night, it is dark almost everywhere. In the daytime, you can see people digging with their hands and looking for water, while you know that they can find water 20 to 30 meters down.
But they need a pump and energy to get down there. The lack of energy makes women and children spend between two and three hours each day searching for water and wood. Over 700 million people, in 54 countries, have no access to energy or to safe water.
What was the starting point of your work?
In December 2007 I arrived in Tanzania as a Columbia University student, together with two other classmates. There I met the water minister, Dr. Shukuru Kawambwa, I told him that I am from Israel and interested in helping to pump water with solar energy from Israel. He took me to the villages. In the first village I met with the local women; I spoke to them and Dr. Shukuru translated.
I asked them what they needed and they said “water, vaccinations and medications.” I saw that they had a medical clinic, but there were no medications or vaccinations. I realized that this was because there was no electricity and no refrigerators to store the vaccines. I left determined to return with a source of energy and in January 2008 I came back and powered the clinic using solar energy. This was the first village.
Where did you learn all about this? Dr. Shukuru referred me to a local contractor in Dar es Salaam. I asked how much it would cost to put up solar panels. He gave me a price but told me that he was missing some parts. I then traveled to Israel where I met with representatives of Inter-Dan. I told them that I needed to purchase some batteries, solar panels and charger controls, and that they must be delivered to Tanzania. This is how Innovation: Africa was born in 2008.
Today we have installed solar energy in 84 villages and we are operating in seven countries: Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania, South Africa, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and most recently Senegal. We supply electricity to schools, medical clinics and orphanages, and provide energy to pump water in villages. It is easy, it is cheap and it is simple. All we do today is transfer the technology that exists in Israel to villages throughout Africa.
And how much does this cost? In terms of efficiency, almost nothing, only $6,000-$8,000 to connect an orphanage or school to electricity and $7,000-$8,000 to power a medical clinic. We have not invented anything, the energy comes from solar panels and the drip irrigation allows people to grow food with less water.
How does it work in practice?
We bring the drilling machine from the capital, and drill into an existing aquifer that is generally 30-40 meters below ground. We then bring the solar panels and connect the pump to the solar energy that draws the water into a big tank. From the tank, water is transported through gravity to between 10 and 12 water taps throughout the village. Today, we can build infrastructures to supply water up to a radius of two kilometers from the drill. In the villages were we have installed solar water pumps, to access clean water, all the community needs to do is open the faucet. That’s the whole story. We are pumping over 20,000 liters of clean water per day per village.
You’ve described a project that is seemingly very simple to operate.
Even so, have you encountered any difficulties?
When we set up these systems in the villages the community is delighted. But even solar systems need some basic upkeep. Who will change the light bulbs? The village doesn’t have the money for this. Who will change the batteries? Each battery costs approximately $200. This is a fortune in rural African terms. Our challenge was to build a system that would be sustainable.
This sounds like a very complex challenge.
One day I found the solution. I saw that in the villages, they do not have food, not even shoes, but almost everyone has a cellphone. Cellphones have become very popular in Africa. The villagers obtained them for free from mobile phone providers who wanted to penetrate a new market. The problem in the villages is that they have no way of charging their phones. This is when I realized we may have found a solution to the issue of sustainability. Since our projects provided a source of energy in the village, we set up a cellphone charging business at each installation site. The intention is for people to pay for charging their phones and then for the community to use this money to replace the batteries and light bulbs.
Today, there are 84 such businesses operated by local women. People come from nearby villages to charge their phones. This is the only place that is connected to electricity. It costs 10-15 cents to charge a cellphone and this money is used to maintain the bulbs and batteries. This is a highly successful business. The community often generates more money than they need to maintain the system, and they use this money for the orphans and for the upkeep of the clinics and schools.
Tell us about the people in your organization.
Innovation: Africa is an American nongovernmental organization and we are all women (not by choice – it simply occurred this way). This is a young and energetic organization. We reach villages that no one else gets to and everyone that works with me sincerely wants to help.
Tell us about one project that was exceptionally heartwarming.
I love one particular project in Uganda where the women from the village took the food that they grew with use of the water from our solar pumping system and the drip irrigation, then they sold it in the market and bought a chicken. Two years later, they have a chicken coop and they sell the eggs to make money. From the day I gave them water this village has greatly flourished. The children go to school instead of looking for water. They are healthy, because the water is clean, they have food and economically are very strong.
The medical clinics are also very important. I have three children of my own and it is personally very important to me to focus on health. When we arrive at the clinics, we see that there is no electricity, no vaccinations and no medications because there is no refrigerator. You must understand that in the countries we work in there is no lack of vaccinations and medications. But the moment they send these supplies to the villages, they all spoil since the medical clinics are not equipped to refrigerate the vaccines since there is no energy in the village.
So we put two solar collectors on the roofs for them to have access to light, and give them a 50-liter refrigerator, where they can store medications and vaccinations properly. Eventually I realized that if we want to bring a doctor from the capital to live in the village, we have to ensure that there is electricity in the house or hut.
Schools are also a high priority. In Malawi, for example, you see so many children who want to succeed, but don’t have any light to study under at night. There is no electricity.
All we do is place two very small solar panels on the school. It is very cheap, and they have light. This is generally the only place that is lit up in the dark and both children and adults come to learn, taking their system and the opportunity it brings with it very seriously. They really want to succeed and break away from the shackles of poverty.
Are there any official authorities that recognize your work?
In 2012 we became members of the UN. We were given Consultative Status to ECOSOC, the UN Economic and Social Council. In November, we were also honored to be awarded the United Nations Innovation Award for the technologies that we bring from Israel. We often speak about our work at the United Nations and also mention the positive impact Israel and Israeli technologies have had on development in Africa.
What most impressed the judges?
We bring an electric box to the villages that transmits data to a server in Israel so that we can monitor all the systems remotely. Today, we can open our computer and see how everything is running in all 84 villages. We can see when they turn a light on or off, how much energy is produced and consumed, how much water is pumped and how much is used for irrigation and consumption. If something breaks we get alerts. Our local contractors are then able to fix the problem within a few hours. We often send engineers from Israel to the field to teach our local managers and contractors how to install the Israeli technologies we are using.
It seems that it is very important for you to promote Israel through this project.
I care deeply about Israel. I am a Zionist. I care about Israel as much as I care about Africa. We have found that in the villages we work in, prior to our arrival, the communities don’t know anything about Israel. But after we help transform their lives with Israeli technology, they see us as partners. As the ones who came and helped when they needed it the most. We have brought electricity and water to over 675,000 people.
You are a young woman, a mother of three young children. It is a very complex challenge to light up Africa. Have you got time for family life? There is time, but never enough. When I am with my children – Ori, Emily and Adam – I try to be the best mother I can. And when I say that in a week I am going to Africa, they bring me shoes they don’t need and clothes that are too small for them. They also draw pictures for me to take to the schools and orphanages. When I am there, I WhatsApp them photographs of the children wearing their clothes. They get very excited and tell me that they will give me more. It makes me happy to see this type of response from them – and especially see that they forgive me because they see how happy the orphans are.
This work however, would not be possible without the love and support of my husband, David. I am very lucky.
Of all the things you do in Africa, what excites you the most?
Water. Water is life, and helping a community access safe drinking water helps not only their health but also aids in growing food. The joy in the faces of the women and kids when they see clean water for the first time is priceless.
I think that the problems rural communities in Africa face are so great, one often doesn’t know where to begin. There are challenges in access to education, health, water, infrastructure, etc. There are no roads and there is no electricity. There are 54 countries and 20-80 different languages and tribes in each. This is a very complex continent.
For this reason, I think the best solution is to help on a grassroots level. We go from one village to the next and do whatever we can on a local scale. One village at a time.
I believe that the world lacks information on how easy it is to make a difference. Everyone can do it. Believe me. We have all the answers. You only have to put them into practice. It is all about moving things from one place to another. Sharing. That’s all. If I can do it, everyone can.
What was something funny that happened to you?
Each country is unique; different cultures, tribes and religions. For example, I came to a village we power in Tanzania. It was evening and there was no light, no children.
I connected the electricity, but there was no one there. I asked to meet the principal, but he wasn’t there. The teachers also weren’t there. Finally, someone told me that there were witches who do not like the light because it takes away their powers. The teachers told me that if I want to disturb the witches, they will have to “call a special doctor from Dar es Salaam, give him three cats and he will eat their blood.”
I told them that if they did not sort out their witches within a month I was taking the solar collectors to another village. And that is what I did. I gave the system to another village that was eagerly waiting for us to bring them energy.
Where do you see yourself [and your organization] in 10 years’ time?
In 10 years’ time I want to be out of business. I don’t want to see people thirsty and hungry any more. This shouldn’t be happening in our generation. It is great that I am going from one village to the next, but we have to do this on a much grander scale. I hope that Africa today will follow in the steps of China 15 years ago. That the continent will grow socially, economically, that it won’t stay stagnant.
The people we meet are good people, they want to succeed, they have dreams and hopes. We just have to help them out of the “survival mode,” out of living for the moment. If we can help them out of this vicious cycle, they will thrive on their own, because they want to.
For more information, to get involved or to make a donation email Sivan: or visit