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With Israeli tech, Amiran Kenya looks to boost East Africa’s farmers

Chris Mutune, a geenhouse caretaker for Amiran Kenya, working in one of the company's sample greenhouses. (Ben Sales)
Chris Mutune, a geenhouse caretaker for Amiran Kenya, working in one of the company’s sample greenhouses. (Ben Sales)

NAIROBI, Kenya (JTA) — Bags of seeds from the Israeli seed company Hazera Genetics line the shelves of one warehouse.

Another houses rolls of plastic from StePac, an Israeli firm whose bags can keep vegetables fresher for longer.

In a third warehouse are rows of coiled hoses, each pricked with holes engineered by Netafim, the Israeli company that pioneered drip irrigation.

The warehouses containing the latest in Israeli agricultural technology are located not on a farm in the Jewish state but 3,500 miles away on an expansive campus outside Nairobi, the booming capital of Kenya. From there they will be shipped to farmers across East Africa.

The conduit between Israeli labs and African fields is Amiran Kenya, an Israeli-founded company (now a subsidiary of the British multinational Balton CP) that brings Israeli agricultural know-how to East African farms.

Established in 1963, the year Kenya gained independence, Amiran provides supplies to farmers from planting to harvest with an eye toward supporting small growers across the region.

“We linked the farms with Israeli experts to build the industry,” said Yariv Kedar, the head of Amiran’s agriculture division. “If you have the irrigation but not the seeds, you haven’t solved the problem. If you haven’t sprayed, you haven’t solved the problem. It’s a holistic approach.”

Much of East Africa is a lush green landscape traversed by hills, forests and water sources like the Nile River and Lake Victoria. Unlike Israel, whose extensive deserts make it less than ideal for farming, the problem facing African farmers isn’t a shortage of water, according to Kedar, but the continued reliance on traditional, inefficient farming methods.

Israeli technologies such as drip irrigation — a system in which water is emitted slowly from tiny holes in hoses, thereby avoiding water loss to evaporation — provide substantial benefits even in water-rich East Africa, enabling farmers to use less water by hydrating the soil more efficiently. The African sales of Netafim’s hoses amount to $100 million of the company’s $800 million in total sales, according to Yigal Mazor, the firm’s managing director for Africa.

“Africa was always important, but in the past few years it’s become one of the growth engines for Netafim,” Mazor said. “When you look at drip irrigation worldwide, saving water is not the top priority. For the rest of the world, it gives many more advantages.”

Israeli Ambassador to Kenya Gil Haskel says Amiran isn’t the only Israeli company to see opportunity in East Africa. Several Israeli businesses, including the construction company Solel Boneh, have had a hand in developing Kenya’s economy and infrastructure.

“We had excellent relations with most of the countries prior to independence because Israel had its own struggle for independence,” Haskel said. “We feel very welcome.”

But under Kedar, who arrived at Amiran seven years ago from the Israeli agri-chemical manufacturer Makhteshim Agan, Amiran has begun to focus on small farmers who did not have access to advanced farming technology.

Amiran’s signature offering is its Farmer’s Kit, which provides small growers with everything they need, from seeds to greenhouses to fertilizer. The kits, which cost $3,300, are suitable for an eighth of an acre. For an additional fee, Amiran offers farmers monthly checkups from a trained agronomist. The company has sold 7,500 kits since 2009 and, according to Kedar, about 75 percent of the buyers are successful, making back their investment or achieving the crop yields they want.

Kedar stresses that Amiran’s main purpose is to make a profit, not to do charitable work. As a result, the company’s focus has remained on conventional farming methods, including the use of non-organic fertilizer and chemical pesticides. Amiran offers its Organic Farmer’s Kit at a slightly higher cost, but Kedar says organic is a tiny part of the company’s overall sales.

De-emphasizing organic farming could hurt farmers in the long term, according to John Cheburet, who hosts radio programs produced by The Organic Farmer, a Kenyan organization promoting organic practices. Though he praised Amiran for bringing advanced technology to Africa, Cheburet worries that marketing campaigns from large agribusinesses create the impression that conventional methods are the only way to farm.

“Long-term use of the chemical inputs has had an impact on the soil structure,” Cheburet said. “The marketing is done in such a way that it’s either this or you are doomed. If you have salespeople, their interest is to make sales, not to teach farmers the bigger picture of what farming is.”

Amiran’s organic farming representative, Ami Ben-Israel, says the division is growing, but farmers lack knowledge about organic practices and there is a limited market outside Nairobi. Of the 1,000 Farmer’s Kits sold by Amiran last year, only 40 were organic, though Ben-Israel expects an increase this year.

“In the West, people are very savvy to organic produce,” said Ben-Israel, a Black Hebrew who has taught organic farming practices in Antigua and Ghana. “Here in Kenya it’s relatively new. The consumers in the rural areas are not yet completely educated as far as the value of the organic produce, so they have been challenged selling within their region to get top dollar.”

Even with his eye on the bottom line, Kedar says Amiran is helping Kenyan farmers attain a better life. In 2010, the United Nations awarded Amiran a prize for helping eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, one of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals for Africa.

“We’re developing and training the small farmers to do an upgrade,” Kedar said. “We want them to see that from a small area, they can produce a lot.”