As Israeli Ambassador Yahel Vilan ends his two-year posting, Kenya is suffering from drought and food insecurity and has been forced to import food.
Israel, a tiny country of 21,000 square kilometres and a population of 8.7 million, is famous for turning the desert green with agricultural innovation, such as drip irrigation.
And it exports fresh produce.
Kenya with 48 million people covers more than 581,000 square kilometres, much of it arid and desert, some of it verdant, well-irrigated and perfect for agriculture. And yet it’s struggling.
In a wide-ranging interview, Vilan discussed Israel’s assistance to Kenya in agriculture, especially the Galana-Kulalu irrigation project in Tana River.
It is being developed with Israeli expertise and run by an Israeli company. It’s largely funded by Kenya.
Though the project has been criticised by some in Kenya for not producing enough, Vilan called the project — which is a pilot — a success that will help transform Kenyan agriculture.
According to chief engineer and project manager Thuita Mwangi, the third harvest from 2,500 acres delivered 93,860 bags. About 1,000 locals are employed.
Describing how Israel became so successful despite the geographic and climatic challenges, Vilan said, “We knew from the beginning that we didn’t have choices. We wanted to strive, first and foremost for our own consumption. We needed to base our agriculture on technology.
“We had scarcity of water and we had to find solutions, which we did through drip irrigation and use of treated water. Israel is currently number one in usage of treated water for agriculture.”
Vilan said bold and consistent decision–making at national and county levels is essential if if Kenya is to be food secure.
“There is no reason Kenya should have to import food,” the envoy said.
State and local governments should not sit and wait for the next drought, the ambassador said.
Rainwater must be harvested and better managed, instead of going to waste. This, he says, is a matter of policy-making and leadership.
Vilan called critism of the Galana-Kulalu project premature.
“The Kenyan people one day had nothing. We go for this ambitious project and almost immediately, there is criticism. If people expected miracles and immediate yields, that is not possible. It is okay to criticise but I invite everyone to go there and see with their own eyes.”
The first maize crop was harvested when Vilan arrived in the country in September 2015.
In less than two years, he says, 30-40 bags of maize are being harvested per acre, as promised.
“We also should remember, the goal of Galana, as of now in this pilot project, is not to solve Kenya’s food shortage but to introduce technologies and methods for farmers for the future. This is an experiment testing different varieties of maize and other crops. The plan is not just to produce maize and other food products but also to ensure every farmer in Kenya sees how these technologies can work here. We have seen governors and ministers going to Israel and saying it is working there and they want to see it working in Kenya. Agriculture is not cut-and-paste. But, in the end, this [Galana-type agriculture]is the solution to Kenya’s food security.” the ambassador said.
To avoid a repeat of the collapse of the Kibwezi irrigation project — into which Israel pumped Sh300 million into 14 years ago — the envoy says they have introduced the training aspect in Galana, so Kenyans can learn to run it by themselves.
“Kibwezi was running well as long as our experts were on the ground. But as soon as they left, everything collapsed. One segment that we’ve put in Mwea, Kirinyaga, is having a training centre jointly with the Kenyan government — the Kenya-Israel Drought Resilient Centre. We are also taking a batch of 100 Kenyans every year for six years for training in Israel. These are people the government and the counties should use as extension officers on the ground,” Vilan said.
He also discussed terrorism, the Israel-Palestine conflict and other issues.
Israel is assisting Kenya in security and fighting al Shabaab and preventing attacks and hopes to increase cooperation.
Q: How is Israel handling terrorism?
A: It is exactly like the awater and agriculture situation. We became advanced because we had no other choice. What became a world challenge has been our problem for decades. Even before the state was established, there were all-out conventional wars between natives or armies of the Arab world and Israel. And when they failed, the Palestinians found terrorism as a very efficient way to attract attention in the ‘70s and ‘80s, if you remember the Entebbe, Uganda, operation. We had to find solutions.
The other problem with terrorists is that they are always a step ahead, and you have to think and find solutions not to past attacks but for the future. What we see in Europe is a more complex threat of terrorism because people don’t need weapons. They just take trucks and drive them into public. All these methods, as much as they make it very simple, mean less coordination between terror cells and thus are more difficult to trace and prevent. It is easy to prevent in theory but when you have people waking up one morning and driving a truck into public in London or Berlin, it becomes more difficult to prevent.
Q:. What inspires these youths in Europe and elsewhere to commit these atrocities? Are they internationalising the Arab world conflicts?
A: For way too long, people were attacking Israel for the fact that the root of terrorism is some political conflict, and so, if you do this or that with the Palestinians, there will be no terrorism. But we showed the world again and again that there was no correlation between the waves of terrorism and the peace process with the Palestinians. The peak of terror attacks against Israel came after Camp David in 2000, in 1996, when there was a leftist government in Israel and in 1993, when we signed the Oslo Accord. You can’t say these attacks came as a result of frustrations. There was hope. And the same is happening in Europe.
Some of these youths are living better than their parents: Receiving the best education and employment. Then they become followers of crazy and violent terror groups in Iraq and Syria and take this to Europe. It is also difficult because historically, violence has to sire some political course. Here, you can’t understand the motivation or the goals. They just want to terrorise people. And to combat this, we need a united front among all the countries.
Q: This is he 50th anniversary of Israel’s West Bank occupation. Amnesty International called for a boycott of all goods produced in “illegal settlements” and cited what it called mass human rights violations against Palestinians. Your view on an end to the conflict?
A: It is complicated. If you look at the map of Israel and think of what we have witnessed in 15-20 years, and how the peace process has developed since Oslo, I think there is still a lot of mistrust. Every time we pull back from territories we thought are not friendly neighbours, we had terrorists shooting at us from Gaza and when we pulled out of Lebanon. At the moment, there is not much trust among the Israelis that pulling out of the West Bank will take us or the Palestinians any closer to two-state coexistence. This is on the political aspect. But despair is not an option and we should not give up on the hope to live in peace. And I won’t say the last 50 years for the Palestinians has not been a tragedy, especially for the refugees. But for those living in territories under Israeli rule, their standards of living are better than anywhere in the Arab world. But boycotting goods will harm these Palestinians employed in these companies. I don’t think this is abuse of human rights. It is ridiculous to claim so and to bash Israel as a violator of human rights is imbalanced and unjust and won’t improve the lives of the Palestinians an inch. And I think the international organisations and the UN are unfair to us for their own merit and goals. Politics should remain in the UN Security Council, New York. There is no reason to use millions of dollars to pass 20 or 22 resolutions against Israel every year, creating fake committees against us doing nothing.
Q: Gulf countries have severed ties with over its alleged support of terrorism. Your view?
A: The issue with Qatar is very clear. You can’t hold the stick from both ends. You must decide from which end of the court you are fighting. Financing Barcelona FC and having Al Jazeera is very nice, but when you use this money to support terrorism publicly and openly through Hamas and other organisations, it is unacceptable. And this action by the Arab countries is very important to send a clear message that you are either with us or against us. I am happy that these countries took this blunt step.
Q: What’s your favourite place in Kenya?
A: Maasai Mara.
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