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November 18, 2017

Canaan is a desert but full of milk, fresh food: Kenyan students share experience in Israel

Cows being milked at a farm in Israel.
Cows being milked at a farm in Israel.

Their journey to 'Canaan' took less than six hours, followed by some four more hours to the desert.

Once inside the desert, the Kenyans took an increasingly lonely road to Arava, the dry area south of the Dead Sea basin, which forms part of the border between Israel to the west and Jordan to the east.

It's part of the region historically known as Canaan, now most of it inside of Israel.

Kenneth Chepkwony was ecstatic and did not let the journey waste away, as he captured as much as possible on his camera.

The less than a day's journey is said to have taken Biblical figures Moses and Joshua 40 years — to deliver people just from Egypt to Canaan — evidence of how modern technology has collapsed distances.

'Canaan' is widely used in Kenyan politics as a metaphor for liberation from oppression to prosperity.

Besides Chepkwony were two other Kenyans, Mohammed Abdi and Ronald Diang'a — all 24 years old.

In the last two hours, the land sloped gently down south.

Although the region is scenic, with colourful cliffs and sharp-topped mountains, in reality, it is a harsh, expansive desert known as the Negev.

This part of the desert, the Kenyans learned, is called Arava or Arabah, which in Hebrew means "desolate and dry area".

The southern Arava is hot and dry and virtually without rain.

It is the farthest thing from the proverbial 'Canaan' they had in mind, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Nothing can grow here unless it is made to. And that is what the three 24-year-old Kenyans are here for.

HIGHEST-YIELDING DAIRY COWS

The three are among 102 Kenyan beneficiaries of an internship programme by the Arava International Centre for Agriculture and Training in Israel.

The centre was established in 1994 to expose different students from developing countries to the sophisticated agricultural technologies available here every year.

The Kenyans immersed themselves in the region for 12 months to gain advanced knowledge in agriculture and food production.

The last group returned home in June, yearning to contribute to Kenya's agricultural revolution.

“I come from an agricultural family that relies solely on natural rainfall. Sadly, such traditional approaches have hindered local communities from growing food sufficiently. This inspired me to apply to Aicat,” says Chepkwony, who graduated from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in 2015 with a degree in Animal Health and Production Processes.

Although Arava is a dried-out desert, the main source of livelihood is advanced agriculture.

The region has roughly 500 farming families who produce 60 per cent of Israel’s fresh vegetable exports and 10 per cent of its cut flower exports, despite an average yearly rainfall of only one inch.

Aicat usually pairs students with farmers who have contributed to agricultural innovation in Israel.

The students take classes at the centre two days every week, then join the farmers for the rest of the week.

Chepkwony was attached to a dairy and dates farm within Arava.

Research shows cows in Israel, mostly reared in the desert, produce the highest amount of milk per animal in the world, with an average of 12,000 litres per cow per year, outperforming the US and the EU.

“Most operations are computerised, feeding is computer-controlled, milking too. Cows walk with a computer tag on the leg, which gives all the history of the cow, the milk you expect, and its full physiological status,” Chepkwony says.

A cow in Kenya produces an average of less than 5,000 litres a year, according to the livestock department.

But Chepkwony believes Kenya can still catch up.

THRIVING UNDER THREAT

The three students have founded an initiative they call KenArava Group, through which they hope to practise in Kenya what they learnt in Israel.

They recently met Agriculture CS Willy Bett, industrialist Chris Kirubi and a host of other influential Kenyans.

“We have been there. We have the experience to transform our country to food secure. We also want to offer extension services,” says Ronald Diang'a.

He was attached to a pepper producing farm in a Moshav — a type of cooperative agricultural settlement — for the one year.

He learned that Israelis have used their background as a nation under threat to propel growth.

This ambition born from that anxiety has made them a worldwide leader in agriculture and hi-tech.

They can be daring, self-confident, creative, flexible, and have the ability to improvise quickly, he says.

“I also developed the third eye that they have. We can do this here at home. The three of us started a network called Kenarava Group. Through this, we can make Kenya food secure. Yala yala! (slogan to mean let's get things going).”

He believes Kenya's farming potential is even greater than Israel's, where weather is highly unfavourable and water is scarce.

In Kenya, farming accounts for about 60 per cent of employment and almost 80 per cent of the population, especially those living in rural areas, derive their livelihood from agricultural activities.

But the sector is highly under-developed, and largely relies on erratic rains and traditional practices.

This explains why the food produced is always inadequate and, at any moment, about three million people are on relief food.

Diang'a, a geology graduate from the University of Nairobi, says farming should be given higher priority to promote national development.

He believes their initiative, KenArava, will grow and one day reach the heights of GreenArava, the Israeli company currently managing the Galana irrigation scheme.

GreenArava was also established in the Arava region in 2002 as a developer and producer of modern agricultural products.

Today, it is one of Israel’s largest private farming companies, with offices in Kenya, Myanmar and Ukraine, and a distribution network in more than 15 countries.

AGAINST ALL ODDS

Immediate former Israeli Ambassador Yahel Vilan strongly believes the private sector can make Kenya food secure.

“These people can change the structure of agricultural extension in Kenya. They came back home with hands-on experience. For me it's important that this won't be lost,” he says.

Yahel says the Galana project will be a game changer if Kenyans are patient.

“If we have the patience to let them work, it will be a game changer. In five years there won't be food shortage,” he says.

As part of the Galana deal with the government, the GreenArava trains at least 100 Kenyans every year on the latest agricultural technologies.

“If we want a long-lasting project, then training for Kenyans to do the job is crucial,” Yahel says.

Mohammed Abdi, an alum of Kenya Water Institute, was attached to a farm run by GreenArava.

“Arava is a desert,” he says. “Yet they grow all food varieties. They grow Capsicum, peppers, fruits and 60 per cent is for export.”

He adds: “You have to take every challenge as an opportunity. This is what has allowed farmers in this region to beat all odds.”

Mohammed was the group leader of all Kenyans and says he learned more than food production.

“Within Israel, Christians, Muslims and Jews live peacefully with each other. I have also met students from 102 countries, coming from different backgrounds. From the desert, I've learned that every challenge can be an opportunity.”

Chepkwony also extended his interest beyond farming.

He developed a passion for agricultural photography. He says the Kenyans grew with the crops in the farms where they worked.

He took photos of crops from planting to harvesting, and believes agricultural photography is untapped in Kenya.

“Through photography we can also encourage many young people to go into farming,” he says.

There were challenges, too. “Back at home, I was raised in a tropical climate characterised by a lack of seasons. In the Southern Negev, I have been exposed to both heat and cold in significantly high measure,” Chepkwony says.

Arava's desert climate is harsh, and temperatures sizzle around 40 degrees Celsius in summer — hotter than any part of Kenya.

It is also sparsely populated, with the large distance between communities being approximately an hour’s drive.

“The fact that farmers have created a food basket, right in the middle of a desert, indicates the complex nature of human intellectual sophistication — this is a real challenge to all nations across the world,” he says.

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