NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Israel has often been described as an entrepreneurial hotbed. I had a conversation with Gideon Behar, who is the chief director for Africa in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We had a conversation about entrepreneurship, innovation and green technology.
GIDEON BEHAR: Well, I would like to say, first of all, Dumelang, Shalom and also Goeie dag. I’m very happy to be here on your show, and I must say that I have encountered many people here in South Africa, many people who are open to dialogue and for exchange. I think this is very important because we live today in an era of so many global changes and so many new developments that one must find new partners and strengthen existing partnerships, etc.
In that regard Israel is one the leading countries in the world in terms of start-ups, innovation and new technologies. You may know that, per capita, Israel is number one in the world in number of start-ups. The country that comes next to us maybe is the United States – in terms of total start-ups per country we are only second to the United States. There are many, many start-ups in Israel, almost in every imaginable field of the economy, of life, of social advancement, etc.
So we think in that regard there is lots of place for cooperation between Israeli businessmen and businessmen from South Africa.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: One might be curious as to the kind of environment you have created that allows the start-ups to thrive as much. Is it regulation, is it funding? How have you been able to have so many successful start-ups?
GIDEON BEHAR: This is a very good question. Many people pose this question and the answer is probably multi-fold. But I think first and foremost, the most important thing is to have a desire for innovation, a desire for initiatives, a desire to create something new. You find it today in modern-day Israel. When you ask young people in the street what they want to be or to become when they are older, they probably won’t tell you they want to be a football player or they want to be a doctor. They would like to be entrepreneurs. They would like to be start-up people, people who start up companies in new developments, in ICT, in technology, etc. But it has to do also with money, with investment that comes to a lot of start-ups in Israel. There is lots of money flowing in from all over the world which is invested in start-ups.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: When if comes to Sub-Saharan Africa, I read an interesting stat from the World Economic Forum that says about 60% of the sub-Saharan population is under the age of 25, and governments or regional leaders have the ability to take advantage of what they call the demographic dividend. You can make advancements by investing in innovation and technology, as you mentioned.
Do you find that, through your engagements in various parts of the African continent, the regional leaders are starting to look at this innovation and technology and where technology is going, and say, “Hold on, we need to take advantage of this so that the youth and the young population can advance”?
GIDEON BEHAR: Absolutely. We see lots of demands, requests, coming from Sub-Saharan Africa to us in Israel to help them with innovation, countries that want to establish their innovation centres, to understand the importance of innovation today to the economy. This is crucial. You cannot develop an economy unless you have innovation built into whatever you do.
I can just give you an example of what we do. In one of the leading universities in Cameroon Israel is establishing the first-ever three-dimensional printer in Africa, a laboratory for three-dimension printers in Africa. So this is one of the things that we do in Africa.
Another thing is in the field of water and agriculture. We are helping countries to establish excellence centres in the fields of agriculture and water. We do it in Rwanda, we do it in Kenya, we do it in Ethiopia, and we do it in many other countries in Africa. We understand that today in order to give answers to the growing demand for food production, for instance in Africa, one must install new technologies in everyday life and everyday labour, like agriculture and water.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Speaking of water, the one thing South Africa may be able to collaborate with you on is on the topic of water, because we have just come out of a terrible drought that affected farmers. And Cape Town is going through various water issues. What sort of relationship do you see now for South Africa and Israel in solving what could be a water crisis?
GIDEON BEHAR: Absolutely – water is a prominent issue. I see many, many fields where we can cooperate together with South Africa. There are many, many fields. Absolutely, water is one of the major ones.
If you look at how Israel has solved its water problems today, you see that Israel has made huge progress. We desalinate big portions of our water from the sea; we use it for households. Later on we purify and treat the sewage water and use it for agriculture. Agriculture in Israel exists today only because of treated water, purified water which comes from the big cities. Otherwise there is not enough water in Israel for that. So this is an example that can be copied here in South Africa. There are many aspects to water. When it comes to water desalinisation, it amounts to water treatment, sewage purification, it comes to efficient waters – to use water in agriculture with drip irrigation and motor techniques which bring up agricultural yield greatly, more than twice.
Another example is of smart cities. Smart cities that inject lots of new technologies into whatever they do, the daily life of the citizens. So one of the major components of smart cities is water systems. I can give you an example. In Israel the loss of water due to leaks in the pipelines of the system is very minor. It is a quarter of what’s going on here in South Africa. So we can be also an example in that – and we can also share know-how, technology and experience.
Just to give you a simple example, a personal example, several times I got phone calls from the water company in my home town, which is a small town, not very important, and they told me, Behar, you might have a water loss in your water system, your home water system. Indeed I checked and there was a leak in my home water system, in the apartment where I live. So this is something that you can do – the introduction of new technologies, the introduction of computerised systems in urban water systems.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Let’s go back to entrepreneurship and the picture you were painting when it comes to the entrepreneurial landscape in Israel. Depending on whichever entrepreneur you speak to, whether from Israel or from different parts of the world, they have a unique relationship with failure. In some countries when you start a new business failure is a big non-no. But there are other countries that embrace the word failure, because they know that when you fail you are only getting closer to success. So there is a bit of a homogenous relationship between failure and success. Do you find that that’s the case?
GIDEON BEHAR: I think this a wonderful way to say it. I do think that the way to success is with failures, and you defined failures as success. According to the way that they brought you to your target, meaning that if you have failed and you have learned a lot from that, you gained lessons. It’s not a failure any more, it’s an absolutely very important lesson that you gain along the way in order to achieve your goals. So failures, if they are treated well, if we learn our lessons from then, are not failures.
When it comes to start-ups, many of the start-ups do not succeed but money invested in start-ups know that, and they know that for every let’s say few failures there is one success, and this one success with benefit them, will cover all the losses that they have suffered and even add more value to their investment. Then they are willing to invest. And indeed lots of money is going to start-ups and to innovation companies in Israel. Either its solar energy, or water, medicine, almost every aspect that you can imagine.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Are there opportunities for South African start-ups to perhaps work with your start-ups in Israel in terms of collaboration and developing your idea and moving it to the next level?
GIDEON BEHAR: Yes, absolutely. Indeed very much so. We are looking for that, and would like to encourage this kind of cooperation. We believe in win-win situations, we believe that everyone should benefit, everyone should gain and that when I am happy and you are happy and our friend is happy, everyone is happy. So this is our philosophy. The philosophy is a philosophy of sharing, of walking together and cooperation.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: As we speak right now, technology is expanding in leaps and bounds. There are so many things people are developing with it in the AI, artificial intelligence space or Big data. What about where the future technology is going excites you right now?
GIDEON BEHAR: Many, many things. Many, many things. I could tell you my personal opinion is that the future of humankind depends on three major things. One is the development of new technologies, the second one is climate change and the third is demographic growth. They are all related and interrelated to one another.
Very exciting for me are the issues of artificial intelligence. This is something amazing in my eyes. It will change everything that we do, everything, really everything that we do. And also the issue of climate change.
Climate change has devastating effects on us, on our society and on the future of every child, woman and man on this planet. We should really walk together to find a solution to the challenges of climate change. This is also very important here in South Africa, which is suffering, a you mentioned, water crises in some areas.
People refer to these water shortages as drought. But drought is a misleading term. Drought means that it happened today and it won’t happen tomorrow. It’s a short-term event. And therefore our answers to drought are short-term answers. But, when you look at it and you say this is part of a larger picture, this is part of climate change, this is part of desertification which will last for many decades now to come unless we change our behaviour as humanity, then you try to find other solutions, long-term solutions, either by mitigation or by adaptation and by providing a solid solution for the long term.
I think that Israel and South Africa can really cooperate together on almost every aspect that we have mentioned in this interview – whether agriculture, water, renewable energies and even cybersecurity.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: We’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for your time.