By Alex Traiman/JNS.org
In a strategic win-win-win for the U.S., Israel and Africa, the Jewish state has been welcomed into a multi-billion-dollar initiative that aims to dramatically raise the standard of living for as many as 600 million sub-Saharan Africans currently living in poverty and without electricity.
On Dec. 4 in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attended the signing of a memorandum of understanding on Israel’s incorporation into the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Power Africa initiative.
The project offers the promise to steer billions of dollars in international foreign aid to Israeli entrepreneurs so that they can develop innovative high-tech energy solutions for Africans who are not connected to the power grid.
“The U.S. and Israel are cooperating on this because we are the superpower of innovation, and America is a superpower,” said Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Israel-based Energiya Global Capital, an official partner and co-founder of Power Africa. “When you put these two forces together, you should be able to crack the code and bring energy to 600 million people.”
Abramowitz told JNS.org that the key to the deal’s success for Africa and the primary driver of Israel’s ability to participate is “private sector leverage,” noting that “there is not enough foreign aid in the world to transform an entire continent to lift people out of poverty.”
Rather, Abramowitz noted that the Power Africa model uses “international resources strategically with leverage so that the private sector feels comfortable to come in.” For Israeli innovators, he said Power Africa provides “risk-reducing grants” and enables Israeli companies the opportunity to “get 70 percent financing on our deals from the U.S. government, so that really helps.”
Yet the signing does not necessarily guarantee funds for Israeli companies.
“Just because the markets open up, [that] doesn’t mean that every deal that gets announced is going to go to a financial close. These are tough countries, with tons of political instability,” Abramowitz said.
Israel’s burgeoning relationship with Africa
The signing came just days after Netanyahu returned from his third trip to Africa in the past 18 months. Netanyahu has touted his restoration and expansion of relations with multiple African nations as one of his greatest diplomatic accomplishments. Prior to his visits, the last Israeli prime minister to visit Africa was Yitzhak Shamir in 1987.
Diplomatic relations with many African nations soured when Arab countries convinced Africans to sever ties with Israel following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Since that time, Israel has shifted from a developing nation to a country that has utilized ingenuity and foreign investment to propel itself into the first world—a model that many African nations would now like to follow.
The near continent-wide boycott of Israel as well as its relevant technology and entrepreneurial spirit seemingly did little for African nations, who are increasingly realizing the upside of working with the Jewish state.
Zambia, for instance, opened an embassy in Israel in 2015 and is now among the countries that is leading Africa closer towards the Israelis. In the days leading up to the Power Africa signing, Zambian President Edgar Chagwa Lungu said he intends to collaborate with Netanyahu on hosting a multinational summit of African leaders in 2018.
During Netanyahu’s trip to Kenya on Nov. 28, the Israeli leader and Rwandan President Paul Kagame jointly announced that Israel would open an embassy in Rwanda.
Asked why African nations have warmed up to Israel in recent years, Zambia’s Ambassador to Israel Martin Mwanambale told JNS.org, “To put it shortly, it’s the technology…as ambassador, I am exposed to a lot of the technology Israel has to offer.”
Desperate for Israeli technology
Mwanambale said Africa provides fertile ground for Israeli innovation because the continent is desperate for solutions to problems that other countries haven’t grappled with for decades.
“We are having a lot of different companies getting involved in Zambia in the agricultural sector, in the energy sector and in security,” Mwanambale said.
Ambassadors from 10 African nations attended the Power Africa signing, including from Zambia, Rwanda, Kenya, Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Tanzania, Cote d’Ivoire and South Sudan.
Speaker of the South Sudanese Parliament Anthony Lino also attended the event as part of his first visit to the Jewish state. Lino said his country “is a new nation, but historically, we have long ties with the state of Israel.”
“We are in an age of globalization, where countries have to put their acts together to advance something,” Lino told JNS.org.
“We want to partner with Israel in the areas of clean energy, technology, education, agriculture and water purification,” he said. “Because 80 percent of our land is arable, good for agriculture, we want to make the technology advanced, so we can make use of our land and grow produce for export. Israel is good in that technology.”
Glenn Yago, senior director of the Milken Innovation Center at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, told JNS.org that one of Israel’s major “comparative advantages” over other developed nations when it comes to forging technological ties in Africa is that “we were also a developing economy over much of the last 70 years until we became a developed economy.”
“The path that Israel has taken in its economic growth is one that can be emulated,” Yago said.
At the Power Africa signing, Netanyahu said the initiative “will electrify Africa—well, literally and figuratively. This is bringing light, and every time that an African mother will turn on the light or turn on a heater for some water for her children, part of Israel will be there….And it comports with a vision that I have, which is to have Israel come back to Africa and have Africa come back to Israel.”