Sivan Ya’ari on Bringing Israeli Innovation to Rural Africa
Born in France, raised in Israel and educated in the United States, Sivan Ya’ari, 41, is best known for her work in rural Africa, where she has been instrumental in using Israeli technology to bring clean water, solar power and electricity to an estimated one million people living in 300 villages across the continent.
The vehicle for that work is Innovation: Africa, the nonprofit organization Ya’ari founded in 2008. Using solar-powered devices, her group installs electric water pumps to draw clean groundwater in places where residents previously had to walk miles to reach water. In addition, the program generates electricity for schools and clinics.
Ya’ari, who also owns a chain of beauty salons in Israel and was named one of the 50 most influential women in Israel by Forbes Israel in 2016, lives in Tel Aviv with her husband and three children. We caught up with her during a recent trip to Ethiopia, one of 10 African countries where the New York-based enterprise operates. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why is Innovation: Africa so focused on solar energy?
Because energy means water. There are still 400 million people in Africa who don’t have access to clean water, or any water at all. By providing this basic thing that every human needs through solar-powered water pumps, everything else improves. People are healthier, children can get the nourishment they need to go to school, businesses are created by entrepreneurs for growing food, selling food, making bricks.
In our newest client country, Zambia, some villagers in the south have been eating leaves because there’s so little rain. Like in the other countries, we’re going to start by using contractors to drill and reach underground aquifers. We’ll install a solar pump. We’ll build a nearly 33-foot-high tower with a 2,600-gallon tank. Through gravity, water will flow to the 10 to 15 taps that we’re going to install. Our contribution is quite modest: We’re capturing energy from the sun up above to pump water from down below.
How do African communities react when they learn about the role Israel plays in your projects?
We’re very proud to say we’re from Israel. In many villages, they only know about Israel from the Bible. On the government level, we’re quite welcome because they understand that we’re in Africa to share technological knowledge and build infrastructure. Knowing the incredible success Israel has had in the last 70 years, most government politicians we meet look up to Israel.
Your organization used to be called Jewish Heart for Africa. Why did you change it?
Because villagers thought we were there to convert them. That wasn’t the case, and I wanted to emphasize the Israel part, so we renamed it Innovation: Africa with the tagline, “Israeli innovations saving lives in Africa.”
How do Jewish values guide your work?
There are verses from Genesis 12:2-3 that keep me going. God promised Abraham: “I will make you a great nation. You will be a blessing. And through your descendants all the families on Earth will be blessed.” I think that if you take a step back and look at Israel, such a small country with so much innovation, God has something to do with it. I believe it is all part of the greater plan. Only now, by sharing Israeli innovation, can we truly fulfill our destiny of being a blessing, by helping all the families on Earth.
We’ve just launched a new technology we call the energy box. We’ve assembled in one box everything needed to bring energy to a school or a medical center. It’s all Israeli: LED light bulbs from Kibbutz Tzuba near Jerusalem, batteries and an HMI [Human-Machine Interface, a kind of dashboard that connects a person to a device]. Inside the box, we have our remote management system, so at any point any donor—including a bar or bat mitzvah who has “adopted” one of our villages—can see in real time how much water we are pumping in their village.
Uriel Heilman is a journalist based in New York working for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.