We’ve been talking a lot about Africa and water this week on Green Prophet. Water, because the Middle East is facing a serious drought that is putting some ecosystems (see Garden of Eden) and people’s livelihood in peril. Africa, because an international festival, Twestival, is raising money around the world next week for charity: water, an NGO that aims to create clean water for Africans, starting in Ethiopia. There are Twestivals in Israel, Qatar, Jordan, Dubai, Riyadh, Lebanon and in the Palestinian Authority (Bethlehem), but check Twestival’s website to see what the updates are.
Not to belittle the supporters of Twestival, but sometimes there are unsung heros who are doing more than turning up for an event and sending a few messages to their friends via Twitter about their support for an organization. Meet one of them: Prof. Dov Pasternak from Ben Gurion University, Israel. He’s devoted his life to turning around the agriculture problems in Africa, giving people the skills and tools to improve their livelihood.
Here’s his story, “Out of Israel to Africa”:
The continent of Africa evokes emotion: on one hand there is the impressive landscape, African tribal cultures attached to their roots, and the massive land mammals that still roam wild.
But there is another side of Africa, which is much less romantic, brought to the world’s attention through Live Aid and Sally Struthers’ commercials: its people are some of the poorest on the planet, and lack even the basics, such as water, to survive.
While not all of Africa is dry, one of the biggest battles for the continent is combating desertification and poverty, two issues that go hand in hand. Looking the problem straight in the eye and providing practical solutions to people in Africa today is Israeli Prof. Dov Pasternak.
Originally from Ben Gurion University in Israel, Pasternak has transplanted his life in Israel to Niger. Working for IPALAC (the International Program for Arid Land Crops), an Israeli initiative designed to share relevant aspects of the Israeli experience in combating desertification, Pasternak has developed a pilot project in Africa which uses his expertise on arid land agriculture and the Israeli invention — the low pressure drip irrigation systems (LPDI) — to help farmers grow crops.
In Africa, Pasternak has also joined the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), where he leads an international program.
“I am showing that an African family can make a relatively good living from a 500 square meter drip irrigated vegetable field,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
From irrigation to solar greenhouses
Among Pasternak’s achievements, he has pioneered the practice of using saline water for irrigation, has developed novel “solar” greenhouses and systems that produce crops without chemical sprays, and co-developed a system that allows farmers to supervise agricultural operations remotely. His work follows a theme: research and systems that help farmers reclaim degraded land.
“UNESCO was the first donor for IPALAC. They told us to concentrate in Africa. Which we did,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “After a while, the work in Africa became so intensive that I decided to resign my position as the director of the Institute of Agriculture and Applied Biology at Ben Gurion University and move to Africa to be able to better conduct and supervise IPALAC activities.
Since 2001, Pasternak is working as a principal scientist in an international agriculture research institute called ICRISAT. “This institute has a research station in Niger where I am working. I started [it] by myself,” he says. “Today the IPALAC group has eight scientists; some full time other part time. I am heading this group.”
His work has made such an impact in Africa that the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs international development organization — MASHAV — has recently appointed Pasternak as the Israeli representative for Western Africa. Much of his time will be focusing on the new MASHAV appointment.
Farmers of the future
“This new ‘division of labor’ will allow me to implement on a large scale the crops, technologies and systems that I have developed,” Pasternak tells ISRAEL21c.
For example: Pasternak has created a product called the African Market Garden, which is a low-pressure drip irrigation system that brings to the poor farmers of Africa all the advantages of drip irrigation at a fraction of the cost. The team has installed about 2,500 units in eight African countries.
Another project is based on an ingenious land use combining trees, annual crops and other “service providing plants.” Pasternak explains the concept: “I am also introducing fruit trees from all over the world [through IPALAC] and selecting the most promising ones. We have now in our fruit trees collection about 150 varieties. I am continuously selecting better vegetable varieties for the region and better varieties of field crops such as Roselle, cowpeas etc.”
In addition to the technologies and research Pasternak is giving to Africa, he is currently developing a new education program for village primary schools that he calls ‘Farmers of the Future.’ This way, the future generations will not only have technologies, they will know how to use them too.
(This article first appeared in ISRAEL21c.)