Opinionista Arthur Lenk 25 September 2014

Israel’s innovation experience is relevant for South Africa

For those who see Israel only through the prism of Hamas terror tunnels or rockets, it may be surprising that at the most recent Davos World Economic Forum, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke exclusively about innovation and investment. Israeli innovation has become world-renowned.

Business leaders from China and Japan to California’s Silicon Valley visit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to find the next great idea and then are investing. Despite, or perhaps because of, the regional challenges it faces, Israel has become a central international stop for investors who have paid billions for start-ups such as Waze (a GPS-like social network bought by Google in June 2013 for nearly $1 billion) and Mobileye (an automobile collision avoidance technology, raised $890 million in a Wall Street IPO in July 2014).

Bestsellers such as “Start-up Nation” examine the range of unique characteristics that made Israel’s tech ecosystem into such an international phenomenon. Earlier this month, Israel was ranked third in the world in innovation in the 2014-2015 Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum. Some reasons include decision-making responsibilities and developing advanced creative defence technologies by young Israeli soldiers, the world’s highest public investment (4% of GNP) in research and development, the small physical size of the country and Israel’s highly educated population. Some of these cannot be simply copied or learned but others have real application for countries like South Africa that have targeted innovation as keys to economic growth.

Despite extreme instability throughout the Middle East and frustration that peace between Israel and some of its neighbours has seemed elusive, the world’s most dynamic multinationals choose to make research and development in Israel a centerpiece of their international networks. While much of its region struggles with basic development needs or is totally dependent on oil exports, Israel has become a fully successful developed economy. Companies such as Intel, Microsoft and Apple, to name only three, have been in Israel for years and have strategic research facilities in Israel’s “silicon wadi” leading the development of cyber security systems, micro-processers and apps that make the internet’s superhighways move smoother and safer.

Chapter 9 of South Africa’s National Development Plan makes this country’s challenges for innovation clear:

“Continued advances in technological innovation and the production of new knowledge are critical to growth and development. Achieving a competitive and sustainable economy will require a strong and effective system of innovation, science and technology. The research and innovation system also needs to contribute to transformation.”

This week, a delegation of 22 South African leading innovators is visiting Israel with the South Africa-Israel Forum to learn some of Israel’s lessons that might have application here. Also this week, local health-tech entrepreneur, Simon Spurr, one of the founders of “My 30 Day”, is in Israel after he won the inaugural Start Tel Aviv SA contest, besting over 50 outstanding South African companies. He will tour Israel with similar contest winners from 17 other countries, all looking to bring home a bit of Israel’s magic. This should only be the start: both national and provincial government decision-makers here can follow colleagues from India, who Israel visited and reached bilateral agreements on joint investment frameworks to spur innovation.

In the meantime, Israeli innovation is already impacting areas such as South Africa’s agriculture scene, with small-scale farmers using Israeli techniques and technologies for drip irrigation and pest control in Mpumalanga, hundreds of greenhouses using Israeli technology, and a major nursery growing advanced seedlings getting ready for inauguration next month in the Western Cape. Across Africa, Israeli green-tech such as solar and water technologies are offering cost-effective and locally viable solutions to classic dilemmas. In healthcare, Israel’s innovations are offering tools in community medicine and for reducing the risks of infectious diseases from HIV to Ebola. In telecommunications, nearly every South African company uses Israeli applications to offer advanced connectivity all over this country.

Recently, I shared a presentation in Cape Town, at the 7th SA Innovation Summit, on exactly this topic, hoping to inspire friends here to learn about how Israel and South Africa can do more together and how building partnerships between entrepreneurs from our two countries can impact development for both countries and for our regions.

For those who see Israel only through the prism of Hamas terror tunnels or rockets, it may be surprising that at the most recent Davos World Economic Forum, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke exclusively about innovation and investment. To a packed room of world leaders, he made the case for regional benefit through investment and innovation. He concluded by confidently stating that “Israel is not what’s wrong with the Middle East; Israel is what’s right in the Middle East, and I think our relationship with our neighbours doesn’t have to be a zero sum game; there could be a great gain for all.”

I would only add: benefits for Africa and for South Africa are already having an impact, and can more fully foster innovation by increasing cooperation. DM

Arthur Lenk is the Ambassador of Israel to SA.

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