Investing in: Israel

Israel’s high-tech diplomacy in Africa

Ferry Biedermann, special to
Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu greet people during his arrival at James Spriggs Payne Airport in Monrovia, Liberia on June 04, 2017.
Handout | Prime Ministry of Israel | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Israel is paying renewed attention to Africa over the last few years, not only as a diplomatic arena and an area of cooperation on security but also as an increasingly important market for its companies, with an emphasis on high-tech.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the West African economic community summit in Liberia over the weekend, less than a year after he toured East Africa, and he's due to attend another summit in Togo before the end of the year.

While Netanyahu has said that he hopes improved relations with Africa will prop up Israel's diplomatic position at international forums such as the United Nations, that effort seems to be supported by, and go hand in hand with, an economic drive. In Liberia, Israeli solar power company Energiya Global announced a $20 million investment in a new solar field to supply electricity.

Netanyahu last September also attended a special "Israeli technology and innovation for Africa" event at the UN in New York at which Israeli high-tech companies stalled out their wares in front of heads of states and other representatives.

Africa is expected to account for 50 percent of the world's population growth through 2050, currently has the fastest growing middle class and saw an explosive 58 percent mobile broadband growth rate from 2015 to 2016, according to 2016 a PwC report entitled, Disrupting Africa: Riding the wave of the digital revolution.

Among the Israeli companies presenting in New York last year were life sciences firm MobileODT, which makes devices and networked solutions that allow medical diagnostics using mobile phones and Water-gen, which makes devices that literally make clean drinking water from the air. MobileODT is currently active in Africa while Water-gen sees great opportunities, with 40 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa living in water scarce environments.

MobileODT's CEO and founder, Ariel Beery is enthusiastic about bringing his products to Africa. It started with largely aid-based projects, supported by the hospital systems his company does business with in the US and by local Rotary clubs and Save the Children but now he markets directly to African countries.

"I think there is an amazing range of opportunity, despite the fact that the market moves still a little bit slower than Western and Northern markets, the African continent is an exceptional place for companies to grow in," says Beery. One of the continent's advantages is that it is able to "leapfrog" to new technology because older, more established, and more expensive, systems are often not in place.

In Africa, MobileODT currently sells a device it calls EVA, for enhanced visual assessment, that in combination with a mobile phone can be used by non-expert medical staff to detect either cervical cancer or oral cancer or can be used for sexual assault documentation. It sends the information to centralized servers and follows up on the patient's progress.

"With a technology such ours, which is small, affordable and significantly more powerful than existing medical devices because of its connectivity and ability for collaboration and database management and machine-learning, while the United States is an interested market and we're able to sell pretty regularly there, in Africa the potential to impact is so much more significant," says Beery.

Water-gen also has big plans for Africa once it starts mass production of its devices to make water from the air later this year. Executive chairman Maxim Pasik says that his company is currently talking to African partners to start selling the devices on the continent. He sees opportunities both in the form of aid projects and selling to governments.

"The most important is through government projects. The people don't have a lot of money but the governments still needs to provide water to drink because drinking water means stability for the country," says Pasik. He also sees a big role for the UN and the World Bank in helping to bring clean drinking water to African populations.

His company's products are ideal for Africa, he says because they can be installed anywhere, can run even on solar energy and are cheap in use. "We created a system that is affordable for Africa and the rest of the developing world. Energy consumption is very low, it's around 300 watts per liter of clean drinking water. And the quality of the water, it's the cleanest water you can have. There's zero chance of having bacteria inside."

He's convinced his product can help prevent millions of deaths from unhealthy drinking water and says that the company went out of its way to make it affordable, also in acquisition. Yet at the UN meeting last year in New York, people weren't easily convinced, he says.

"I think the people in New York didn't understand the potential for it, because it's new," says Pasik. He says he gets a lot of strange looks when he tells people that he's making water out of air. He hopes to get more involvement from NGO's. "They need to understand this is the solution for drinking water."

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