Empire of the sun
Ya’ari reduced the audience to tears with her heart wrenching account of bringing Israeli technology to Africa, providing nearly 1 600 000 people with fresh water in rural villages.
No one expected the elegant, diminutive Israeli kitted out in pink high fashion to tell a story of poverty, determination, and salvation. The contrast of her elegance with the story she told elicited a deep-seated visceral reaction.
When Ya’ari finished her Israeli military service, she met the owner of American based fashion brand Jordache Jeans. He declined her a job because her English wasn’t good enough, but on discovering that Sivan spoke French, he offered her a job at his factory in Madagascar. And so, 21 years ago, with no connection to the continent, Ya’ari left for Africa.
“I was poor in Israel, but when I arrived in Africa, I realised what it meant to have nothing,” Ya’ari said. She was shocked by what she saw. “Because there is no energy, there is no refrigeration, which means there is no access to vaccines and medicines.”
No energy means no access to good education. The students in the first row of school brought money to pay for the kerosene in the lamp, the rest of the kids sat in the back in the dark. Students were too weak to walk to school. Still today, more than 620 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa live without electricity.
“No energy means no access to clean water. People are forced to walk for hours in search of water. Yet, there is plenty of water right beneath their feet, a few meters deep in the aquifers. The only thing that we need is energy, energy to pump the water.”
Ya’ari realised that solar panels in schools could dramatically improve education. “We brought in two solar panels which powered 12 lights and a fridge.” The school could sell its excess electricity to charge mobile phones and even, in one instance, power a barber shop. The money could be used to replace burnt-out globes.
“I decided then, with Golda Meir as my inspiration and Israeli technologies as the solution, to go back and to find a way to help. I founded Innovation Africa with a very simple goal: to bring Israeli technology to remote African villages.
“Energy is one thing, but access to clean water is truly everything. With the help of the community, we brought a drilling machine, a few solar panels, a solar pump, and a water tank, and in only a few days, clean water was flowing to different taps that we installed throughout the village. Within months, drip irrigation allowed for better nutrition, better health, and most importantly, economic growth.”
Today, Innovation Africa operates in 10 African countries including South Africa. In the past year and a half, Ya’ari has brought fresh water to 50 South African villages particularly in the Bushbuckridge and Mpumalanga area. Much of her work in South Africa is funded by the Kirsh family and Investec Bank.
“Growing up, not having much, pushed me to do what I do,” said Ya’ari, “but I didn’t do anything special. Sometimes the source of the problem is the solution. I took things that already existed. I took solar panels to a place where there was sun, and I took them where they were needed. They merely pumped out the water that already exists, it was simple.
“It doesn’t take much to help others. Sometimes the technology already exists. You don’t need to invent when you can work with what is already around and useable. The result is that the impact is so much greater.
“We are committed to bring water where there is drought, to bring light where there is darkness, to bring hope and dignity where there is despair.” And with that, the diminutive Israeli, turned on a gasping audience and left the stage. More than a thousand business executives at SingularityU finally understood the teachings of the Mishna: “Whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the whole world.”