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Israel and SA get down to business

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The South Africa Israel Chamber of Commerce’s (SAICC) new chief executive, Jonathan Shapiro, is on a mission to facilitate business between the rainbow nation and its start-up counterpart, focusing on “the greater good”.

“Because of the sensitivity around the world towards Israel, one of our goals would be to try and change the perception of Israel,” says Shapiro. “The best way of doing that is to actually change the lives of lots of people in South Africa. So, there’s definitely a humanitarian drive.”

Shapiro maps out three phases for SAICC’s work. “Phase one is a focus on the commercial side and deal facilitation. It’s about introducing Israeli companies to South Africa and vice versa. Phase two would be to host webinars with Israeli companies and organise business tours to Israel. Phase three would be a greater focus on taking South African companies to Israel.”

He said the SAICC wanted to make connections with Israeli commercial sectors that could really help South African society such as those producing medical and agricultural technology and cyber products.

The chamber is at various stages of talks with about five companies in Israel about products to bring to South Africa. The one closest to execution is a product in baby care medical technology.

Within Israel, it’s engaging with a diversity of businesses including those of native Israelis, Americans living in Israel, and ex-South Africans.

“Each of them is just as excited as the other to do business with South Africa,” Shapiro said.

Ex-South Africans probably understand the challenges of the market best, he said, and are usually passionate about trade because of their roots and ongoing family ties.

For Americans based in Israel, South Africa is interesting for commercial case studies as it offers both a first and third-world market.

Israelis are excited to grow beyond their domestic market, but often need to adjust previous research and development strategies as usually these are based on an American market. “So, it’s a learning curve.”

“Israelis also know that there’s a strong Jewish community in South Africa, and they are quite excited about getting involved in that.”

However, SAICC itself is a non-profit, apolitical organisation that isn’t affiliated to any religion.

The chamber supports complete inclusivity, he said. “Our message is that we are open to everyone, and that everyone has an equal opportunity to get exposure to the companies in Israel.”

In terms of what South African offers for Israel, Shapiro sees potential in financial technology products as well as some manufacturing of fast-moving consumer goods as a start.

Shapiro, who turned 30 shortly before taking up his new position at the SAICC, is a born and bred Johannesburger and King David alumni. His day job is running his family’s electric engineering company which remarkably primarily employs people with disabilities.

It’s in connection with this that Shapiro first met SAICC chairperson Marc Lubner, who also heads up Afrika Tikkun. Through their interaction, he became interested in getting involved with the chamber.

“The SAICC is a passion project. I’m a Zionist. I’m passionate about business and honoured to be in the role to try and make a difference and fly the flag of Israel and South Africa. There is a motivation for doing good and it’s such a key component to having full-rounded success.”

Lubner said Shapiro brought, “entrepreneurship, intellect, and personality” to his work in fostering business relationships across countries.

“His appointment is indicative of new energy that is being invested in the activities of the chamber,” he said.

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