Israeli algorithm allows farmers to “talk to their plants”
“What are your plants trying to say?” That’s the question that drives SupPlant, a company rooted in three generations of one Israeli family. Through cutting-edge technology, it helps farmers to work smarter, and it recently raised $10 million (R145.6 million) to widen the reach of its irrigation technology in the South African market.
“For decades, the decision how to irrigate fruit was made based on the farmer’s intuition, experience, and at best on some scattered data. Traditional irrigation approaches limit growers to being reactive not proactive in protecting their crops. Today, technology is taking over this space to help farmers use smarter ways to irrigate and produce more yield,” says Ori Ben Ner, the chief executive of the company.
Although they started SupPlant in 2012, the seed of the company was planted long before. “My grandfather, Avner Ben Ner, was born and raised to be a farmer in a small village in the northern part of Israel. He is still a farmer today at the age of 88. His son and my father, Zohar Ben Ner, studied agricultural engineering and founded SupPlant when he discovered that he could replicate and scale how to sense plants using sensors and cloud computing. I have been working at SupPlant for many years in various roles. Today, I’m chief executive of SupPlant and all the experiments, research, and development is done on my grandfather’s original plot,” says Ben Ner.
“For the first three years, we worked on developing our technology and in 2015, we commercialised it. Sensing plants is an important part of agriculture,” he says. “SupPlant has found a way to scale the sensing: we put sensors on the plants and their surroundings. This radiates to the cloud and translates that data using artificial intelligence and big data. It gives irrigation recommendations and actionable insights.
“We use all the data we have accumulated about 31 crops from 14 countries to create the best knowledge base,” he says. “Some companies monitor only the soil or the weather. SupPlant’s sensors are placed in five locations (deep soil, shallow soil, stem/trunk, leaf, and fruit) and monitor plant and fruit growth patterns, the actual water content in the soil, and plant health. In addition, SupPlant monitors real-time and forecasted climatic data and forecasted plant-growth patterns. All this information is uploaded every 30 minutes to an algorithm in the cloud that provides farmers with precise irrigation recommendations.”
All this allows the company to provide high resolution, real-time, and forecasted insights and irrigation commands. “It allows for accurate irrigation practices, ensuring healthy and robust harvests with optimum water usage that builds resilience through time,” Ben Ner says.
The company grew by a whopping 850% in 2020. “We have achieved remarkable results while helping farmers around the world use less water to grow more fruit,” says Ben Ner. “In Israel, farmers used 20% less water to grow 10% more avocados. Oranges used 37% less water to produce 28% more fruit. In Mexico, 20% more mangos were grown using 15% less water. In Israel, we were able to save 45% water growing dates, achieving better quality. In South Africa, we helped farmers produce 41% more lemons without using more water resources.”
Asked why the company wants to expand its reach in South Africa, and how could it help here, he says, “South Africa has always been known as a country with an advanced agricultural industry and as a top quality grower and exporter of agricultural goods all over the world. At the same time, South African farmers struggle with two major challenges. First, the growing scarcity of water and an urgent need to handle that precious resource better. Second, the changing climate and the need to maintain yield and quality in uncertain conditions. These two factors make the South African market highly suitable for SupPlant’s solution, as our technology excels at managing water correctly and reacting to changing conditions on time.
“South Africa is also a fascinating place to work professionally, with seven different climatic regions, from desert to subtropical regions,” he says. “It provides us with interesting challenges. Our work in apples [reducing water usage by 37%] and lemons was done in the Western Cape, and we are very proud of it. The results with macadamias (a 21% increase in crops) came from the Mpumalanga area, and we are especially proud of this since it was the first time we have implemented our technology on this crop and we had a high yield increase that year. It created a lot of interest in those areas from farmers and others in the area, which created expansion in both areas this season.”
He predicts that water availability for agriculture will undergo significant changes in South Africa in the near future. “Whether it’s from lack of rain and low reservoir levels or the need to relocate water for urbanisation, South African farmers will find themselves in a new situation in which they need to make the best of what they have and cope with limited water quotas,” he says.
“Our technology is perfectly suited to situations in which farmers need to know not only when to irrigate and give more, but also when they can give less and still get enough. This is because we measure the plant’s reaction to everything they do, and the plant can tell us what’s right for it and what’s wrong.”
The system also allows farmers to create quotas for plots and crops and follow it throughout the year, making sure they don’t unknowingly run out of their quota before the year end.
SupPlant is being distributed and serviced in South Africa by a team from AECI Plant Health, “a team of professionals we trained in all aspects of the system – agronomical and technical,” says Ben Ner. “Local agronomists support farmers and help them benefit from our system. This is a two-way street as we also learn from farmers – many of the features we introduce into the system come from our local teams and farmers as they know best what’s needed in the field.
“In addition, we believe in training the farmers we work with in plant sensing so they can make full use of our system and constantly improve,” he says. “That is why all of our data is available for the farmer to download so they can use any tool they wish to learn from and become better at what they do. SupPlant believes that a farmer with more knowledge and tools is a better farmer, which is important to us.”
Finally, he says, “We believe in co-operating with local forces in the market. In this spirit, we are co-operating with Motech South Africa, an irrigation manufacturer we know well from Israel, where our systems are fully compatible with its products, and they are widely used. In addition we are co-operating with DFM Technologies, which produces unique soil sensors. These are also compatible with our system, and can be presented alongside ours. Together, we present a strong presence in the market, ready to answer any needs and challenges farmers may have.”
Telfed under strain from SA aliyah wave
Telfed, the South African Zionist Federation in Israel, has resorted to a fundraiser as its resources come under strain because of the volume of people making aliyah from South Africa.
“We have a situation on our hands. Last month, Telfed welcomed the highest number of South African immigrants to Israel in one month in 44 years [since 1977]. Our resources are under intense strain,” said Telfed Chief Executive Dorron Kline in the fundraiser message.
Kline told the SA Jewish Report, “We are a small team dealing with a large wave of South African aliyah, which we are delighted about. People need a lot more assistance due to corona[virus], and we have limited resources. As our community grows, we have more people to assist. There’s an increase in the number of South African olim applying for Telfed’s financial assistance.”
Telfed provides two types of services: klita (absorption) and social welfare. These include financial assistance and “food cards” for more than 400 needy South African olim every month, social-work counselling, and higher-education bursaries – the organisation receives more than 1 000 applications every year. Klita services include pre and post-aliyah advice from a klita advisor and social worker, employment counselling, subsidised rental apartments, and social events.
In the fundraiser, members of Telfed said there had been a “300% increase in the number of South Africans wanting to move to Israel”. Elaborating on this, Kline says “the 300% relates to the rise in aliyah enquiries that Telfed received over the past 1.5 years. Liat Amar Arran from the South African Israel Centre also spoke about a dramatic increase in opening aliyah files – from 300 to 1 000. In addition, the Kaplan Centre report from 2019 highlighted growing interest in aliyah.”
They also describe a “10% increase in the number of South African immigrants battling to make ends meet in Israel”. Kline explains that “the cost of living in Israel is high, and it’s unreasonable for most to replicate the standard of living that they had in South Africa. Yes, education and healthcare are comparatively inexpensive, but salaries in Israel can be lower. Our South African olim deal with an unfavourable exchange rate, and property prices are significantly higher in Israel. We want those who are making aliyah to have a realistic expectation of what lies ahead.
“Israel is a wonderful country, and the advantages of living here are significant, but it’s expensive,” he says. “As long as people know what to expect, they can prepare accordingly. Sadly, some olim take out loans that they cannot repay or they haven’t saved up for an unexpected expense. Some have fallen ill, and aren’t able to work. Some have left unhealthy marriages, or are dealing with mental-health issues.
“Telfed doesn’t replace the financial assistance provided by the Israeli government and municipality; we augment it,” he says. “We have limited means, so we carefully assess each case before deciding how best to help. In many cases, we will provide financial planning to help ensure that olim won’t fall into the same position again. We try to empower our olim with the skills to be self-sufficient. Sometimes, all they need is a little extra guidance.”
The fundraiser also mentions that there is a 50% increase (70 families) on the waiting list for housing in Telfed community buildings. “Telfed’s subsidised rental housing is available for South African olim who wish to live in either Tel Aviv or Ra’anana,” says Kline. “We give priority to new olim and former lone soldiers. The apartments are appealing because the tenants live in a community of olim with the same background. Tel Aviv and Ra’anana are highly sought-after locations. The olim deal with an English speaking property and maintenance manager. These seem like small advantages, but when one arrives in a new country with limited language skills, it makes settling in so much easier.
“Seventy percent of rental income is used to assist olim with their absorption and to help those in financial need. Thirty percent is used for building maintenance, renovation, and upkeep. The increase in the waiting list is as a result of the rise in the number of aliyah applications and new olim,” he says. “Olim will rent apartments on the open market until the Telfed apartments become available. Olim may live in Telfed subsidised rental housing for up to three years.”
There is an urgent tone to Telfed’s campaign, and it feels like an unprecedented situation. Kline says “all non-profit organisations have felt the impact of the pandemic, and the need for our services has grown. Up until now, we haven’t highlighted the welfare role that Telfed plays. The primary reason for this is because our community is small, and confidentiality is imperative. For decades, we have provided emergency support to those in dire need.
“Telfed received generous funding from the Jewish Agency for many years, but it stopped in the late 1990s, and the need for our services didn’t. We are here to assist olim, but we do need to cover our operating costs. In addition, there is a greater need amongst olim for financial help.”
Kline emphasises that “South Africans should come here because of their love of Israel and not because they are running away. Israel isn’t always an easy place to live. We want South African Jews to move for the right reasons.
“We have a significant number of committees [comprised of dedicated volunteers] and professionals who ensure that we can best assist those who need our assistance and guidance. For more than 70 years, we have had South African trained lawyers, accountants, and businesspeople onboard to ensure good governance and transparency,” Kline says.
“Our next most significant project is constructing a new Telfed subsidised rental housing unit in Tel Aviv. We will build 74 new rental apartments to provide for the dramatic increase in South African aliyah. It is a 100 million shekel (R442.2 million) building project, and we need to raise the funds from generous donors,” Kline says.
Israel eases quarantine for Israelis after third jab
Israel made the surprise announcement on Monday, 30 August, that from 3 September, Israelis who are a week after their third dose of COVID-19 vaccine won’t have to do a week of quarantine upon returning from overseas.
This could increase travel to South Africa, as some olim told the SA Jewish Report they would consider a trip if they don’t have to quarantine on their return.
According to Dov Lipman, a former Knesset member and the founder of olim assistance organisation Yad L’Olim, Israelis who have had their third inoculation will have to quarantine only if they are returning from a “red listed” country. For countries on the “orange list” like South Africa, they will need to quarantine for 24 hours or until they receive their negative PCR results from a test when they land.
This also applies to non-Israelis who received a third dose in Israel which has been recorded in the Israeli health system.
In addition, from 3 September, anyone who is within six months of their second dose of the vaccine won’t have to do a week’s quarantine upon entering Israel. Instead, they will need to quarantine for 24 hours or until the post landing negative PCR comes back.
The country also opened up third vaccine shots for anyone over the age of 12 if five months have passed since their second dose.
“At the moment, there’s no change in policy for those vaccinated outside of Israel. They are still required to do seven days of quarantine with a negative PCR test upon arrival, and a negative PCR test on day seven,” says Lipman.
“Starting from 1 October, the green passports [allowing people into public places if they have been vaccinated] will expire six months after the second or third dose. This is to encourage people to get a third shot.”
Does all this mean that more Israelis may choose to travel to South Africa? One oleh, Robin Nussbaum, says it may convince him to make the trip. “I haven’t seen my parents in nearly two and a half years or my twin brother in four years, and I miss them. Last week, my colleague lost her mother in Turkey, and it made me want to get onto the soonest flight to Joburg to go and give my mom the hugest hug. But I couldn’t just go because it would have meant doing bidud [quarantine] while my kids start school this week.”
He says the change in quarantine rules may convince him to go, “because it would mean being away from my wife and kids for just my time in South Africa. Whereas before I would’ve had to take extra leave from work to isolate from my family for another week.
“Ideally, I’d love to take my kids to South Africa as my parents haven’t seen my daughter since she was a few weeks old, but that’s still not a possibility,” he says. “I have two sisters in Sydney, and they can’t see an end to their travel ban, which makes me feel more inclined to go, as I guess we’re lucky, and should take advantage of the situation. On the one hand, I think that I should go now before things change again and on the other, I want to wait to see if Israel will cancel isolation for vaccinated foreigners or first-degree relatives. It’s still not an easy decision.”
“I imagine that more people will leave Israel to visit family due to this change,” Lipman says. “However, I do caution everyone that given the reality of new variants that are popping up around the world, the rules are always subject to change.”
Israel hasn’t seen the back of Bibi yet
Just a few months ago, it was unfathomable that Israel would ever have a prime minister that wasn’t Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the wily politician who always landed back in the hot seat over the past 12 years.
But then, an unlikely coalition was cobbled together, and Naftali Bennett became Israel’s new head of state. Does that mean that Israel is in a post-Netanyahu era?
This is the question that Israeli political journalist Anshel Pfeffer attempted to answer in a talk at Limmud@Home, hosted by Limmud South Africa on Sunday 22 August.
Speaking to a large online audience, he revealed that this was the first time he was addressing this subject. “It’s been two and a half months since Netanyahu left power. The fact that the new government is still here is an achievement. Many people didn’t think it would last this long. Yet are we in a new era? When we talk about someone who was prime minister for so long, to what degree does he leave his stamp, personality, and agenda on the nation?”
He proposed that “in Netanyahu’s case, there is no doubt that we are still feeling the effects because of the length of time he served [as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister] and his style of governance. He tried to make it a ‘presidential style’ of governance, meaning that he ruled almost on his own.”
Pfeffer argued that in considering the new government, one must look at who is heading it up. “Bennett joined politics as a close aide to Netanyahu. He hero worshipped Bibi, even though Netanyahu pushed him away so many times. Even now, although the break between Bennett and Bibi is irrevocable, Bennett is in many ways still influenced by him. In that sense, I don’t think we are in a post-Netanyahu era.”
On the other hand, “Bennett’s nature is much more collegial. He includes all of cabinet in governing, he listens to them, and he has good relationships with them. So, it’s an actual cabinet government, not a ‘presidential-style’ one.” In addition, Bennett is the leader of a small party and became prime minister as part of an agreement to break the deadlock of Israeli politics. This is very different to Bibi’s leadership as head of a large party.
Pfeffer noted that a “coalition builder” is someone who brings people together and smooths over differences. However, “Netanyahu was a coalition builder of a different kind. He built his coalitions on groups of angry, resentful, and fearful people. This government is different. It has eight political parties from across the spectrum. They came together with one purpose: to replace Netanyahu. They still need to find a shared purpose, but they are doing better than expected.”
All this could have an effect on Israeli society and change the discourse from one of division. “When I talk to people, they seem less motivated or angered by daily politics. They are thinking about where we are going next.”
Pfeffer said the biggest impact of the Netanyahu era was how he “gradually downgraded the Palestinian issue on the national and global agenda. Netanyahu managed to exhaust all international interlocutors so that they felt they couldn’t do anything [to resolve the conflict]. It became an afterthought.”
Though this new government will engage on the issue to some extent, essentially there isn’t much it can do due to the radically different views of the coalition parties. “These range from annexation of the West Bank to a two-state solution. So there is no way they can reach an agreement. Therefore, the issue will remain on the backburner. They will manage, but not try to solve, the conflict. In that way, it’s a continuation of the Netanyahu era,” Pfeffer said.
He believes it’s the same with the pandemic – Bennett will follow Bibi’s path of “putting all efforts and hopes in vaccines”. When it comes to the economy, “there also won’t be any major difference”. And regarding Iran, Bennett will continue Netanyahu’s opposition to the Iran deal. “There will be the same kind of shadow warfare against Iran. The difference will be that he won’t try to bring these differences with the Biden government out into the open. He’ll keep it quiet. Bibi was much more confrontational.”
Pfeffer has noticed one major shift, namely in foreign policy, especially towards Europe. “Future Prime Minister Yair Lapid [if the rotation deal goes ahead] is already making his mark as foreign minister. For example, he has confronted Poland on its possible restitution law making it impossible for Holocaust survivors to reclaim property.” Pfeffer thinks Lapid is doing this because it’s close to his heart, but also to show that Israel is now trying to align itself with more liberal European countries as opposed to its former close relationship with the right-wing governments of Poland and Hungary.
“Hungary and Poland aren’t major players, but they’re seen as standard bearers of illiberal nationalist populist politics. Lapid is saying that Israel isn’t doing that anymore.”
Pfeffer said it was unlikely that Bennett would be prime minister beyond the next two years. “I’d say Bennett is a transition figure, but Lapid has more of a chance of being prime minister in future. With a large party, and a reservoir of centrist and left support, he has the potential to grow. He is already seen by many Israelis as a saviour for cobbling together this new government.”
He said many Israeli journalist and pundits – himself included – have always underestimated Lapid. But he now believes Lapid could “usher in a new era of Israeli politics and emerge as the unlikely potential leader of the next era”.
Finally, he considered if Netanyahu could one day return as prime minister. “He would definitely want to be prime minister again. He’s nearly 72, but is fit and healthy, and his ambition, drive, and stamina are still there. But it doesn’t look like he has a path back to power for the next two or three years. In addition, his court cases could affect his political fortune.”
At the same time, “In Israeli politics, anything can happen. Even this new government seemed outlandish three months ago. In spite of his loss of power, Netanyahu has firm control of Likud. It remains the largest party in the Knesset. He also has a strong alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties. So even though at this moment, I can’t see him returning to the premiership, he does have springboard,” Pfeffer said.
“Are we in a post-Bibi era? Not yet in the sense that he’s still here, challenging the government. He may not be prime minister, but he sees no reason to retire and go write his memoirs.”
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