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Israeli algorithm allows farmers to “talk to their plants”

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Israel

“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.”

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1 Comment

  1. yitzchak

    Jul 15, 2021 at 2:41 pm

    ben ner…a light unto the nations

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Israel

Israel hatred sours drawn-out Clover strike

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Israel is being used as a political football by striking workers, unions, and the anti-Israel lobby in the protracted domestic labour dispute with Clover, which has entered its ninth week.

Clover was acquired in 2019 by a consortium called Milco SA, which is led by Central Bottling Company (CBC). CBC is an Israeli-based manufacturer and distributor of soft drinks, dairy products, and alcoholic beverages.

The merger was complicated from day one as anti-Israel lobbyists attempted to scupper the much-needed R4.8 billion deal.

Essentially, when the merger was unfolding, Clover made commitments to the South African competition authorities to create more jobs and protect existing jobs. However, the company has now embarked on a series of retrenchments arising from the restructuring of its operations.

Disgruntled workers have downed tools for nearly 10 weeks in protest over, among other things, restructuring, non-payment of bonuses, retrenchments, job losses arising from crippling factory closures, salary cuts, and working conditions that have allegedly worsened over the past two years.

It’s messy, and the relationship between workers, unions, and Clover may sour further with no end in sight. The anti-Israel lobby has jumped on board from the start, lending its voice to the strikes.

It should be noted that job losses were identified by Clover before Milco approached it with a merger proposal.

Trade unions representing Clover workers, including the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA) and the Food and Allied Workers Union, said hundreds of workers had already been dismissed, while hundreds more had accepted voluntary severance packages. They said more jobs were under threat.

Clover has reportedly said it has “explored all possible avenues to minimise retrenchments”, but cannot avoid lay-offs.

In a statement, the company said retrenchments were “necessary to enhance Clover’s resilience for the benefit of its collective stakeholders”. The company, it said, “had been subject to a difficult trading cycle for several years, where economic growth has been poor, costs have generally been rising above inflation, and consumer spending has been subdued. COVID-19 has added to these pressures and the uncertainty faced.”

Striking Clover workers marched through the Johannesburg city centre on 18 January, stripping Clover products from shop shelves including places like Checkers, and leaving them in shopping trolleys.

Last week, there were similar scenes of chaos at shops such as Pick n Pay selling Clover products in Observatory, Cape Town.

Among many demands, the workers are insisting that the company stop plans for further retrenchments and reinstate all workers. They also want it to be independent of the Israeli CBC. Calls have also been made for nationalisation of the company.

Political economist Phumlani Majozi said that while workers had a constitutional right to mobilise and push for their demands, it was important to look at what motivated this particular strike.

“The matter has been politicised, which is a bad approach from our unions, but it’s not surprising. Any labour dispute shouldn’t be politicised because then the dispute gets tainted. Going into the issue of Israel and Palestine isn’t going to help their members secure jobs,” Majozi said.

“Going into shops and causing chaos will obviously have a negative impact on Clover, and this will definitely have an impact on jobs and there will be more job losses. It’s sad that this issue is being politicised, and it’s sad there are some politically motivated movements that have joined in the strike to push their agenda. It’s disappointing.”

The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) this week said it was “disturbed” by the “trite attempt” by the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement to exploit a South African labour dispute to pursue its own nefarious, antisemitic agenda.

SAZF National Chairperson Rowan Polovin told the SA Jewish Report, “The retrenchments and wage cuts which have brought about the strike are, for BDS, merely an afterthought in its fervent pursuit of demonising Israel in cases where the connection can only be described as diluted.”

Polovin said Clover was owned by a subsidiary of Israel’s CBC, and it was patent that at its core, this was a local labour dispute.

“Lacklustre attempts by BDS have been made in an attempt to shoehorn Israel into the fray of this matter by stating unfounded conspiracy theories. Chief among these bizarre allegations is that Israeli companies are attempting to flood the market with Israeli dairy products in order to destroy local industry, akin to cases that are already plaguing the global South,” he said.

“Furthermore, BDS has accused Israel’s CBC of breaking international law, this claim of course being made without justification. These allegations are entirely baseless, and one can quickly deduce the true intentions of the BDS when they are forwarded.”

Political analyst Daniel Silke said industrial action in South Africa including strikes and worker unrest applied across a variety of industries and companies, so it wasn’t necessarily peculiar to a company with Israeli ownership or shareholding.

“However, the fact that there’s an Israeli connection certainly makes Clover a little more susceptible to industrial action,” Silke said.

“Trade unions here are vehemently anti-Israel and take a pro-BDS standpoint. The Israeli connection adds a degree of militancy and mobilisation to any kind of industrial action. Companies with an Israeli connection will find that if there is industrial action, it could take on more sinister or difficult global overtones rather than just being a domestic industrial or labour issue.”

Labour expert Sara Gon from the Institute of Race Relations said that in terms of the Labour Relations Act, a company was entitled to restructure if it was inefficient, costly, or overstaffed. “This is contrary to what’s being said in public-sector strikes, where the impression has been given that restructuring and retrenching is unlawful.”

She said management was entitled to embark on these actions if it believed it would benefit the larger company.

However, a company has to consult with employees and/or their representative trade unions and justify its actions and consider the views of employee representatives.

“Clover management has said trading conditions are difficult with poor economic growth, rising costs, and subdued consumer spending. For these reasons, a review of all aspects of Clover’s business was undertaken, which led to the difficult decision to restructure,” Gon said.

“GIWUSA has objected to Milco’s involvement in Clover since 2019 ‘in solidarity with oppressed people of Palestine’. The demands probably come more from the unions than the employees, because of the intensely anti-Israel stance taken by the federation they belong to, the South African Federation of Trade Unions.

“The DTIC [Department of Trade, Industry, and Competition] approved the takeover of Clover by Milco, and has no authority to interfere with the ownership or otherwise of the company.

“The anti-Israeli position is standard fare, but the two-month long strike is more puzzling in that not only will wages be lost over the period of the strike, it could aggravate trading conditions and result in more retrenchments.

“On the other hand, one can understand the desperate need to keep as many jobs in this punishing climate. The need to keep the company in existence is, however, paramount,” Gon said.

More rolling mass action is expected.

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Israel

Pandor ends year with extreme rhetoric against Israel

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South Africa’s anti-Israel stance is one thing we don’t seem to be leaving behind in 2021, as Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) Minister Dr Naledi Pandor devoted a section of her end-of-year media briefing to the topic.

Her comments suggest Israel’s very existence is problematic, blame Israel for the conflict, and emphasise South Africa’s vehement opposition to the Jewish state being given observer status at the African Union (AU).

Pandor titled this section of her speech, given on 14 December 2021, “International solidarity work relating to Palestine and Western Sahara”. She then devoted the entire section to criticising Israel.

“In 2021, we have highlighted concern that the situation relating to Western Sahara and Palestine remains deadlocked – in some instances even worsening,” she said. “The question of Palestine is still unresolved after 70 years, and continues to challenge human conscience and international justice.”

As Israel has existed for 73 years, her comments show that she finds the very existence of the Jewish state problematic.

“In keeping with South Africa’s long-term and principled support for the Palestinian people, the government of South Africa remains committed to supporting initiatives aimed at refocusing the international agenda on Palestine and the Middle East peace process. The Palestinian question remains at the heart of the Middle East situation,” she said.

“The South African government believes the only way to bring about lasting peace in the Middle East is to have a comprehensive and unconditional negotiated settlement to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and Israel’s continued blockade of Gaza. The ongoing delay in achieving such a settlement leads to an unending cycle of violence.

“In the context of Israel’s continuing violation of its international-law obligations, we have worryingly seen the African Union Commission this year granting Israel the status of an observer at the AU. This came as a shock, given that the decision was made at a time when the oppressed people of Palestine were hounded by destructive bombardments and continued illegal settlements of their land,” said Pandor.

“The unjust actions committed by Israel offend the letter and spirit of the charter of the African Union,” she added. “The AU reflects Africans’ confidence that it can lead the continent through practical expression of the goals of the charter, especially on issues relating to self-determination and decolonisation. The decision by the AU Commission in this context remains inexplicable. We look forward to the 35th ordinary summit of the African Union where the heads of state will discuss this matter.”

Local political analyst Daniel Silke notes that “the statement continues to reflect South Africa’s clear decision to side with the Palestinians rather than adequately balancing this with a deeper and more meaningful interrogation of the concerns of both sides, including the security needs of Israel. South Africa is largely excluding itself from the changing dynamics in the Middle East, such as the Abraham Accords, which have brought a much greater understanding between Israel and many of its Gulf and other Arab neighbours. Not to mention the fact that in past weeks, we have seen Egypt, Jordan, and even Turkey possibly indicating that they are looking for closer relations with Israel.

“South Africa will continue to drive the AU agenda,” he says. “But again, increasingly it’s going to come up against a changing dynamic of improving diplomatic relations between African countries and Israel.”

Local political analyst Ralph Mathekga agrees that pushing an anti-Israel agenda at the AU may not work in South Africa’s favour. “The AU hasn’t focused much on the issue of Israel/Palestine because there are more pressing issues for the region,” he says. “South Africa also has its own challenges, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems quite distant in terms of priorities.”

“South Africa will be a prime mover in trying to get the AU to reverse its decision on observer status,” says Steven Gruzd, the head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs. “It will be interesting to see how much support Israel has been able to consolidate in Africa after five years of diplomatic positioning. The chair of the AU passes from Democratic Republic of the Congo to Senegal in 2022. Israel has good relations with both, but this decision will almost certainly be challenged.”

The national chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Professor Karen Milner, says, “We welcome Naledi Pandor’s call for a negotiated solution, even though it’s regrettable that she wrongly places all the blame on Israel for its failure. In view of the need for the international community to engage with all parties in the conflict to help them reach a lasting settlement, the government’s continued opposition to Israel’s observer status at the AU is baffling.”

South African Zionist Federation National Chairperson Rowan Polovin says, “The minister’s speech ignores the actual reasons why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains persistent to this day. In spite of decades-long efforts by both Israel and external actors, all attempts at a lasting and universal peace have failed. The responsibility of this failure lies squarely in the hands of the Palestinian leadership which has unfailingly and consistently rejected peace and recognition of the Jewish state.

“Minister Pandor bizarrely positions Israel at ‘the heart’ of the ongoing crises in the Middle East,” says Polovin. “This crude analysis is done without elaboration or mention of the ongoing conflicts and human-rights disasters where Israel is either a mere spectator or committed to assisting those in dire predicaments.

“Within international relations, dialogue should be encouraged. These ideals are ironically espoused in the minister’s speech. However, it’s made clear that the intention of Dirco is rather to isolate Israel, which would consequently dash any hopes of a settlement resolved with the joint participation of the international community.”

“South African Jewry has sadly got used to the government’s extreme position,” says Gruzd. “Minister Pandor has said strongly anti-Israel things before. Equally sadly, without real peace-making in this conflict, this government could become even more intolerant of Israel.”

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Israel

What’s driving SA’s record aliyah numbers?

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In 2021, there were record aliyah numbers from South Africa – the highest since 1994. Israeli media reported a 50% to 70% increase on 2020. Olim and those in the field say that a combination of the pandemic, uncertainty about South Africa’s future, and unemployment have led to this increase. Just as 1994 was filled with unknowns about South Africa’s future, so too is a post-pandemic world. South African Jews are questioning where they want to be – and many are choosing Israel.

“We had 555 olim [from South Africa] in 2021. It was a record number since 1994,” says Israel Centre Director Liat Amar-Arran. “The numbers in 2022 will depend on the situation in South Africa, the world, and Israel. I’m assuming we’re going to see the same [numbers].”

Telfed Chief Executive Dorron Kline says 753 South Africans made aliyah in 1994. “However, in 1994, the community was double the size it is now. Therefore, proportionately, 2021 holds the record of the most South African Jews making aliyah since the 1970s.

“The number of olim scheduled to arrive in January 2022 is almost double the number of arrivals in January 2021,” he says. “Given these numbers, we anticipate another large aliyah wave.”

In January alone, there were 46 new South African olim and another flight with 35 to 40 people is planned for next week. There may be another aliyah flight with El Al on 15 February.

“People have had the opportunity to re-evaluate their lives,” Amar-Arran says. “People who lost jobs may have decided it’s time for a change. Some believe there’s no future for their kids. Others realised they could work remotely, so they make aliyah and work from there. I also believe the riots [in South Africa in July 2021] made people decide to make aliyah.”

For Stan Sadman who came alone on aliyah from Cape Town in January 2021, the main driver was his inability to find work. “I’m in my 50s. I was in sales, and I struggled,” he told the SA Jewish Report from Netanya. “Especially when COVID-19 came, and even the year before, the economy was going down. I’m now working as a janitor in a big retirement village. There’s no doubt about it, there’s a lot more opportunity here if you’re willing to get your hands dirty. But you’ve got to start fresh as an Israeli. When you leave South Africa, close the door. Unless you come with a lot of money, you’ve got take a step or two down in your standard of living.”

Another oleh wrote on Facebook that “a big motivator is more job opportunities. For me, it’s certainly true – especially with the incentives [in South Africa] which are harshly unfavourable to white males.”

“The South African Jewish community is Zionist, so there’s always a pull factor to live in Israel,” says Kline. “Another significant factor is that many olim are joining family who have already made aliyah. Many young families are moving here because they believe Israel offers a better future, employment prospects, education, and healthcare. Personal security is an obvious factor. And let’s not forget that Israel is a vibrant democracy with a strong and stable economy.”

Amar-Arran says the demographics of olim are wide-ranging. “We have 18-year-olds going to the army, ulpan, and higher education; younger and older families; elderly people joining their kids – all types of demography.”

“Families made up almost half of our 2021 olim,” says Kline. “Thirteen percent of 2021 olim were young singles [18 to 25]. Seventeen percent of new olim were seniors.”

Amar-Arran agrees with Sadman that aliyah is a big adjustment. “It’s a very different culture – Israelis can be less polite! It’s more expensive, and homes are smaller. People may struggle with Hebrew.”

Says Kline, “Understanding the differences between the cost and standard of living between Israel and South Africa is important. Telfed hosts klita [absorption] webinars for new olim, during which our social worker explains the importance of budgeting and living within one’s means. There have been instances where olim took out loans that they struggled to repay, so we do caution against this. Emigration can also be an emotionally challenging experience. In the webinars, our social worker speaks about the importance of finding networks for support – in shuls, schools, communities, through hobbies, volunteering, or just finding one reliable friend who can offer good advice.”

Sadman says basing the place you live in on a job is a mistake. It’s more important to find your community and settle in, then find a job. “I made that mistake, and I’m now in Netanya, although I would have preferred to be in Ashkelon. At the same time, I’m a 10-minute walk from the beach. The freedom here is amazing.” He advises people to work part-time until they find something more permanent as the rand’s value is low and one needs to earn shekels to get by.

Amar-Arran says the high aliyah number has had an impact on the Israel Centre. “We’re working very hard. Especially during COVID-19, the amount of bureaucracy and paperwork for aliyah is crazy. I wish we had more time to contribute to people, as we are trying to give a personal service. But when you have 70 olim in one month, you don’t really have the time to sit with each one of them privately. We don’t really have a budget to hire people, but I hope we can have another aliyah worker who can assist us this year.”

On the other side, the high numbers have also had an impact on Telfed. “Our services are in high demand – including employment counselling, support from our social worker, housing [there is a long waiting list for Telfed rental apartments in Ra’anana and Tel Aviv], and scholarship applications,” says Kline.

“We are dependent on donations to allow us to continue to offer these free services. Donations also allow us to provide urgent financial assistance to olim who have fallen on difficult times. A committee assesses each request to ensure that support is given to those in genuine need. In addition, we offer financial counselling so that those in need of help can get back on their feet.”

Amar-Arran emphasises that making aliyah isn’t for everyone. “It’s important to know that aliyah isn’t going to solve your problems. Israel is amazing place to live, but people need to know that feeling settled takes time.”

“Aliyah is a sharp learning curve, exacerbated by the language and cultural barrier,” says Kline. “Arriving with realistic expectations, some spoken Hebrew, and patience can stand olim in good stead. If you’re considering making aliyah, get in touch with us. Community support is instrumental to successful aliyah.”

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