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May 09, 2010

Israel to help African farmers fight desert

by David Lewis

Having "conquered the desert" at home, Israel is ready to share technology and skills with African countries struggling to sustain agricultural output due to increasingly unreliable rains, an Israeli minister said.

Shalom Simhon, Israel's minister of agriculture and rural development, said sharing know-how, especially in irrigation and water management, was his focus on a tour of Senegal, Ivory Coast and Gabon. His trip comes as some 10 million people in West and Central Africa face food shortages due to failed rains.

"We are not arriving here in Africa to take resources from the African countries. We are coming here in order to give know-how and abilities to these countries to develop," Simhon said in Senegal.

"Israel is the only country in the world that has been able to conquer the desert. More than 50 percent of our exports are coming from semi-arid areas. This is our strength -- this we would like to bring here."

Simhon said Israel could help Senegal reduce dependence on imports, which currently account for around 80 percent of food needs. "Senegal's traditional agriculture is one crop a year. We know how to do three and four crops a year. We can teach that."

The minister would not give any figures on proposed Israeli aid to African farming or detail the role of Israeli companies in such programmes. Already Senegal hosts several Israeli-funded projects looking at using low-pressure drip irrigation to increase productivity.

Israeli farmers have been heavily involved in modern developments in irrigation, including drip irrigation systems and water recycling methods. Some experts believe these techniques could become invaluable in Africa's arid growing regions, which risk becoming increasingly vulnerable to climate change.

"One of the most important things is the water technology and usage. The world is drying up. There is less water, there is less rain days," Simhon said. "In Israel we are using recycled water, desalinated water, rain water, salty water, which almost anywhere in the world we will not have any use for but that we use to make the sweetest tomatoes," he added.

Simhon said advances in technology had allowed Israeli farmers to use 30 percent less water while almost doubling output over the last decade, leaving the country with a 150 percent food surplus.

"We have over-production in Israel. It would have been very easy for us just to load the boat or the airplane ... but we think we can do it differently," he said.

Reuters

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