Israeli farmers are renowned for making the desert bloom. They’re also proving that this desolate area is fertile ground for a new crop of agriculturalists and agronomists.

Midway between the Dead Sea and Eilat, in the heart of the Arava desert, the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training (AICAT) is growing entrepreneurs.

AICAT, located in Sapir, has hosted over 10,000 undergraduates from across Asia and Africa at its 10-month agriculture work-study program over the past 20-plus years.

Students from Nepal, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Ethiopia, South Sudan, East Timor, Thailand and Indonesia come in August of every year.

“They come at plantation time and grow with the plants,” Hanni Arnon, AICAT director, tells ISRAEL21c. “Here – where there are very harsh conditions, geographic isolation, extreme weather, arid soil and a shortage of water — they learn the importance of human capacity. If you want it, you can make a change. We teach that a difficulty is a challenge and you need to find a solution.”

Students come from many countries to learn Israeli agricultural techniques at AICAT. Photo: courtesy
Students come from many countries to learn Israeli agricultural techniques at AICAT. Photo: courtesy

Students learn through hands-on experience about Israel’s modern approaches to all aspects of agriculture.

Arnon says many of the visitors’ farming families still rely on luck and prayers. “Students learn here that to farm properly and be prosperous, you need to plan. It’s not about planting randomly and hoping it grows. You need plans, research, drip irrigation, pest control and water management,” she says.

“A plant is a plant. It doesn’t matter if you grow a tomato here or somewhere in Asia or Africa. It still needs good soil, water, sun and pest control. We’re teaching that you need to plan, use the right methods, and research.”

Food security for the world

In 1994, Israeli farming communities began hiring Thai farmhands. The newcomers were amazed to see a desert in bloom and started asking how the magic happens.

“Nearly 25 percent of the world’s population lives in poverty and we have the knowhow to help. We realized there was an opportunity to create a school and share our knowledge of high-tech farming practices,” says Arnon.

Established with the mission of bringing in students from underdeveloped regions, AICAT operates within the Central Arava Regional Council and has partnerships with the KKL-JNF, Partnership2Gether, MASHAV and CINADCO-The Center for International Agricultural Development Cooperation within the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“We never imagined that we’d go on to become an international school with over 1,000 students per year,” says Arnon. The majority of students (70%) are male.

“Because of JNF and AICAT, we’re getting the knowledge and experience we need to rebuild our country,” said Binod Ghimire, an AICAT student from Nepal.

AICAT students learning from an Israeli farmer. Photo: courtesy
AICAT students learning from an Israeli farmer. Photo: courtesy

Each participant is assigned to an area farmer for the school year. “The farmers become their mentors, their inspiration, their family away from home,” says Arnon.

The students earn a salary while learning information they can later apply in their home communities.

“They arrive as students but they go back as entrepreneurs,” Arnon says. “Farmers and farming lands are diminishing but the world is growing. We need more farmers and entrepreneurial farmers especially. An entrepreneur is someone who looks at the land and finds solutions that will be good for all the community.”

 “Israel’s desert landscape proves that if you have the will and the right methods, a farm can grow and succeed anywhere.”

Arnon notes that even small projects can be entrepreneurial. One Thai student persuaded his parents to install a water pump and farm a section of land that had never been used before. “To pump water, for us, isn’t innovative. We’ve been doing it for years. But for them, it is,” she says.

AICAT helps with business plans and keeps in touch with its alumni. Word-of-mouth recommendations – as well as successes in international locales – have created more demand than AICAT can accommodate.

Inspiring ambassadors

In 2014, AICAT introduced an 18-month-long international master’s degree in plant sciences with an emphasis on food safety and security, in cooperation with the Manna Center Program for Food Safety and Security at Tel Aviv University.

This year’s 21 students, each with a first degree from their home countries, are from Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Nigeria.

“They go home with pride in their profession,” says Arnon.

“You see students coming from developing countries with primitive farming methods and when they come here and see the innovations in agriculture, their eyes sparkle with wonder. They say the Israeli farmers inspire them,” she says.

The program includes sightseeing trips as well as field trips around the Arava to see agri-tech companies and methods in action. The annual Arava Open Day – at which some 200 companies and organizations show the latest agricultural innovations — is always a highlight.

“This unique study program has opened my eyes to different cultures and different points of view,” writes an AICAT student from Myanmar on Facebook. “The peppers we brought [on our visit to Mount Hermon] were a symbol of our love and appreciation for AICAT for making all this happen. It’s what AICAT represents — agriculture without borders!”

AICAT students have fun at Mount Hermon. Photo: Facebook
AICAT students have fun at Mount Hermon. Photo: Facebook

“Israel’s desert landscape proves that if you have the will and the right methods, a farm can grow and succeed anywhere,” says Arnon.

AICAT instructors try to impart a sense of tikkun olam (the Jewish value of repairing the world) on their students. “We are inspiring our students to make a difference in their own communities,” says Arnon.

One group of Nepali students now at AICAT plans to create a farming community at home. And a group of Thai students wants to set up a moshav (collective farm) in their university at home.

“They’re calling it Arava Farm,” Arnon says with pride.