Lessons for Israel from Ghana

SEFWI WIAWSO, Ghana — About six years ago the Ghanaian government brought a delegation of Jews from the Israeli town of Dimona to Accra, Ghana’s capital, to speak about the importance of local agricultural production and consumption. But even though Ghana has a long way to go on its path to becoming a developed nation — becoming part of the so-called “First World” — there's a lot that Israel can learn from Ghana.

For example, here in Sefwi Wiawso, a small town in southwestern Ghana near the country’s border with Ivory Coast, the synagogue — the only one in Ghana — is lit at night by compact-fluorescent lighting, which uses only a quarter of the power of conventional incandescent bulbs. Mindful of the brownouts and blackouts that can occur when electric demand exceeds electric supply, the Jewish homes here, like most homes in Ghana that have electricity, are similarly lit by compact-fluorescent bulbs. And almost all power outlets here, like all across Ghana, have power switches built into the outlet, allowing people to save energy, without unplugging, by killing the power to vampire appliances — electronic devices that continue to drain power even when turned off — at the flick of a switch.

And in the village of Bonsaiso, outside Ghana’s second-largest city, Kumasi, the village’s new computer center, complete with dozens of laptops, is powered entirely by solar panels on the center’s rooftop. The new health center in the neighboring village of Tontokrom is likewise powered by rooftop energy-generating solar panels. All of these solar-powered facilities are part of the Millennium Villages Project, run by the U.N. Development Programme, Millennium Promise, and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. In Ghana, like any country where nonprofits proliferate, the government and NGOs are implementing programs because there’s an understanding that the free-market system, while good for many, may not be helping those most in need of assistance — and it may not necessarily lead to results that are best for the society at large without intervention.

With electric supply in Israel struggling to meet demand — a new dual-fueled natural gas and coal power plant is planned for Ashkelon to supplement an energy grid that is mainly powered through the burning of coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels — Israel would be wise to follow Ghana’s energy-saving examples and implement more policies that encourage consuming less energy. Even as Israel’s grid switches in future years from coal domination to relatively less-dirty natural-gas consumption, the country will remain dependent on burning fossil fuels. Clean, renewable energy, such as solar power, today only makes up less than one percent of Israel’s energy-grid production, so while we need more investment in solar-energy production, we also need to lower per-capita energy usage if energy production in Israel is going to keep pace with demand.

Supporting Local Agriculture

Ghana holds other lessons for Israel as well. For example, Joseph Armah, one of the leaders of Sefwi Wiawso’s Jewish community, is a photographer by trade, but he also grows his own fruits and vegetables — such as palm fruit, cassava, corn and plantain. He uses the palm fruit to make his own palm oil, one of the most common cooking oils in Ghana, and the cassava and plantain to make fufu, which is sort of like the Ghanaian version of the matzah ball, and also served in soup.

Armah’s farming plot isn’t unique among the Jews of Sefwi Wiawso — it’s actually rather common for people of all religions all across Ghana to grow their own food. More than half of all Ghanaians farm. By comparison, only about three percent of Israelis are farmers. Given that Israel has a far more-developed economy than Ghana, the low farming percentage makes sense. In the United States, less than one percent of the population farms as a vocation — but an estimated 13 percent of the American public grows fruits and vegetables in anything from windowsill pots to backyard garden plots and community gardens. With 22 percent of Israelis classified as food insecure — unable to access the amount of healthy food needed on a regular basis — widespread promotion and incentivization of fruit-and-vegetables plots, like what’s commonplace in Ghana, could help Israel’s poor meet their nutritional needs.

Increased local-food production also reduces energy consumption as less fuel is burned to transport food shorter distances. In central Accra, the government-run Ghana School Feeding Programme, in conjunction with a host of NGOs, including the U.N. World Food Programme, is implementing a nationwide school-lunch system that supports local agriculture across Ghana. The goal isn’t only to provide nutrition to the poor and reduce energy consumption, but also to support regional economies. The program aims to have at least 80 percent of the food served in school lunches to be grown by farmers who live in the same areas as the schools. The program requires local procurement unless the food isn’t available locally, according to Ghana School Feeding Programme official Kingsley Young Opare.

More Efficient Land Use

Ghana is more than 11 times larger than Israel, with only about three times Israel’s population, but in some ways land is more efficiently used in Ghana than in Israel even though Israel is more densely populated. Often, odd lots that would be dirt in Israel are used for farming in Ghana. For example, in both Accra and Kumasi, odd-shaped lots and sometimes even the spaces between the road and a house’s fence are used to grow corn and other vegetables. And in Accra's Dzorwulu neighborhood, the wasteland between an electrical substation and a drainage canal — land on which Ghanaian law prohibits construction — a local farmers’ association of 31 farmers and 17 assistants grows lettuce, cucumber and other fruits and vegetables, utilizing crop rotation to help soil quality. They also receive support from the International Water Management Institute in collaboration with the Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security.

In 1981, Bukari Fuseini started as an assistant farmer on someone else’s plot and in 1990 he started farming his own plot. Today he’s the head of the area’s farmers’ association, but he’s still growing vegetables, which he uses to feed himself, his wife and three children, with plenty left over to sell at market.

“It makes me feel great,” Fuseini said. “I learn a lot farming here.”

Israel would be wise to follow Ghana’s lead in supporting local agricultural production and consumption. The main challenge for Israel would be how it can do so without increasing the country’s agricultural water demands. But the solution is rather simple: Construct small-scale rainwater-savings systems and grey-water reuse systems, and limit agricultural exports.

Rainwater-savings systems would help capture fresh water that, along Israel’s heavily populated coastal region, would otherwise run off into the sea and become salinated. With a change in the types of soaps used, grey-water reuse systems would allow for household wastewater to be reused to irrigate backyard gardens. And agricultural exports would need to be limited because shipping Israeli fruits and vegetables out of the country is, essentially, also exporting water, a resource too rare in Israel to be sent abroad. The country needs to find the right balance by supporting local agriculture — to help people grow enough food to meet the population’s needs — while discouraging overproduction. Today, with the proliferation of imported fresh fruits and vegetables across Israel, as well as an active fresh-food export business, the balance is off-kilter, leading to inefficient uses of three of the things Israel has in shortest supply in relation to its population’s size: water, energy and land.

Biking Infrastructure

Although transportation across Ghana, by Western standards, is relatively inefficient, there is one city here that provides a good example of smart transportation policy, worthy of emulation in Israel. Tamale, Ghana’s third-largest city, has wide, easy-to-navigate bike lanes, often separated by concrete barriers, on all of its major roads. The result? Rather than riding in exhaust-spewing vehicles, many Tamale residents get around town on pollution-free bicycles. It’s very common for men, women, young, old, white- and blue-collar workers alike to traverse Tamale by bike. Wouldn’t it be nice if one day we could say the same thing about Tel Aviv? The Green Zionist Alliance has made building and expanding bike trails, such as the Kinneret Circumference Trail, a permanent budgetary item of Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael (KKL-JNF), and Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur, a Green Zionist Alliance advisory-board member, is developing a circuit of bike paths across the capital, but much more work needs to be done within Israel’s cities to make biking an easier and safer way to travel.

The upcoming launch of Israel’s electric-car network will be a good start to reducing Israel’s transportation-energy footprint, but right now running cars off of the energy grid instead of gasoline just means burning coal — and in the future natural gas — instead of oil. Increasing biking in Israel — along with improving public transportation, raising fuel-efficiency standards and planning better-designed communities — is key to reducing energy consumption and all of the ensuing air pollution released through the continued burning of fossil fuels.

An African Model

Life in Ghana is far from perfect — and, for certain, there remains a lot more that Ghana can learn from more developed nations — but Ghana also represents a functioning example of some policies that Israel would be smart to adopt. If they look at Ghana, Israeli policymakers could find that the seeds for a greener Israel may have been planted in Africa.

Support for this research project was provided in part by ROI and NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Cross-posted from GreenZionism.org

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