Sivan Ya’ari, the founder and president of Innovation: Africa, wasn’t aware the United Nations would present her organization with the Innovation Award.
Earlier this month, Ya’ari spoke to around 1,200 people about the organization’s efforts in Africa at the U.N. Global South-South Development Expo in Kenya.
Afterwards, she received an email inviting her back to the annual global summit. She was then presented the prestigious award, in front of an audience that included Kenya’s Israeli ambassador. Receiving the award was a surprise for Ya’ari, but it was also a sign of encouragement.
Innovation: Africa is a nonprofit organization that brings Israeli innovation, specifically Israel’s solar technology, to impoverished African villages. The organization has brought electricity, medical care, food, clean water and improved education to almost half a million people. Using solar energy, the organization has given electricity to schools, orphanages and medical clinics. Possibly its most inspiring feats are that its first project was only implemented five years ago and most of its employees are in their 20s.
Ya’ari, who was born in Israel and raised in France, was first exposed to Africa’s poverty in 1998, when she worked for a jean manufacturing company. The company owned factories in Africa and Ya’ari’s job was to make sure production went smoothly. Since she spoke French, the company sent her to Madagascar. What she saw when she arrived was hard for her to put into words.
“I can’t even describe it. People were lacking water, food and electricity. There was [widespread] famine and orphans in the streets,” she says by phone from Israel. “It took me time to understand why this was happening.”
After college, Ya’ari obtained a master’s degree in international energy management and policy at Columbia University, which landed her an internship with the United Nations Volunteers Programme’s (UNVP) Energy Bureau.
She and fellow UNVP employees were sent to Senegal in 2007 to inspect how everyday machines worked in the villages. They came to the conclusion that most didn’t work at all. Villagers had no money to get electricity.
An eerie example of this is when Ya’ari traveled to Tanzania that same year and encountered a medical clinic lit with kerosene lamps. Ya’ari then came up with the idea of bringing Israeli innovation to these villages.
“I remembered in Israel, you can see solar panels on top of every roof,” she says. After getting funding for the first project, the organization powered its first medical clinic using solar energy. Five years later, 67 projects have been implemented in villages in Uganda, Ethiopia, Malawi and Tanzania.
Innovation: Africa has offices in the U.S., Israel and Africa, with staff working with local governments and U.N. officials to make sure every project goes as planned, while working to bring solar energy to more villages in more countries.
“It’s important for Israel to have strong relationships with other countries,” says Rachel Ishofsky, the managing director of Innovation: Africa. “Israel is becoming more active in Africa, and we’re glad to be a part of that movement.”
In helping Africa, the organization also helps Israel. “Israel is known for its technology and innovation. It’s a start-up nation. Everyone is happy to know it’s sharing innovations with other countries,” Ya’ari says. “We’re helping the Israeli economy and helping businesses enter the African market. We’re really making a difference.”
While making sure everything runs smoothly from continents apart may seem like an impossible task, another Israeli technological advancement helps make it easier. In what is called a remote monitoring system, any Innovation: Africa office is able to see energy production and consumption for a particular project via a server that collects the data. Donors are able to view the data as well, so they can see what’s become of their investment.
The average age of the donors is 32, which Ya’ari says is promising, as young people are willing to donate since all of their money goes straight into Israeli technology and the villages it helps.
On average, each project costs $10,000 to implement and helps 30,000 people. Ya’ari simplifies this down to “Four dollars per person. Four dollars for their future.” But to really see what a difference Innovation: Africa makes, you have to be there.
Ishofsky recalls one of the first projects, when she and Ya’ari visited a Ugandan orphanage. During their first visit, the 300-plus children gave them a warm welcome but unenthusiastically went to sleep immediately afterwards, as it was pitch black at 7:30 p.m.
After a few weeks of setting up a solar committee with the local government, the project was implemented. While driving back to the orphanage, “we see this bright light in the distance,” she says. They realized it was their facility and when they arrived, they found the kids singing, dancing, laughing and most importantly, reading and studying. There was light.
“When they see light for the first time it’s hard not be emotional,” Ya’ari says, adding that the seeing the children’s faces makes what she does all the worthwhile.
For the future, Ya’ari and Ishofsky both say they want the organization to go bigger, in terms of new technology and expansion of project locations. Ya’ari also wants to focus on areas where people can’t find water, as the organization can use solar energy to drain aquifers and pump water.
There are currently 38 villages, approximately 226,000 people, who are next in line for Innovation: Africa’s help.
“It’s my mission to go and help them,” Ya’ari says. “It’s a question of life or death.”
To find out how to donate and for more information about Innovation: Africa, go to innoafrica.org.