Last year in April, Israel opened its residence embassy in Rwanda. It was the first time Israel was opening an Embassy in an African nation in eight years after Ghana’s in 2011 and their 11th on the continent.
It was also the first time in 50 years an Israel representative was going to reside in Kigali.
That somehow was meant to cement the two countries’ relationship, and as one of the Israel officials pointed out, Israel was reiterating its intent of “returning to Africa.”
Nearly one year down the road, a lot has happened between Rwanda and the Middle Eastern country.
The New Times’ Julius Bizimungu talked to Ron Adam, Israel Ambassador to Rwanda to get a picture of the direction of the two countries’ relationship.
Below are excerpts:
Thank you, Ambassador Ron, for your time. What’s been your experience working in Rwanda as a diplomat?
I think the similarities between our two countries is what stands out first. I think similarities are part of the challenges and the success of my job here because it is obvious that both people rose from the ashes of the genocide and the holocaust.
We share the tragic history and the experience of rising from that using human resources where there are no natural resources, to develop independent economy and country.
I feel I am the luckiest Israeli diplomat in the whole world. I don’t believe an Israel diplomat in the United States gets such a reception as I get here.
This is the best place of an Israel diplomat all over the world because of the openness and the nice reception of people – from the President down to the ministries and other agencies.
How has the existence of the residence embassy promoted relations between Rwanda and Israel?
Of course, one year is a short period to measure success, but I can tell you the big change is coming and that has to do with RwandAir direct flights.
I started working physically in May, the flight started end of June, and I connected the dots. It was not my initiative, it was the vision of the President (Paul Kagame) to have direct flights (to Tel Aviv).
This came from the belief that when there are flight connections, people start coming. The investors start coming, traders, export-import and tourists going both ways.
For sure, it has helped intensify the intra action between the two countries.
How have travellers going to and from Kigali – Tel Aviv leveraged RwandAir connection?
So far, the flight is not full. There are some days when they are full, but most times not. I would say the flights are 30 to 35 per cent occupied on average.
A lot more needs to be done in tourism. RwandAir is doing their best but a lot needs to be done by the concerned institutions like Rwanda Development Board (RDB).
What else has been done in a period of one year?
We were able to send 170 bachelor degree students to Israel for a one-year programme in agriculture. This is a good programme for students in the agriculture sector because it equips them with hands-on skills and knowledge, and learn the secrets of modern agriculture.
This is extremely important for the Rwandan agriculture, because when they come back, these students come back with capital and form cooperatives.
The number of students we sent last year (170) is more than what it was before.
My plan is to increase to 300 students next year.
Last year, we also launched an Israel Centre for Horticulture. This is the biggest centre of Mashav (Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation) outside Israel.
We succeeded in having six courses in the recent year for about 300 Rwandan participants. We brought experts in agriculture from Israel to train locals in modern farming, and it is something we are proud of.
What’s the level of business exchanges and what role are you playing to facilitate that?
The relations between countries (Rwanda and Israel) are based on a pillar of defence for years. There were a few Israel firms and players who came to promote Israel defence industry here and they have been successful.
However, my role here is to do beyond the defence sector.
The fact that we have direct flights means that it is easier to bring traders and investors here. I can tell you that things are moving. Every week I have two or three Israel investors who are interested in doing something here.
They are coming here and they are excited about what they see. Everyone from Israel who comes here sees a different Africa because it is easy to do business, it is easy to open a business.
My vision and wish is to make Rwanda as a proof of concept for Israel products for African market. One thing I am planning to make that happen is establishing an innovation hub for Israel startups next to the embassy.
What are Israel businesses interested to invest in here?
There is no specific sector really. Someone wants to build a hospital, someone wants to invest in mining, another one wants to invest in transportation, smart mobility, education, and other sectors.
My message to Israel investors is that they need to understand the state of mind, which is the fact that whatever they plan to do should be a partnership-based business, one which supports the communities and contributes to promoting the economy.
In many fields; mining, Information and communication technology (ICT) and innovation, health, agriculture and education, among others. I have people who are interested in occupying these fields.
What lessons can Israel share when it comes to building an innovation ecosystem?
We let people fail. Failure is essential to achieve innovation and thinking outside the box. Failure is not a bad thing; you start up something, you can fail and you can get up and try again.
From 5,000 startups that we have in Israel, at least 4,000 fail. This is not a bad thing; this is essential for innovation. There must be room for mistakes because that’s how innovation ecosystems are built.
In Israel, we established innovation authorities. What these authorities do is giving money to startups without asking them to give back results, this is because we believe that results-based budgeting is bad specifically for innovation.
Another thing is that we dare to think outside the box, and to do things which are not written anywhere. We call it hutzpah; we are not protocols of our own people, we do things outside the box.
That is what led us to be innovative.
One other thing that is good for innovation is the army. People live high school when they are 18 and don’t go directly to the university. That doesn’t exist in our system. You have to first become an independent grown-up. How do you become an independent grown-up? You go to the army.
In the army, you spend two to three years of service after which you get out with a different perspective to the world. Many people in the army already produce innovation and high-tech solutions.
It’s something that can relatively be compared to Umuganda in Rwanda. People from all over different places come together to learn how to communicate, and how to think together. It is a melting point.
How did the army help you personally?
It changed my personality completely. First of all, I left my parents and I was taught how to think on my own. You have to be an individual who fights to survive.
I learnt in the army how to be a tutor. Part of my service was to be a commander of courses, seminars. I was in the air force and I did telecommunications. I never thought in my life that I will operate a transmitter, so I learnt that in the army.
Working together as a team is also something critical that the army teaches. If you are in a military tank or a parachute trying to protect your country, you have to work as a team.Follow https://twitter.com/Julio_Bizimungu