Q&A With Israel Ambassador Michael Lotem: ‘Opportunities for Kenya-Israel ties are limitless’

July 3, 2023

Since gaining independence, Kenya and Israel have maintained friendly and cordial relations. However, it is disappointing to note that trade between the two nations has remained relatively low in scale.

In an interview with Financial Standard, Israeli Ambassador Michael Lotem highlights specific areas that, if fully utilized, have the potential to enhance bilateral relations between Kenya and Israel.

What is the status of Kenya-Israel relations?

If you allow me to use a metaphor, I would say “the plane of bilateral relations that was parking somewhere in the last few years has been taking off.” We are working on understanding who wants to get on board and what luggage he brings with him. I am glad to say that the leaders of this bilateral journey – President Ruto and PM Netanyahu – are enthusiastic about this journey. Take, for example, the area of tourism, the attack in Mombasa in November 2002 put a halt to tourists to Kenya. But in the last couple of months, we are in touch with Israeli companies who are negotiating the coming of Israeli tourists on direct chartered flights. Another Israeli group will soon open a new lodge in the Maasai Mara and a few months ago, a Kenyan company started directed cargo flights to Israel. Another area which saw big meaningful involvement of Israeli companies in agriculture. Again, here we also saw a decrease in the number of Israeli companies but the last few months saw a revival of the interest of Israelis, which translated into very big investments in new projects. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg of what can be done.

What are some of the areas that Kenya and Israel have not maximised?

As I mentioned earlier, trade volumes are extremely low, investments are far from what they should be and generally speaking, in a country like Kenya, I would expect to see the business activity of 10th of Israeli companies if not more. It so happens that in the last six months, I witnessed a big interest and meaningful growing presence of Israeli companies in Kenya.

How would you rate Kenya’s economy?

For sure, my expertise is not in rating economies. My role here is to improve the bilateral economic relations, which include trade, investments and innovation. No doubt, Kenya is a key player in the region and Africa in general with an advanced and vibrant financial sector. With Israel having more than 600 fintech companies, we can certainly do good business between our two countries.

What happened to the joint Kenya-Israel Galana Kulalu irrigation project?

Different things have happened and different explanations have been given. My focus is on the future, choosing the best way to be relevant to the interest of President Ruto in this project. I strongly believe in the leading role of the private sectors of both Israel and Kenya.

What will the Israeli government bring to the table if the project is revived?

In the past, Israel’s Ministry of Finance gave insurance to Israeli exporters, enabling them to bring down the cost of finance. In addition to this, we committed ourselves to taking 250 students to an 11-month studying and working experience in Israel. Different governmental tools can be used to support the project, but much depends on the business structure.

In your view, where are we getting it wrong as a country?

I believe you are relating this question to the water issues. My understanding is that before talking about technologies, we have to talk about water management and regulations. I will be glad to avail all our experience to the relevant authorities in Kenya at both national, county and private sector levels.

What can Kenya do to cope with perennial drought?

As I said, water management is the key, although there many more factors. Water scarcity was an issue in Israel ever since its independence 75 years ago, which is well understood, bearing in mind half the country is a desert. After the last drought cycle a few years ago, the government decided to launch huge seawater desalination plants. Today, 95 per cent of our agriculture is water irrigated with treated sewage and 65 per cent of our portable water, comes from the sea. By bringing on stream of the world’s largest seawater desalination plant (200 million cubic metres), in a few months, we will reach 80 per cent.

What is the most distinguished feature of Israel’s economy?

Human resources, technological orientation and readiness to take on risks. Failure is the best motivation to try again. I recall that in his inauguration speech, President Ruto mentioned the lack of natural resources in Kenya and highlighted human resources. In the last 14 months since my arrival, I had the pleasure of meeting many among these human capital. I think that indeed, we can and should do more for our people. Allow me to take a concrete example. I visited the Kenya Medical Research Institute a few months ago, and I followed it with a talk with Israel’s leading expert on tropical diseases. He took no time in coming here to meet the people of Kenya and in our private talk at the end of his visit (and I take the liberty of exposing it) he told me how impressed he was with the scientific level of the people at the Institute and that he wants KEMRI to be Israel’s leading partner in medical research in Africa.

How is the Israeli government supporting Kenyan farmers?

One way of support is through the sending of 250 students for the 11-month internship programme. If you are asking me if we provide millions of dollars in technical assistance, the answer would be no. I believe the best assistance is by developing businesses and not through philanthropic operations. This is why I invest most of my time in the former.

In 2010, Kenya began seeking the purchase of Israeli weapons, including counterinsurgency systems and unmanned aerial vehicles for border surveillance. Currently, the country seems to have a bias for Jordan. Where does this leave Israel?

Israel’s Defence industry is among the world leaders. We sell to those who want to buy the best and we cooperate with those who want to cooperate with the best. We would be glad to work with the Defence Ministry on any of Kenya’s needs and challenges.

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