The magic Israeli powder that's paving the future for Africa and the Pacific
In the last 15 years, the AnyWay company, which has developed a unique powder for use in stabilizing soil, has quite literally made commercial inroads in Africa and in the Pacific, while also trying to help local communities.
The elders of Addis Ababa were helpless. The clay soil on which the capital of Ethiopia was built was giving them headaches. Because of its particular chemical and physical properties, the ground swelled every time it rained − and shrank every time there was a drought. The consequences were cracks and instability and sinking of both buildings and roads. The enormous capital invested in the streets of the developing city was going down the drain over and over again, as the fissures kept appearing and reappearing.
In their distress, municipal and government leaders brought in foreign engineers for advice. The solution, the professionals determined, was to remove the layer of soil that lay at a depth of between 70 centimeters and 1 meter below the surface, and to fill in that space with other materials. Only that way would it be possible to stabilize the ground and pave a road that would remain intact. Except that fixing each kilometer of road that way would require some six months of work. Not to mention the fact that it would also entail the use of hordes of trucks and heavy machinery that would have to come in and out of the busy and crowded metropolis of five millions inhabitants; the carbon dioxide emissions caused by the on-site soil removal; the need to mine for, transport and inject the filler materials, as well as to lay down a subbase layer and asphalt − and, of course, the outlay of a very great amount of money.
Ultimately, a powder produced by an Israeli-Canadian company saved the day in Addis. Manufactured by AnyWay Solid Environmental Solutions, this powder contains a mixture of cement, lime, plaster, steel slag and polypropylene fibers. It is inserted into the ground, stabilizing it by altering its mechanical engineering qualities. With the help of the municipal roads authority, AnyWay drew up an engineering plan and proceeded to change the properties of the top 20 centimeters of soil.
“It was possible to begin repaving the road immediately,” with that method, says Zeev Halber, CEO of AnyWay Israel, in a recent interview. “The paving time could be shortened from six months per kilometer to just four to six weeks.”
The other benefits, he adds, stemmed from using technology that improved the properties of the natural soil instead of replacing it with filler materials brought in from faraway places, which saved about 40 percent of paving costs, lowered the cost of maintaining the road long-term, and also cut carbon dioxide emissions resulting from the work by 40 percent compared to using the filler method.
AnyWay also prepared the infrastructure for paving the surface, which was done entirely in cobblestone, under the guidance of GTZ, a German state-run enterprise for technical cooperation, and with funding from the World Bank. According to Halber, the project created jobs for thousands of people who were subcontracted to quarry the stones and do the paving − in teams not unlike those that operated in the pre-state Jewish community before Israel was established. The project has been ongoing since 2009 and now is set to include the future construction and paving of the streets of a new residential neighborhood in Addis Ababa for Ethiopian Airlines employees.
The story of AnyWay, which since 1998 has been developing soil-stabilization products for road construction and operates in developing countries, is doubly
anomalous in the Israeli landscape − from both an infrastructure standpoint and from a social one. Israel is considered a success story in various areas, but infrastructure does not top the list. It is enough to recall the lengthy time it has taken for certain roads to be paved in the country, the embarrassing mistakes made in construction of bridges and tunnels, and the bureaucratic morass of the light-rail project to become convinced that software and agriculture, for example, are more obvious examples of Israel’s strengths.
Nor is the country frequently identified with projects with a social agenda in developing countries. In recent years, at least, Israel has been more closely associated with supplying weapons and training to military units that answer to politicians who are not exactly on the short list of candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Along comes AnyWay, a company that promotes infrastructure projects for roads and buildings with what its CEO likes to call a social dimension in developing countries. Ironically, it is doing this based on technology developed by the South African arms industry during the apartheid years.
AnyWay did not invent the idea of stabilizing soil by means of steel slag. In fact, this technology has been around for thousands of years: Indeed, the Roman Empire made extensive use of it. The Romans knew that steel
slag − a byproduct of smelting, cooling and grinding processes − develops a particular cement-like characteristic over time when combined with calcium and water. This trait, called “pozzolanicity” is what allows the process of soil stabilization to continue and even grow stronger over a very long period of time, which explains the durability of Roman roads over 2,000 years.
“Our powder is based on various traditional materials, but we’ve broadened their range of applications such that it is possible to deal with a wider variety of soil,” Halber says. The technological breakthrough that allowed for this greater range of applications and better efficiency of the company’s product, he notes, was the idea of combining certain amounts of cement, lime, slag and plaster with polypropylene fibers.
Originally, technology for the soil-stabilizing powder was conceived in the 1970s at Denel, a state-owned South African company, akin to Israel’s Rafael (which
develops arms-related technology and materiel). The material was used by the South African Army when it was active in Angola to facilitate transporting troops and equipment along problematic routes.
When the apartheid regime ended in 1994, and with it South Africa’s involvement in its neighbors’ affairs, Denel no longer needed the technology, which it sold four years later to a Jewish South African businessman named Josie Cohen, who spotted its commercial potential. A chance meeting between Cohen and an Israeli named Uzi Karta − who worked at the Canadian real estate development company Metrontario − resulted in their collaboration. Cohen sent power samples for testing to the Standards Institution of Israel, and the results, AnyWay’s Halber remembers, were amazing.
Thus came about the partnership between Cohen and Shoel Silver, president of Metrontario, whose offspring is AnyWay Solid Environmental Solutions. The company slowly began to collaborate with giants such as the Australia-based Rock Oil and others, and this was evidently not by chance: It is easier to work with mammoth corporations, which, unlike governments, are capable of making decisions quickly and have big budgets at their disposal.
In 2004, disagreements arose between owners Silver and Cohen over how and at what pace to advance AnyWay’s technology and development, and the result was that responsibility for the firm’s business in Europe and Asia went to Cohen, who continues to promote its product, but under the brand name RBI81. Meanwhile, AnyWay’s markets in the Americas, Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific fell under Silver’s control. Today, AnyWay employs some 20 people, some of them Israelis around the world.
The division of the original firm five years ago sparked some advantageous strategic decisions: Because of the geographic distance between its headquarters in Israel and some of its projects and the desire to get the most out of its limited number of personnel, AnyWay decided to focus its marketing efforts on African countries, including South Sudan. A few years later, after getting the Addis project, it began reaping the rewards.
“In developing countries, it is not unreasonable that decision makers gain economic benefit of some kind from the projects being carried out under their responsibility,” Halber says, delicately explaining the culture of bribery in some African countries.
“On more than one occasion we were asked to contribute to that, but refused,” he continues. “It made our job much harder, but if you persist and if you can demonstrate again and again your ability to be of use to the client − in the end things work out.”
The company unexpectedly landed a giant project in 2010 in the Pacific island of Papua New Guinea. This came about after a government delegation from that country, led by its infrastructure minister, came to Israel and became acquainted with AnyWay’s track record and technology.
“We are involved in Papua New Guinea in projects involving 500 kilometers [of roads],” Halber explains. “The directors of the island’s roads authority were just here, and signed a letter of intent for a project for construction of another 100 kilometers of roads, at an investment of $100 million. We, together with the government [of Papua New Guinea], will arrange the financing package for the project.”
Relatively slow-paced sales, due in part to the fact that the company’s unique powder constitutes a very small part of the overall budget of infrastructure projects ($60,000 to $70,000 per kilometer for the powder, a small percentage of the cost), has spurred AnyWay to adopt a strategy of broader involvement in soil-stabilization projects in general. Today the company provides engineering plans and supervision, and in some places sells various kinds of construction and road-building equipment to clients based on the network of ties it has forged with suppliers.
Another component in this strategy has it involved in the development of new products and a decision to enter complementary fields of activity, such as offering solutions for fast and cheap construction in developing countries. A meeting with the African Development Bank in 2006 revealed that the bank had monetary reserves for funding such construction projects but had a hard time finding worthy candidates. AnyWay spotted the opportunity, teamed up with Auroville Earth Institute, an expert in earth-based construction, and developed a series of products that make it possible to construct buildings with problematic natural soil by stabilizing it with its powder. AnyWay thus became involved in projects in Africa with funding from the Bank.
The company entered into additional construction projects where the soil-stabilizing powder component was actually insignificant financially, but there was a social benefit. For example, AnyWay built a school in a suburb of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and mother and child-care clinics for the Ethiopian government. In Tanzania, AnyWay joined forces with a giant mining corporation and together made an offer to the government to build a residential neighborhood that would provide alternative housing for a population that has to vacate the area of a future mine and won the bid.
“The principle is to generate a growth engine within the community,” Halber says. “We’ll teach them how to build. Today they will build clinics, tomorrow they’ll build schools with the exact same technology.
“Our motivation in these projects was not purely commercial,” he adds, “because the powder component in a block is just 6 percent. But it supports our image and serves as a door-opener, because we prove to clients, such as the mining companies and their customers, or African governments, that we can help them realize their objectives and plans.”
AnyWay is currently involved in a similar project to that in Tanzania on a much greater scale, involving construction of 15,000 homes for the South Sudanese military. Presumably, endeavors of this sort could help the company secure future business, such as building a 700-kilometer road linking Juba, the capital of the Republic of South Sudan, to the border with Ethiopia.
Clever management of the company’s image and its branding as an organization that combines not only concern for net profit but also for the community in which it is active garnered AnyWay an Africa Business Excellence Award. In 2007, it received the prize for a project involving rural community development in South Africa, for nurturing and encouraging entrepreneurship and promoting gender equality in employment.
AnyWay had begun devising ways to encourage employment of women in the building professions as early as 1999, when it decided to package its powder mixture in sacks of 25 kilos, instead of 50 kilos, as was the norm in the cement industry. The thought was that the lighter weight would make it easier for women to participate in construction projects.
Today, 15 years after its founding, after Sisyphean marketing efforts and a
decision to diversify and undertake new initiatives, AnyWay appears to be on the right track. It is involved in soil-stabilization projects for a total of 3,000 kilometers worth of roads and has an annual sales turnover of $100 million.
“Much effort and a whole lot of patience on the owners’ part was necessary, because for many years we were a developing company that resembled the countries we work in,” says Halber. “We only started two or three years ago to see an increased flow of projects with longtime clients, and on a larger scale, as well as forays into additional countries,” he adds. “Our goal is to be the world’s leading company in the field of soil stabilization.”
Meanwhile, the CEO says he’s enjoying the journey and the more immediate satisfactions it offers: “We get involved in some place that isn’t functioning properly − whether it is a road that’s not providing good service, as in Papua New Guinea, or in education or health [services] in Kenya and South Africa − and what we do is part of the change for the better in people’s lives. They are truly grateful to us for that, and it is moving each time anew.”
In Israel, there is only limited use for the solutions the company offers. AnyWay has been involved in building a path for extreme cyclists on Mount Hermon, making the site’s services usable in the summertime, too; a path for the disabled at the dolphin reef beach in Eilat; an access road to Nitzanim Beach; a compost area at the Nitzanim beach; a farm next to the Seven Mills site near Yarkon Park; a memorial site for those killed in the Mount Carmel forest fire; and the archaeological and recreational Berko Park in Tiberias. Another, larger project involved stabilizing a 15- to 20-meter strip of land for the Defense Ministry, on the Israeli side of the separation barrier at the border with the Gaza Strip, to assist in detecting terrorist activity.