Israeli Businessman Aims to Make Desert Bloom in South Sudan With Kibbutz-style Farming

Over the past few months, Miki Mann has been promoting the cooperative farming model that would serve to absorb migrants deported from Israel.

When Israeli businessman Miki Mann offered the brand-new government of South Sudan to build kibbutz-style communities in the new country, it refused. "They told me that in South Sudan there is a value of private ownership of land," he said. But they soon found a compromise.

The South Sudanese may have ruled out the kibbutz model, but they've agreed to a cooperative one. "The cooperation is in the agricultural knowledge and equipment, but not in land ownership," explained Mann. "Kibbutz - no; cooperative work - yes." Over the past few months, Mann has been promoting the cooperative farming model that would serve to absorb migrants deported from Israel. The South Sudan government has agreed to participate in the project and the World Bank has agreed to take on part of the development, if the governments of South Sudan and Israel fund the project.

But the dream of making the desert bloom in South Sudan is not an easy one. Mann's attempts to get Israeli aid have been unsuccessful so far, possibly owing to fears of setting the precedent of taking responsibility for deportees after they leave Israel. Neither Agriculture Minister Orit Noked nor Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon have responded seriously to the plan, Mann said.

The Agriculture Ministry has said it is examining the proposal. Ayalon did not comment for this report.

The South Sudan government has already agreed to provide 100 dunams (25 acres ) of land for the project the next five years, near the capital city of Juba. The South Sudanese are already examining the possibility of establishing such cooperative farms elsewhere in the country, without any connection to the migrants repatriated from Israel.

The basic idea is simple: Every South Sudanese who is deported from Israel would receive a plot of land, for which they would be personally responsible. The cooperative would receive tools, seeds, fertilizer, irrigation equipment, pesticides and herbicides. Each cooperative would receive the services of an agronomist sent by Israel to accompany and assist the community's progress. The local farmers would grow corn, peanuts and various grains and would sell their harvest to the cooperative. The farmers would then be paid after the cooperative's expenses in supporting them are deducted.

The hope is that the new farmers would use their profit to pay for health services and education, buy food and improve their quality of life. Farmers who want to exploit their new knowledge and experience would be able to move to other farmland, helping spread their knowledge around the country.

"The cooperative is the best and fastest way to start something from nothing," said Mann.

Mann, 59, is from Binyamina. He is a mechanical engineer by profession, and has worked as a technological adviser to companies in recent years. When South Sudan was founded as an independent state just a year ago, Mann offered his services to the new government as an adviser on infrastructure and was invited to Juba.

South Sudan imports a large amount of its food from neighboring African countries, said Mann. Agriculture there is based on production for local consumption, by families or tribes. The government's natural preference is to continue to base local agriculture on manual labor. "There is no shortage of workers, and therefore the emphasis has to be on investing in knowledge, methods and supplies - and not necessarily on mechanization," he said. "It is not like in the Western world, where they are asking to replace men with machines."

Women collecting water in a refugee camp in South Sudan