Get to Know… Sivan Ya’ari
BY RABBI DR. BENJI LEVY
The founder and CEO of Innovation: Africa, a nonprofit that has brought clean water and electricity to over 3.8 million people across ten African countries, Sivan Ya’ari is a living and breathing “light unto the nations”. Raised in France, educated in the United States and living in Israel, Sivan uses Israeli solar, agricultural and water technologies to make an extraordinary humanitarian impact that simultaneously strengthens Israel’s reputation throughout Africa and beyond.
Why did you found Innovation: Africa?
I founded Innovation: Africa in 2008 after I witnessed what true poverty meant and learned how it could be alleviated by simply harnessing the energy from the sun. Over 620 million people across sub-Saharan Africa live without access to electricity or access to safe and clean water. Yet the solution is simple – the sun exists and the water exists.
By installing a few solar panels we can pump clean water from the aquifers just a few meters beneath the ground and we can provide light to schools and medical centers, thereby transforming rural communities and providing them with hope and dignity.
What does it mean for you to use Israeli technology and know-how to save lives?
I am a proud Israeli, a proud Zionist and immensely grateful to have the opportunity to do our work in the name of Israel. Israel is a small country, but it has made the desert bloom. I believe it is our obligation to help other countries and rural communities do the same.
Many of our readers have never been to Africa. Can you describe the poverty you’ve seen there? How does it compare to what you experienced growing up?
My first experience in Africa was when I was working for Jordache Jeans in Madagascar. Though I personally grew up in what I considered to be a poor home, I only truly understood what poverty meant when I was in Madagascar. I saw many villagers who were unwell, unable to receive medical care, medicines or vaccines, and women waiting to give birth at night, guided only by candlelight and harmful kerosene lamps.
Having seen solar panels on almost every rooftop in Israel, I knew there was a simple solution to this and that I had to act. That’s how it all started, providing solar energy to a health center and then bringing light, village by village, to medical centers and then schools. Now, crucially, we are using solar energy to pump clean water.
That’s why I tell people you embody the idea of a “light unto the nations”! What were the early days like? What were some of the challenges you faced?
I made many mistakes and failed many times. But each time I learned from the experience. One of my earliest challenges was not understanding the relationship between energy and water. For a long time I thought that powering schools and medical centers would be the key to helping these villages. Yet we saw that people were still getting sick and students were still unable to attend school. When I returned to visit one of the schools we powered with solar energy, I saw hardly any students there. The head teachers said they “are too weak to walk”.
I should have spent more time understanding the challenges that these rural communities were facing. It turns out that the people were getting sick because they were consuming contaminated water from open sources. The only way to help these children and their families improve their quality of life, health and wellbeing is to provide them with access to safe and clean water.
Now, as we seek to expand, we are facing supply shortages and other challenges as a result of the global pandemic. But it has only reinforced our commitment to providing communities with brighter and healthier futures.
It seems your aim is to break the cycle of poverty. What role does energy play in this, and how have you made an impact in this space?
Providing water to an entire village is a gift that will immeasurably change the lives of thousands of community members and break the cycle of poverty. At the highest level, water improves the health of the villagers, enables more students to attend school and alleviates pressure on the women who are no longer required to travel significant distances to collect water from contaminated sources and can now use their time more effectively. In turn, this leads to economic stability, as the villagers are then able to grow vegetables and sell the surplus in local markets. They then also establish businesses like brick-making and agricultural programs.
Similarly, providing solar energy to a school or medical center truly transforms the wellbeing of the students and patients. With solar energy, electricity for lights is installed throughout the school or medical center as well as in the homes of the teachers and nurses. Students are able to reach their full potential and go on to higher education, thereby helping to empower the future leaders of tomorrow. With electricity, the facilities are able to utilize laptops, essential medical equipment and, most critically, power a vaccine refrigerator, which given the current pandemic is more critical than ever.
On a personal level, what does it mean to you to know that what you created impacts so many people?
It is truly humbling, but I know that I alone would not have been able to make such an impact. I work with an incredible team of experts – civil, water and electrical engineers working tirelessly towards our common goal.
What motivates you to work so hard to help people you have never met?
Seeing the smiles on the faces of the mothers as they open the taps of clean water, and the faces of the children as they switch on a light for the first time. It is truly priceless, because we know that from this moment on, their lives will be changed for the better.
There is a verse in the Bible where G-d says to Abraham “I will make you a great nation and you will be a blessing and all people on earth will be blessed through you.” I believe it is our obligation as a great and truly blessed nation to help those in need, even if we’ve never met them and perhaps never will meet them.
What are some of the Jewish values that are reflected in the work you do?
As a Jewish woman, I believe that it is important to be a beacon of light, an or la’goyim and share the blessing of our technological advancements with those who are less fortunate. I am immensely proud that Innovation: Africa embodies the notion of tikkun olam, helping to heal our world in the name of Israel.
Every human being is special and deserves to be honored and treated equally. The Jewish saying that “he who saves one life, saves an entire world” is certainly true. Each life is sacred and we are privileged to help millions of people across Africa live healthier and happier lives.
How has your work changed you?
I believe I am more focused and have clearer goals. I am blessed to have surrounded myself with an incredible team who inspire me and help advance the organization.
Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy is a co-founder of the philanthropic advisory: Israel Impact Partners, Keshev mental health center, and an AI summarizing start-up called Tanna. He is the former CEO of Mosaic United, Dean of Moriah College and teaches globally in person and online @RabbiBenji: www.RabbiBenji.com