SINGAPORE -- Israel's agriculture technology companies are seeking business opportunities in Southeast Asia, as countries like Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines look to the Middle East for ways to boost food production.
Israeli agritech innovations have increasingly made their way into the farming communities in Southeast Asia through bilateral agricultural programs.
Israel expanded its cooperation with Thailand by marking the opening of a second greenhouse facility in Petchburi province in October. This followed its installation of the first greenhouse in 2018 as a demonstration unit for farmers in the area.
The project is equipped with Israel's irrigation and sprinkler systems designed for efficient and sustainable agricultural production, and involved Israeli experts who helped Thai farmers apply the technologies to growing crops.
In another instance of bilateral engagement, Vietnam is set to ink a Labor Cooperation Agreement with Israel as soon as this year. Under the agreement, Vietnamese workers will be sent to Israel to gain experience in the country's agricultural sector.
Like Thailand, Vietnam has Israeli-enabled greenhouses in the northern province of Vinh Phuc, where farmers have successfully cultivated some crops using hydroponic techniques.
"What Israel is providing usually is technology, and technology could be a drip irrigation system... better filtration, could be new system to make reverse osmosis, [where] use of water [is] more efficient, less energy-dependent," Israeli Ambassador to Singapore Sagi Karni said.
Israel has some 600 agritech and foodtech companies, according to Karni, with scores of them able to fine-tune solutions to suit farming conditions outside the country.
The nonprofit Tony Blair Institute for Global Change noted in a 2019 report that Israel has managed to become a world leader in agriculture and water management despite the fact that two-thirds of its land is semiarid or arid with poor quality soil.
Its achievements include being able to yield 300 tons of tomatoes per hectare, far higher than an average of 50 tons worldwide. The country is also a leader in the post-harvest handling of crops, recording just 0.5% of grain storage loss, compared with 20% globally, the report said.
As Southeast Asia grapples with food security threats arising from climate change and supply disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel's experience with agriculture has gained attention among a handful of the region's countries seeking to enhance farming practices.
With over a hundred million hectares of agricultural land, some of the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are major producers, suppliers, and exporters of crops and grains, particularly rice, according to the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.
The think tank noted that the agriculture and food sector was one of the most vulnerable to the outbreak of COVID-19, with measures put in place to contain the effects of the pandemic affecting the supply of produce to markets and consumers, both within and across borders.
Ensuring food security is key for the region where in 2019, the agri-food sector contributed $717 billion to the economies of Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam in sum, a 30% increase from 2015, according to research company Oxford Economics. The sector was also responsible for 48% of the entire workforce across the countries providing 127 million jobs.
"As the region looks to emerge from the pandemic stronger, it is important that policymakers provide the most conducive conditions for the agri-food industry to successfully rebuild itself," said James Lambert, Oxford Economics' director of economic consulting for Asia.
By exporting its experience to the region, Israel's presence in Southeast Asia's agri-food sector is set to grow, even in non-agrarian societies like Singapore, which has set a goal to produce 30% of its nutritional needs by 2030.
Agrifood tech is a focus area for the Singapore-Israel Industrial Research and Development Foundation, which was set up to promote collaboration and funds up to $1 million in such projects.
In December, Israeli micro irrigation tech player Rivulis announced that it received regulatory approval for Singapore state investor Temasek to acquire a stake of around 85% in it.
"Water-efficient, environmentally sustainable technologies, such as micro irrigation, are needed to holistically address the global food and water security challenges," said Richard Klapholz, Rivulis' CEO at the time, noting that Temasek's support will help it chase its goal of helping farmers access affordable solutions.
The cost of technology adoption is an issue in Southeast Asia where farmers have relied on cheaper human labor.
"There is an issue of trying to find the solution that is economically viable," Ambassador Karni said in regards to the transfer of Israel's farming methods to Southeast Asia.
"Clearly, one country can adopt technology which is more expensive because the market is... higher, and in some countries where the economy is not suitable for an expensive technology -- they will have to look into different technologies or different solutions," he said.
Israel's agritech players like Rivulis, at least, are hoping to provide a level playing field for farmers by aiming to make its solutions cost-effective for adopters as part of the company's stated mission.
Netafim, another tech provider of irrigation equipment, is looking to expand its share in the lucrative Southeast Asian agricultural sector. The company already distributes its equipment to Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
"We also work with farmers, some of the largest cooperatives and private investors across Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam to provide them with solutions to modernize their farms, leading to improved yields while reducing their operational costs," said CEO Gabriel Miodownik.
In the Philippines' Mindanao island -- a key banana production center in the region -- Miodownik said Israeli technology has been making an impact over the last 30 years.
The CEO explained that about 60% of the land owned by exporters and large corporations there already benefit from drip or mini-sprinkler irrigation systems supplied by Israeli companies, keeping production steady regardless of climate change and rain patterns.
Miodownik said drip irrigation technology increases yields by 20% to 30% and improves upon and stabilizes the quality and size of crop yields.
"ASEAN is among the most productive agricultural regions globally, and the implementation of agtech solutions such as drip irrigation is driving this market forward," Miodownik said.