Myanmar taps Israeli expertise in agriculture

ISRAELI expertise and technologies in agriculture are supporting Myanmar’s efforts in reforming its vast agriculture sector, while the recently enforced investment protection agreement is expected to boost inward investments for Myanmar in the long run.

Following the signing of an agreement for Reciprocal Promotion and Protecting of Investments between the two countries in October 2014, the agreement has entered into force on September 5 this year.

The Myanmar Times sat down with the Israeli ambassador, Daniel Zohar Zonshine, on October 3 for an interview to talk about the latest developments in bilateral trade, investment and economic relations.

Mr Zonshine said the current priorities are still about searching for the areas in which Israel has a relative advantage and which is relevant to Myanmar to strengthen the ties. He highlighted two sectors in the interview – water resource and agriculture – but touched upon education and medical training as well.

“We are trying to concentrate on these issues, as a government, to promote, to make things clearer and put people together and also to help in training and capacity building. We try to create the conditions for the private sector to do all these, or at least try to.

“In this regard, the agreement is supposed to make things a bit easier for both sides,” the ambassador said.

Mr Zonshine expected the investment protection agreement to provide potential investors some security for their investments, which, in turn, will encourage investments and foster economic ties.

“If there is any problem, the government or the country will be protecting them [investors] – a guarantee in case of a disaster or mass nationalisation, there will be some protection. Basically, I think that it’s important to first give actual protection, and second to give some kind of encouragement for the mutual economic ties, including investments. The third thing is to bring Myanmar higher on the map of investors to give the idea that Myanmar is a country with whom we have an agreement, so it gives you a bit more self-confidence as an investor,” he said.

The trade between the two countries is growing but there’s a trade deficit for Myanmar. There are far more exports from Israel to Myanmar than the other way around. Export from Israel to Myanmar totalled US$34 million in the first half of this calendar year, and is already more than the sum of last year, which amounted to $23 million. Export from Myanmar is about $2 million and has been steady for the last few years.

Most of the Israeli exports have to do with the telecom sector, and there are some Israeli companies which are involved in building cell towers, and trading related electronics. Other areas are agriculture, mainly irrigation as well as medical devices.

In contrast, Myanmar’s exports to Israel are about $2 million and are mainly commodities.“It [bilateral trade] can and should be developed – not by reducing the exports from Israel but increasing the exports from Myanmar,” the ambassador observed.

Agriculture edge

The collaboration in the agriculture sector between the two countries is strong and cemented by over twenty years of partnership. Israel has been running an agriculture-training program for over two decades through which students from Myanmar go to the country for 11 months. In one typical week, they spend one day studying and then work for five days in private farms, akin to rural settlements and cooperatives. The projects are diverse, ranging from greenhouses to husbandries.

Agriculture is a chain: by strengthening one link, you may not necessarily get better results unless the whole chain is improved. – Daniel Zonshine, Israeli Ambassador

Each student is studying and developing a research project alongside their work in the program. Their work is paid and is considerably higher than Myanmar standard. By the end of the 11 months, the participants would be able to experience the whole agricultural year – from planning and preparation to cultivation, harvest, post-harvest etc.

Mr Zonshine stated that the important benefit is that students can gain hands-on experience, are exposed to technologies and can learn from the mindsets and approaches of Israeli farmers. Given the importance of agriculture for the country’s economy, the students, upon completion, come back to Myanmar and contribute their know-how, experience and skills to the agriculture sector.

“We are still trying to bring this experience to something to the level of a community or a group to benefit beyond the individuals,” he added.

Mashav, Israel’s agency for international development cooperation, also brings in experts to Myanmar and offer short-term courses in areas such as agriculture, water management and medicine.

“Agriculture is a chain: by strengthening one link, you may not necessarily get better results unless the whole chain is improved. It has to do with agriculture research, access to technology and finance, farmers being able to access information and data, and infrastructure. Other areas to have added value are developing the processing industry – it gives more jobs for people who cannot continue with agriculture, and it leaves more added value in the country.

“When you look ahead, the more agriculture becomes developed, the less people are needed to do the work because mechanisation is very developed. So you have to find solutions or occupations for people who cannot continue in agriculture,” the ambassador explained, adding that regulation and access to markets are two other essential parts forming the chain.

Netafim, an Israeli pioneer of drip and micro-irrigation products for agriculture, as well as Metzerplas, which specialises in micro-irrigation products, are active in the country, including Shan State. Through these companies and public sector collaboration, Israel is transferring its expertise and know-how, especially those related to dry zone development, to support Myanmar’s reform efforts in agriculture. The ambassador added that an initiative is underway to help Myanmar improve dairy farming with Israeli methodology.

Carrying on amid crises

In September, the European Parliament’s committee on international trade postponed a visit in light of the current political and human rights situation in the country. When asked about the impact on the confidence of Israeli investors, the ambassador said he does not connect economic relations and the Rakhine crisis.

“I’ll divide it [the issue] in two: First, we are concerned with the situation in Rakhine. As many other members of the international community, we are concerned.

“We condemn the violence that was taking place there and hope it isn’t taking place anymore, and we would like to see a peaceful resolution.

“However, regarding the IPA, the IPA was ratified and entered into effect. At the moment we do not have anything on the stack that we would need to give special attitude [attention] towards. But I try … to differentiate the economic relations and the situation in Rakhine. At the moment, we don’t connect the two things,” he commented.

The Myanmar Times went on to ask about how the country should carry on amid conflicts and crises.

“Here, we touch something that is beyond the economy. When we talk about the attention of the world, we are talking about something which happens these days. It touches politicians and diplomats, but [for] the daily lives of farmers … for those outside of the conflict area, life continues almost as usual. The influences of these kinds of conflicts are not necessarily felt right away.

“When we talk about sensitive areas like tourism, it might create immediate problems. When we talk about other things like agriculture, it takes more time. So I don’t think that this will immediately affect the economy here.

“Having said that, when the story in the international media is framed as it is today, it doesn’t help to create more markets. It doesn’t help promote the [country’s] image. It is something that should receive some attention from the government in order to show that: although there are problems, Myanmar is still Myanmar. In other words, not to let the conflict define who or what Myanmar is,” the ambassador concluded.

Source: Myanmar Times

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