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Of Marshmallows and Covenant: The Uphill Battle in Africa to be a Renewable Light Unto the Nations

Just because the world has abandoned the most vulnerable people on the planet doesn’t mean the people of the Covenant have any excuses.
[additional-authors]
May 24, 2023
Photo credit: Courtesy

Because you have to pick your battles, I ended up bringing kosher marshmallows to Burundi—the least developed country in the world.

We had asked the President of Burundi, His Excellency Evariste Ndayishimiye, to schedule the official ribbon-cutting of the country’s first utility-scale solar field after May 26, since we wanted to be in Israel for the national holidays and Shavuot. This new solar field, which provides 100% of the capital Gittega’s day-time power and over 10% of the country’s, has been in the works for nearly a decade. It now powers 87,000 homes and small businesses, providing green and cheaper power to hundreds of thousands of people.

Sharp-relief after 9 years of development. The next ribbon-cuttings, with some philanthropic support, will be in South Sudan, Kenya, Zambia and Mozambique. (Photo credit: courtesy)

A decade ago we were given a sobering assessment from a respected diplomatic source in Burundi: You have zero chance of success at bringing your Israel-inspired solar fields here and the country is on the verge of a potential civil war or even a genocide.

Fast forward to the need for marshmallows: My secret hope was that the Burundian President would pick June 5th, 2023 for the festive day, which is World Environment Day, and happens to also be the 12th anniversary of the launch of my first of 18 solar fields. That first field, at Kibbutz Ketura and only a modest 4.9 megawatts, was the first in the Middle East, and its ribbon-cutting was so close to Shavuot that we unveiled a statue of Ruth the Moabite next to the panels. Her clay hand still stretches out to welcome the rising sun from the east every morning.

It took our initial team, from Arava Power, five hard and long years to plow through the obstacles standing in our way. On the day of its launch, June 5, 2011, my partners and I announced that the money we make from selling energy from the four corners of the solar field would be donated to charities for two decades, bringing back into history and into the Land of Israel the Shavuot-inspired mitzvah of Peah.

Shavuot, of course, marks the harvest festival as well as the giving of the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai. I got into pretty big trouble this year when during the United Nations Climate Conference, known as COP27, which took place in Sharm el-Sheik in Sinai, I climbed up Mt. Sinai with partners from Hazon and the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and, in an act of defiance against the farce taking place below at the climate conference, smashed two green tablets. The event was dubbed “the most blasphemous act of 2022” on social media, with millions of views worldwide. (Thank you to the Peace Department and the Roadburg Foundation for enabling this action.)

Even so, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, echoed our themes in Egypt at the conclusion of the United Nations Climate Conference, that “COP27 took place not far from Mount Sinai, a site that is central to many faiths and to the story of Moses, or Musa. It’s fitting. Climate chaos is a crisis of biblical proportions. The signs are everywhere. Instead of a burning bush, we face a burning planet.”

The truth is that very little was accomplished in Sharm el-Sheik for fighting climate change and especially for the most vulnerable people on the planet.

My earliest consciousness around Africa was famine in Ethiopia via Michael Jackson’s “We are the World,” the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry and being a campus activist against apartheid South Africa, from which I was proudly banned until Nelson Mandela was freed.

Here is how much of a farse COP27 was: It not only didn’t result in the world cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions, but also, the veil was lifted by NEF Bloomberg regarding the fact that for all the talk and money and promises, less than 1% of climate funds was actually going to sub-Sahara Africa, where it is needed the most.

Africa as a continent is responsible for less than 4% of the global emissions yet, as I travel from country to country, I see first-hand that they are getting clobbered the most by the adverse-effects of our privileged lives: biblical level droughts that kill off live-stock and crops, flood and cyclones that wash away infrastructure and homes, under-performing hydo-electric power plants that leave grids dry and hospitals powerless because of lack of rains, increased plagues of locusts and more.

When I made aliyah with my family from Boston to super sunny Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava, where I was a Young Judaean volunteer 25 years earlier, the vision that hit me was that Israel could be a renewable light unto the nations. To do so, we would have to lead by example. I knew a lot about beating up governments for good causes, like Soviet Jewry and ending Apartheid. Luckily my partners understood that we would need a business model to realize and scale this vision, which was to create the first region in the world that is 100% solar powered during the day; it would be from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. It was quixotic, untried and too risky at first. The Eilat-Eilot municipality, however, has great partners from the UJA-Federation of Toronto, who put up $1 million in venture philanthropy to get things started, and lowered the risk for investors.

This Shavuot will mark 12 years not only for the launch of the solar industry in Israel, but also the proof that venture philanthropy can unlock multiples of investment funds to advance green regional development. The area from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea hit our record-breaking 100% day-time solar goal by 2020 (video credit: Gil Kremer) and we received a 1:400 leverage on the philanthropic funds, with $400 million being invested over a little more than a decade. It felt like a miracle cutting that ribbon 12 years ago, which is the only way to explain a sunset rainbow that kissed the top of the mountains behind that first field as the sun dipped in a clear sky.

When my partners and impact investors and I started out in pioneering solar, we flirted with a regional vision to power peace. But in that ribbon-cutting year, people from 58 developing countries came to see us and said, “Hey, Start-Up Nation, please help us.”  (Our regional accomplishments are off-the-record.)

My heart broke again and again as people came to see us. I had not known that 600 million people in Africa didn’t have power and that no one had ever succeeded in bringing solar fields to the sub-Sahara region. I didn’t know that 300 million Africans were burning dirty and expensive diesel for their power, dying from its smoke, and that the population of the continent was going to double quickly. The small donations that our Israeli solar field was making suddenly felt so inconsequential.

One of my heroes was a friend and fellow Young Judaean, Anne Heyman, who, instead of being overwhelmed by the nearly one million orphans in Rwanda after the genocide, decided to bring the Israeli model of youth villages there to help the most vulnerable. The Agahozo Shalom Youth Village now houses 500 of Rwanda’s neediest and has brought these young people from vulnerability to being proud African leaders.

Anne invited my family and me to volunteer at the village for two weeks. It was inspiring to witness how they take kids from darkness to light. Toward the end of the visit, she put her arm around me, pointed to the hill behind the school and said, “Yossi, build me one of those Israeli solar fields and let me have some income to help cover the medical costs of my kids here.” No one could refuse the compelling Anne Heyman and luckily I didn’t either.

She died tragically in an accident but the Anne Heyman Solar Field was Africa’s first, and the first win for the Obama-Biden White House initiative called Power Africa. My partner Chaim Motzen was the lead, leveraging what we learned in the Arava and adapting it to Rwanda, where we supplied at the festive ribbon-cutting 6% of the country’s power. Here our philanthropic leverage was 1:25, meaning that for each dollar in de-risking grant money, we brought in $25 of investment. “Gigawatt Global has created a crazy futurist solar field that’s boosted Rwanda’s generation capacity by 6 percent and has basically blown my circuits with its possibilities; this array just has to be seen,” wrote Bono, the U2 front-man after a site visit. “The world ought to put its weight behind risk-takers like Gigawatt and help them scale.”

Yossi Abramowitz, Israel’s leading solar pioneer, celebrating with Bono a “beautiful day” in Rwanda at the Anne Heyman Solar Field. (Photo credit: courtesy)

The world celebrated with us and I mistakenly thought we could now replicate and scale with ease across the continent with a proven hybrid business model for major tikkun olam.  We took on Burundi with the hope that if we could do it there, then we would have proven to the world that solar power is advantageous and scalable even in the most fragile of states where the people are the most vulnerable. And it didn’t hurt that I wanted Israel and the Jewish people, as an expression of our covenantal responsibilities, to uplift the most needy, to be part of that story.

It should have taken three years for Burundi to go up and it was essentially ready to do so in 2017. We had raised enough money in our African-related new company, Gigawatt Global, to carry the project and the company to fruition and then scale across the continent. Let’s just say things got worse and worse on the ground—there was a coup attempt, Covid and more.  I leveraged everything my family had to keep us going; we just had to prove to the world the dream of green energy for all was possible. In retrospect, we should have pursued at the company level, not just for the solar field, a hybrid financing model of venture philanthropy along with impact investment funds to be able to withstand bad things happening to good people. Luckily, we now have two California-based philanthropic entities in which people can make tax-deductible donations and grants to help us unlock the larger impact funds to help us weather the African storms.

When things finally improved in Burundi, a new President was elected and the solar field was built. My partner Michael Fichtenberg, who led the endeavor, was satisfied, and it was time to schedule the long-delayed historic ribbon-cutting to signal to donors and investors that we, and the world, could achieve the impact we envisioned, fulfilling many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The President chose May 9th, which happened to coincide with the 33rd day of counting the Omer, a celebratory day on our freedom march from slavery in Egypt to receiving the 10 commandments at Mt. Sinai.

It was a glorious gathering, with a tent set up for dignitaries at the foot of a majestically sloping mountain covered with over 28,000 solar panels. The community, especially the kids, looked on in awe at the field, being so close to their President and having a yarmulke-wearing solar guy from Jerusalem delivering translated words, including that “A New light shall shine forth from Zion.” Our investors were happy, our donors were beaming. It was the Biden-Harris Administration’s first African solar interconnection as well. Now it’s time to replicate and scale across the continent with additional partners so that we can finally fulfill that original Israeli-desert inspiration of becoming a renewable light unto the nations.

The marshmallows?  Usually in Jerusalem we roast them on open bonfires the eve of Lag B’omer. This time we did so in Burundi with our local partners. The heavy smell of smoke in the air, however, reminded me of home on this one-day holiday. Across Burundi, every night, they light their fires in order to cook and stay warm; it is the most deforested country in the world. Yet just because the world has abandoned the most vulnerable people on the planet doesn’t mean the people of the Covenant have any excuses.


Condensed Remarks of Yosef I. Abramowitz at the solar ribbon cutting in Burundi on Lag B’omer.

“Amahoro, Shalom

Your Excellency, Your Excellencies, Honorables, leaders, investment partners, and people of Burundi,

It says in the Scriptures that a “New Light Shall Shine Forth from Zion,” and we have come from Jerusalem, the city of Jesus, in partnership and with a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood to share and bring light.

We are in the season when the Jewish people each year mark 49 days from Passover (and Easter) from leaving a very difficult existence, to our freedom march toward Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments, and to become a nation of laws.

It is a solemn time and celebrations are usually prohibited.

Except.

There is one day during these 7 weeks when celebrations are not only encouraged but when there are weddings across the Holy Land and Jewish communities around the world.

That day, the 33 day of our freedom march, happens to be today, lag b’omer.

You picked this date, Your Excellency, perhaps by chance.

But it is a sign of something we felt in our meetings together: that we, and our peoples, are deeply connected spiritually.

Today is a day of celebration for Burundi; and today we affirm a long-term partnership with the people of Burundi.

And in every good marriage, each side looks out for the interests of the other in order to move forward and flourish.

The other spiritual connection we share is that the only two flags in the world that feature the six-pointed Star of David are those of Burundi and Israel.

It is the star of the shield of King David and may God protect and bless the people and leadership of Burundi and Israel.

Ancient kings in the Bible were anointed with holy oil, and the whole world just witnessed King Charles III being anointed with blessed anointing oil from the Holy Land. Your Excellency, I bring to you from the Holy Land our anointing oil, this one is called “Light of Jerusalem.” And we are privileged to be your partners and the partners of the Burundian people in bringing, more and more light, more and more economic and social empowerment, more and more hope—under your leadership.

The people and leaders of Burundi sincerely want social and economic development and this solar field behind the children is a shining example that Burundi can—in partnership—move forward for the betterment of its people.

And because of the Covid lockdown, your Excellencies and the children, this field was built by Burundians for Burundians, with mostly distant supervision from us and our partners at Voltalia. And you thank you, Your Excellency, for supporting the expansion of the field.

I am calling upon the international community to join us and to prioritize Burundi and other Least Developed Countries for blended finance transformative endeavors.

Madam Ambassador of the U.S., I want to thank President Joe Biden and my friend Vice President Kamala Harris for hosting the African Leaders Summit and making an historic commitment to Africa.  This field is only the first in what I trust will be many, many projects that we will do together here.

President Evariste Ndayishimiye is demonstrating the sort of leadership that will encourage additional foreign direct investment from us and our investment and development finance partners.

Burundi’s business climate is continuing to improve and we are confident that we can continue to power your growth. And we have a very specific message to some of our international friends:

To The Bezos Earth Fund, the Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Rockefeller Foundation, and others: Gigawatt Global is ready to be your impact platform across the continent in the Least Development Countries to bring social and economic empowerment thru creative green energy impact investments and venture philanthropy.

The proof is right in front of us, and the best determining factor to predict future success is to look at the track record. Globally, this is my 18th solar field.  And it is very close to my heart.

In conclusion, I want to thank the talented staff and management and dedicated investors of Gigawatt Global and our Chair Howie Rodenstein, COO Weldon Turner and Chief Strategy Officer Aryeh Green. And our local team. They all deserve a round of applause.

Your Excellency, we do look forward to the day when you and the First Lady will come to the City of David and see the House of Solomon and we are grateful to our friend, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who has already extended that invitation. Your Excellency, thank you.

What we can see here today, in the eyes of the children and at the foot of this glorious solar mountain, for Burundi, for Africa, and for the world—is hope.

God bless and shine on!


Nominated by 12 African countries for the Nobel Peace Prize, Yosef Abramowitz was named by CNN as one of the world’s leading Green Pioneers and serves as a leader of Israeli President Herzog’s Climate Forum. He is also a recipient of the Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, was a Wexner Fellow and serves as CEO of impact investment platform Gigawatt Global. He and his wife, Rabbi Susan Silverman, who launched Second Nurture in Los Angeles, raised five children in Jerusalem. “Green Rebel—The Adventures of Kaptain Sunshine,” a feature-impact documentary on Abramowitz’s solar work in Israel and Africa, will premiere this October, 2023. For more info: www.tinyurl.com/greenrebel

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