Israel’s food and agriculture ecosystem is focusing on business continuity as companies deal with staffing challenges following a massive military mobilization in the wake of Hamas’ attacks last weekend.
Jonathan Berger, CEO at Israeli foodtech incubator and investor The Kitchen FoodTech Hub, told AgFunderNews that the Israeli military has summoned around 360,000 reservists (almost 4% of the country’s population of 9.8 million) to join the fight against Hamas, marking one of its largest mobilizations in history.
His comments came as Israel’s military told a million people in Gaza to evacuate to the southern part of the territory ahead of an expected ground invasion in retaliation for the surprise attack by the ruling Hamas militant group. The UN has appealed to Hamas to immediately release all hostages and to Israel to grant “unimpeded access for humanitarian aid” into Gaza, where clean water and other supplies are dwindling following Israel’s blockade.
‘In our portfolio, dozens of people have been called up’
With some exceptions, military service is compulsory for Israelis when they turn 18. After this, they can be called upon to serve at any time up to a certain age threshold, said Berger, who was recently forced to cancel FoodTech IL 2023, Israel’s premiere foodtech event in light of the escalating conflict.
However, many Israelis outside of the age range for reservists have also volunteered for military service, said Berger. “They are being posted wherever they are needed and in most cases they don’t know for how long.
“In our portfolio, dozens of people have been called up and so yesterday we had a Zoom call with all the CEOs of The Kitchen and shared best practices. In some cases, very religious people [Haredi orthodox Jews, who are exempted from military service] are filling in by working in factories to replace people who have been called up.”
Many food and agriculture companies also employ Thai citizens, many of whom have left the country in light of recent events (according to the Thai foreign ministry, about 30,000 Thais work in Israel) which has led to a shortage of agriculture workers, said Berger. “So we are trying to find ways to help with business continuity. It’s a case of let’s identify the gaps and make sure that we as a community together, fill up those gaps.”
Dr. Nitza Kardish, CEO at agrifoodtech investor The Trendlines Group, added: “In some cases students from the agriculture schools are coming to work or to volunteer, so we are trying to marshal all the resources that we can.”
Dr. Amit Yaari, CEO at Israel startup BioBetter, which is growing growth factors for the cultivated meat sector in tobacco plants, told AgFunderNews: “Maybe 20% of our company has been drafted, so as you can imagine that is very stressful.”
Financing: ‘Investors have not stopped investing in Israel’
Several Israeli startups were in the middle of financing rounds when Hamas launched its attacks. In most cases, “that dialog is continuing,” said Berger. “Investors have not stopped investing in Israel. In some cases, conversations have been expedited, which is extremely appreciated by our companies.
“In the foodtech ecosystem, companies are back in their laboratories and offices and production areas and working very hard on business continuity.”
Dr. Shoshan Haran, Fair Planet CEO, taken hostage
Dr. Kardish said she also wanted to highlight the plight of hostages taken by Hamas last weekend: “Among the hundreds of men, women, elderly, children and babies kidnapped to Gaza was Dr. Shoshan Haran, who was kidnapped together with nine of her family members.”
Dr. Haran, who lived at the Be’eri kibbutz near the eastern border with Gaza, is the CEO and founder of nonprofit Fair Planet, which supports disadvantaged communities in African countries with agri-knowledge and tech transfer.
Dr. Kardish said: “The city of Sderot and the Kibbutzim [cooperative farming communities] surrounding Gaza, which are one of the centers of the Israeli ag and food ecosystem, were severely damaged. Many companies, incubators and R&D centers are located in this region, and some were hurt as well.”
Berger added: “Israel has been through many crises, but the people are very resilient. We’ve collected ourselves as we have no choice. This is our country, these are our businesses, and we have to protect all of them.”