Sivan Ya'ari at a village helped by Innovation: Africa. Sivan Ya'ari at a village helped by Innovation: Africa. Sivan Ya'ari at a village helped by Innovation: Africa. (Photo: Courtesy)

How one woman is transforming lives in rural African villages

Nearly 1 million people now have electricity and clean water thanks to Sivan Ya'ari.

Turn on the sink, and drinkable water rushes out. We often take it for granted, but for so many African villages – off the grid and hard to access – clean water remains a literal pipe dream. That is, until Sivan Ya'ari arrived.

Ya'ari grew up on the shores of the Mediterranean – for the first part of her life in Israel, and then moving with her family to France when she was a teenager. At the age of 20, she traveled to Madagascar to help with quality control in a jeans factory, which led her to other countries in the region. "That's when the passion for Africa came about," she told From The Grapevine. "But also I realized the needs – especially for energy, and medical centers and schools." She saw millions of people without electricity and clean water. "Unfortunately many people are left behind."

She wanted to help, but she needed to learn more. So she went to the United States and got a master's degree in International Energy Management from Columbia University. "I went back as a student to install the first solar system in a Tanzanian village."

That's when she got the idea to launch Innovation: Africa. The nonprofit organization, founded in 2008, is now operating in seven African countries – Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, Senegal, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa. This year, they're expanding to Cameroon.

The group's stock in trade is harnessing Israeli technology – from the invention of drip irrigation to advancements in solar technology. Ya'ari, a Tel Aviv-based mother of three, travels to Africa every few weeks, bringing with her the latest innovative tools developed in Israel. For example, their local African staff are all connected using an Israeli-designed remote monitoring system. Should something break in the system or need a repair, the team receives text alerts on their phones allowing them to fix the problem immediately.

A major part of Innovation: Africa's work is with solar energy. It allows the group to build much-needed medical clinics, install computers in classrooms and power solar refrigerators to properly store vaccines and other medicine. To date, they've installed solar power in 133 villages.

Ya'ari sees some of the most impact with her group's water projects. "I think the best return on investment is when we provide water to a village because, once you do it, you break the cycle of poverty in the sense that the children and women no longer have to look for water," she explained. "Children are going to school to get education. People are healthier. Less people are going to medical centers. You have people getting better nutrition because now they can grow food all year round with the access of water."

According to Ya'ari, the most important thing is that thanks to access to clean water, people are creating businesses in the village. "The village can become richer. Some of the businesses are selling vegetables and fruit to the local market. Then you have women making bricks and selling the bricks. Then people take care of the livestock, cows and also poultry farm and so on. You see, the village is changed. You have better education, better health. They are financially independent."

Like a philanthropist hoping to eradicate a disease, Ya'ari hopes her job disappears in a decade. "I hope that they will not need me in 10 years. Every person is going to have access to clean water, so I will be doing something else."

But, for now, she's headed back to Africa. "It makes me happier when I'm in the villages," she told us. "That's where I feel best. Seeing the joy in the faces of the children and the hope in the eyes of the mothers, it's so rewarding."

Sivan Ya'ari stands with a villager and one of the solar panels about to be installed.Sivan Ya'ari (left) stands with a villager and one of the solar panels about to be installed. (Photo: Courtesy)

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