ROI Gives Jewish Environmentalists Tools to Make Mark

Originally published by The Jerusalem Post, written by Ehud Zion Waldoks

Israeli agricultural technology is among the best in the world, and Manuela Zoninsein, 28, would like to help introduce it to China.

Zoninsein was in Ramat Gan last week to attend the fifth annual conference of ROI, which encourages young Jewish entrepreneurs from around the world. She sat down with The Jerusalem Post to explain her idea.

“I am launching a business intelligence newsletter called Agrigate in September, focusing on agricultural technology,” she explained. The newsletter, she said, would survey the Chinese agritech business scene, highlighting deals, technology, developments, innovations and more, with an audience of Israeli and US agritech companies.

The Brazilian-born and US-raised Zoninsein has been living in China for the last three years and working as a foreign correspondent, writing for Newsweek, Engineering News Record and Climate Wire.

Surprisingly, it was her work as the dining editor for Timeout Beijing and her environmental activism that led to Agrigate.

“The foodie culture is focusing more and more on what’s happening at the source. Food also has a huge environmental impact, as agriculture is one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gases and I think rejiggering food production is easier than rejiggering transportation,” she told the Post.

Zoninsein sees a logical link between Israeli agritech and China.

“China is facing a lot of the same issues that Israel does: desertification [and] scarce clean water supplies,” she said.

“The government has begun investing in biotech to achieve complete food independence.

Right now, China is importing 30 percent of its foodstuffs and has maxed out on arable land.

They’re interested in developing pest- and drought-resistant seeds, where Israel has expertise.”

According to Zoninsein’s market research, Agrigate would be the only English-language newsletter focused on the Chinese agricultural scene.

“I think there’s little understanding of China [in Israel and the US], and the level of Chinese spoken in the US is very low as well,” Zoninsein, who has learned the language, said.

In parallel to the newsletter, she intends to work as a consultant to build up her credentials and credibility as a knowledgeable source. To that end, she met with Israeli players in academia and the private sector during her stay in Israel, and will connect with US players in September at the Ag 2.0 conference in New York.

Turning specifically to ROI, Zoninsein was enthusiastic about its support. The fifth year conference of 120 people was open only to those who had attended a previous conference.

“They give us business training and lots of networking,” the Harvard graduate concluded.

“We met very interesting Israelis and met [representatives from] Israeli cleantech VC funds during the organized events.

“ROI also encourages collaborations.

I met my web designer here last year. I also got to practice pitching my idea. The people were really supportive and no one called me crazy, so it gives me confidence to go beyond this circle to the larger world and test my idea out on another 120 people.”

There’s been a huge rise in Jewish farmers over the past several years, Emily Jane Freed, 34, told The Jerusalem Post last week, on the sidelines of the ROI conference in Ramat Gan.

Freed is the assistant production manager for Jacobs Farm, which has five ranches and three greenhouses in California, where it grows 250 acres of organic culinary herbs.

“If you lined up the farms side by side, it would take about four and a half hours to drive by them – about the distance from Jerusalem to Eilat,” Freed explained.

In addition to her full-time job as a farmer, Freed was also last year’s volunteer coordinator of the Hazon food conference.

Part of the rise in Jewish farming, she said, is “the tank in the US economy. People realize they need to fend for themselves more. The other part is more and more people wanting to know where their food comes from and what’s in it.”

Hazon has become the central organization for the intersection of Judaism and food, according to Freed, and drew 650 people to its food conference last year. It was also asked recently to present the Jewish take on food at a conference on religions and food at the White House organized by First Lady Michelle Obama, Freed said.

While initial reactions usually took the form of “What are we going to talk about? Kugel?” Freed explained the focus of the conference.

“The idea was to talk about what kosher means [in the 21st century], composting, shmita, pork, the Tu B’Shvat Seder and how to connect to the land,” she said.

The conference also helped expand Hazon’s Tu Ba Aretz program, which connects Jewish communities or synagogues with CSAs (community supported agriculture).

“It’s a good deal for both sides – the community connects to its food and the farmer gets 30 to 100 signups at a shot for his deliveries.”

The desire to know the source of one’s food is not restricted to the Jewish community, she noted. Part of Jacobs Farm’s success rests on its organic credentials, while another part is due to the sheer quantity of herbs it can produce.

“November and December are our busiest months,” she said. “We pick 10,000 pounds a day of fresh herbs to ship all over the country to meet the Thanksgiving demand, and then we do it again in December for Christmas.”

The company recently acquired the Safeway supermarket account, which Freed called “a really big deal.” She opined that while often considered food for the elite because of its higher prices, organic would reach the masses when chains like Safeway started carrying it at lower costs.

Freed also offered a fun fact.

“We have a five-acre field just of mint – all of which goes to the Cheesecake Factory bar and restaurant chain for its mojitos,” she said with a smile. “They get their own shipment every Monday and Thursday.”

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