H.E. Hanan Goder is the ambassador of Israel to Nepal. Hanan, who is well-versed about Nepal, is overseeing his second ambassadorial stint in Nepal. Madan Lamasal of New Business Age talked to Ambassador Hanan recently on a wide range of issues ranging from bilateral relations to trade. Excerpts:
You are in your second stint as the ambassador to Nepal. How does it feel?
I was appointed to Nepal earlier in 2011 for a three-year term. You may recall Nepal’s tourism slogan ‘Once is not enough’. Well, I decided to return for a second time, and it feels great to be back.
How has the Nepal-Israel relations been in recent years?
We established diplomatic relations in 1960. Since then, we have enjoyed excellent bilateral relations. It is amazing to see the cooperation between our countries on so many levels, including agriculture, health, education, scholarships, students, workers, and tourism. All levels of cooperation are going really well, and I feel proud to be a part of it.
Could you please elaborate on Israel’s support to different sectors?
Let's begin with scholarships. Over more than six decades of bilateral relations, we have offered thousands of scholarships to Nepali people. Nepali professionals go to Israel to study agriculture, tourism, organisation, health, education, and even journalism. Our idea is not brain drain, but rather brain upgrade. We take professionals who are in the middle of their careers. They go to Israel to meet people from Israel and similar people from other countries. They come back and implement what they have learned in Israel. But this is only one aspect. We also have a group of farmers who go to Israel to upgrade themselves through our "learn and earn" program. These farmers go for a one-year program in Israel where they work and study, receiving on-the-job training with Israeli farmers in modern farms. We have seen that this program is really helping them upgrade their skills.
Once a week, these farmers attend college to study and conduct research with Israeli professors, and they have to submit their papers. We are doing this program with farmers from all corners of the country. So far, 3,000 farmers have gone to Israel and returned. Earlier, we used to provide scholarships in cooperation with Sana Kisan Bikas Bank, but now we are partnering with different universities all over the country. We keep in touch with the returnees and have seen how they have upgraded their farms.
In total, 3,000 people have received different scholarships in Israel. Additionally, more than 3,000 farmers have benefited from the "learn and earn" program. We have also sent a few thousand caregivers to Israel. Thousands of people are going to Israel to upgrade themselves and their knowledge. When they return to Nepal, they bring back three important things: money, knowledge, and Israeli work culture.
How are the Nepali farmers getting benefited?
I will give you an example. A Nepali cow gives six or seven litres of milk per day. In Israel, a cow gives as much as 40 litres per day. There are no secrets, no miracles. It is hard work and investment. There is one sentence that every farmer that goes to Israel will learn: Agriculture is not a hobby. It's a business. It is a profession. It is a way of life. This is what they learn in Israel. Farmers who have returned from Israel have implemented it in Nepal and have doubled their milk production.
I will give you another example about cows. When 10 cows become pregnant, normally they will give five male calves and five female calves. Sometimes you have six and four or four and six. Rarely do you see seven and three or three and seven. But a farm in Kathmandu delivers 95 female calves when 100 cows are pregnant. The only question is how we share this knowledge and transfer it to other farmers. These are small examples. I can give you similar examples about goats, bananas, tomatoes, oranges, and fish.
What is the percentage of farmers in Nepal? It is 60%. The percentage of farmers in Israel is 2%. How can a country with 2% farmers export agricultural products? No miracles. It can happen. Nepal will be able to export food. The only question is how to make the changes. You have the challenge to reduce the number of farmers gradually and increase productivity. You have to do it simultaneously.
People have to understand that agriculture is not something that you should do in the way your grandfather was doing. What your grandfather did was lovely at the time. Now, your neighbours are smart, powerful, and make investments. If you do not make investments, if you don't upgrade the farmers, if you don't introduce modern agriculture, you will be left behind. When I came to Kathmandu two years ago, I sent my people to buy onions. They came back empty-handed, saying there is a shortage of onions due to import problems. What is a country that cannot produce? You must produce. You must upgrade your productivity. I can see the changes happening though.
Why are the impacts not visible yet then?
I will take you to farms being run by farmers that have returned from Israel. You will see the changes there. But the question is how to increase them. The return of only 3,000 farmers from Israel is not enough. Nepal needs to reduce the number of farmers because if it doesn't, there will be shortage of workforce in other sectors. With 60% of the population involved in farming, there will be shortages of doctors, teachers, engineers, nurses, and industries. If a farmer has four children, ideally only one should continue farming, although it's ultimately a matter of their own choice. The others should pursue professions such as medicine, nursing, teaching, engineering, and so on. This way, Nepal can have a modern economy and society.
What about the impacts in other sectors?
What has been happening in the past 10 or 15 years is amazing. The educational sector is booming. The number of colleges, the number of universities, the number of people that upgrade, and the number of females that have higher education is increasing. You couldn’t imagine in the past that 50% of those graduating in Nepal will be women.
But most of them are preparing to study in New Zealand, UK, the USA, etc. What is the use of this education?
This is a very big challenge. I think the challenge for this country is to retain the young, smart and qualified children here in the country. For that, you will have to make a shift. Nepal must develop the industrial sector. Earlier, people had excuses because there was no stable electricity. Now, we must appreciate Kulman Ghising. Nepal has round-the-clock electricity now. Factories can work round the clock. The next challenge for Nepal is to make the country produce more.
Can you give examples of other sectors?
Let’s talk about the health sector. I know many doctors who have received training in Israel and they are doing very well in Nepal. During my visits to health institutions, I noticed that they have good medical equipment. Although some people still choose to go abroad for treatment, the quality of health services in Nepal, both in private and government hospitals, has improved dramatically. I hope to continue supporting these efforts and encourage Nepali people to utilise the excellent health services available in their own country. I have even seen people from neighbouring countries coming to Nepal for medical treatment.
Israel has good chemical fertilisers manufacturing facilities. How can Nepal benefit?
Chemical fertilisers are a commodity sold in the international market. You will get it if you pay, otherwise you won’t. Subsidising fertilisers can lead to waste in the long run, but without subsidies, the prices of fertilisers can become too high for farmers to afford. Therefore, Nepal needs to find the balance between price and availability. This is because there is no way that governments can subsidise products forever.
Can Israel help Nepal build fertiliser plants in Nepal?
We would be happy to share our technologies and expertise with Nepal to help establish fertiliser plants in the country. However, investment is necessary as fertiliser is a crucial component of modern agriculture. If fertiliser is not available, farmers will be stuck with traditional farming practices. If we talk about modern agriculture, fertiliser is the first ingredient. I would like to introduce a new technique called fertigation which combines irrigation and fertiliser application. I am trying to explain to local farmers that you need to irrigate. Farmers tell me, ‘you are talking about irrigation because you are from the Israeli desert. We are in Nepal, we don’t need to irrigate’. Drip irrigation works wonders in farming. Drip irrigation has proven to be very effective in increasing crop productivity. In fact, Israel has successfully used drip irrigation to boost its own agricultural output. Nepali farmers who have seen the benefits of drip irrigation in Israel are now adopting it themselves, and the technique is spreading throughout the country. When farmers learn about these new tools and techniques from others, they are more likely to adopt them, and this leads to positive changes in agriculture.
We don’t see much trade happening between the two countries despite establishing bilateral relations six decades ago. What do you think are the reasons for low volumes of trade and investments?
Talking about investment, it is not only about Israeli companies and businesspeople. The investor is looking for profit.
But there are companies like Ncell, Dabur, Surya Nepal etc with foreign investments which are doing extremely well.
Nepal needs investors from all over the world. Israeli business people too are looking for opportunities. At the moment the cooperation that we have on investment is mostly in high-tech sectors. Currently, most of the investment cooperation between Israel and Nepal is in the high-tech sector, and Israeli companies are doing very well in this area. They are hiring smart local people and providing them with international-standard salaries.
On trade fronts, companies normally set up offices in your neighbours, normally in India. Most of the goods to Nepal come via India. Talking about exports, we will definitely see when there are products in Nepal that Israel needs. But Nepal is a small market.
Israel's main exports are high-tech products, including equipment used in hospitals and other industries. These products make up around 50% of our total exports. Despite being a small country with a population of only 10 million, Israel is known for its innovation in various fields such as agriculture, medicine, and technology. We do not produce cars in Israel because the market is small, so we focus on selling technology and expertise instead.
How do you think Nepal can benefit from technology?
High-tech is all about saving human labour. In Israel, salaries are the most expensive thing right now. In Nepal, farm equipment wasn't commonly used in the past because cheap labour was easily available. However, the situation is changing, and Nepal is also experiencing a shortage of workers. This shortage can be seen in restaurants, hospitals, farms, and the construction sector, and the cost of labour is increasing. It's only a matter of time before producers, farmers, industrialists, and hospital managers in Nepal look for ways to adopt technology to address this issue. In fact, the shift towards technology has already begun in Nepal.
What do you think are the products that can have comparative advantage in Israel?
One of your neighbouring countries is doing really well in textiles. It has become a world hub for textile production. Why not here? You will have to learn from them. Believe me, it will happen. In fact, it has already started. There are some clothing and shoe companies that are growing day by day. Your products are also good. The question now is how to market them. I think that in the coming years, we will see a big boom in textiles. Another thing is plastic equipment. Why should you import it from neighbouring countries when you can produce it here?
It seems that no efforts are being made to increase the bilateral trade or to reduce the trade deficit that Nepal is facing. What could be the reasons?
The trade in Nepal is currently financed by the remittances that are flowing into the country. This is a good short-term solution, where one can send their son or daughter outside and ask them to send, say, $500 a month. However, how long can Nepal rely on this? What will happen to the youth? What happens when these individuals learn another language and build their families outside of Nepal? It’s risky to lose your young generation. The only solution is to make an effort to keep the younger generation and provide them with proper opportunities here.
If you're asking me why bilateral trade cannot be increased, it is difficult to analyse. Since I first came here 10 years ago, Nepal has seen seven or eight Prime Ministers.
Israel is widely known as a startup nation, and many countries are trying to emulate its success. Can you tell us how Israel managed to get to this point, and what Nepal can learn from Israel's experience?
The magic of Israel's success lies in the country's determination to find solutions to every problem. This mindset has led to the development of startups, which are not bound by borders since ideas can be sold internationally. These startups started small and were initially sold abroad, but they grew over time, and many of them have become large companies today. We have seen young companies being sold to international investors for billions of dollars, and young people in their 20s and 30s have become billionaires just by selling their ideas. The key to this success is to allow these entrepreneurs to do what they do best.
In Israel, we have created startup hubs where young entrepreneurs are given an office space and told to work on their ideas without any interference. The government provides them with salaries, and after a year, they are allowed to take their ideas to the market. This approach has been very successful in promoting entrepreneurship, and we see it happening again and again.
Israel also has the highest percentage of research and development (R&D) investment in the world. Other countries have started to invest heavily in R&D, but Israel still leads the way.
We encourage startups by providing tax exemptions. When a company or an investor from abroad wants to invest in the country, we offer them benefits. These companies may not have to pay income tax, but when they sell their companies, a large amount of foreign currency pours into Israel. This influx of foreign currency has led to a problem of excess money in Israel, which can lead to inflation. To address this issue, the government is encouraging people to invest outside the country. Currently, we are not actively seeking foreign investments.
Nepal and Israel signed ASA in 2002. But it still hasn’t come into implementation. What do you think are the reasons?
The number of passengers between two countries has increased drastically since 2002. India has over a billion people. Despite this, Israel doesn't even have a daily flight to New Delhi. I think we have five flights a week now. We need big numbers for direct flights to be feasible. That is why we are trying to promote chartered flights during the tourist season. Nepal has a tourist season of six months - three months in spring and three months in autumn. I think the operation of chartered flights will be a good thing to begin with.
You might be surprised but the biggest attraction for Israelis in Nepal is not Mount Everest but the Annapurna region. Annapurna has become like Mount Kailash for Israelis. Pokhara Airport serves the Annapurna region. Maybe there can be chartered flights to Pokhara from Israel. But our national carrier, El Al, is not government-owned. If it wants to fly, we will help, but we can’t force them. Israel offers incentives to airlines that bring tourists. I think this is something that Nepal should do.
Israel is a wealthy country, but Israeli tourists are known to be low spenders in Nepal. What do you think are the reasons for this?
Nepal has an image of an adventurous country and is typically associated with younger travellers who may not have much money to spend. However, these young tourists tend to stay for longer periods, up to 30 days, and are spending as much as wealthier tourists who only stay for a week. The number of tourists visiting Nepal from Israel has already reached pre-COVID levels. In 2022, we had about 80% of the pre-COVID levels. I hope that this dark chapter of COVID in the world is over. I really hope that 2023 will be even better than 2019.
Tourism is an engine for development. You need to build roads, and have good vehicles, guides, and hotels. Tourists want to experience more than just traditional Dal-Bhat meals and often seek out premium restaurants. While Mount Everest remains a must-see destination, places like Lumbini and Rara Lake also need promotion. Nepal has not yet managed to effectively promote Rara Lake, and even few Nepalis have visited it.
Israel is an old friend of Nepal. But in recent years, Nepal has been increasing siding against Israel in a number of United Nations forums. What is the reaction of Israel to this?
The issue of relations is complicated. Relations between countries have two aspects. The first aspect is bilateral, and the second is multilateral. Bilateral relations are visible and tangible. All the training, scholarships, and other aid that we provide are part of bilateral relations. These are things that can be seen with the eyes. Multilateral relations, on the other hand, are less visible. Multilateral relations occur in two main places. The first is the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and the second is the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Some of our hostile neighbours present around 20 resolutions against Israel every year in the United Nations. But our relations with Arab countries are flourishing in recent years, as evidenced by the opening of embassies in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. We are also in dialogue with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Sudan. Given these positive developments, we are surprised as to why a historically good friend like Nepal is still voting against Israel. We hope that our good bilateral relations will eventually lead to positive changes in our multilateral relations as well.
There are very few exchanges of high-level visits between the two countries. Do you think this could be one of the reasons?
I do agree that there are not enough high-level visits between the two countries. I am always advocating for more visits. I was in Israel when Nepal’s foreign minister visited Israel and the Israeli agriculture minister visited Nepal. There is a need for more visits to develop and nourish the relations. We are working on it.
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOC5DMWVW74) to watch the video recording, which was subsequently transcribed for reference.