Analysis • Commentary • Advocacy

Arama Kukutai on Israel Agritech and NZ opportunities

In part 1 of our focus on Israel agritech we gave a brief overview of some of the links between Israel and New Zealand. Arama Kukutai is at the forefront of some of those links and spoke with the Israel Institute of New Zealand:

What’s your background and how did you get involved with Israeli technology?

My whakapapa goes back to Ngati Tipa, (Tainui), Maniapoto and Te Aupouri on my father’s side; and Scottish roots on my mother’s side. Our whanau was fortunate to retain farmland in Waikato and we still have an operating farm in the Port Waikato area on our ancestral land. Many of my whanau were followers of the Parihaka leader, Tohu Kakahi having immigrated to Parihaka in the years of the NZ Wars. My grandmother’s whanau was brought up in Taranaki and I have strong linkages there. Parihaka and Turangawaewae were the maraes I spent most time at when I was growing up.

I attended high school in the Waikato and went to Victoria University and my working life began at the Westpac Banking Corporation at a time when Māori organizations were beginning to actively develop forestry, farming, and fishing assets. In Taranaki I was elected to the Board of PKW Incorporation, where we developed more active farming rather than just long term leasing. Around the same time we had a settlement after many decades of our families activism for recognition of land rights by the New Zealand government, which was and remains a complex process with many stakeholders.

For over a decade I was actively involved in developing the dairy farming platform with PKW, based around converting land into dairy and consolidating smaller dairy farms plots into efficient, larger scale operations. The economic goal was to move away from being passive rent takers and to become active farming participants. PKW has a 25,000 hectare portfolio with shareholders from Iwi and hapu groups across Taranaki in particular. This was a time when relationships between Māori and local farmers were transforming, from one of antagonism over occupied land, to a scenario of a close collegiality, particularly as PKW were now active buyers for farm improvements as well as the long term landlord. The government helped to facilitate the settlement – farmers, PKW, and broader Iwi played a role in creating a collaborative approach to developing assets and creating a platform for our people to come back into farming. A significant amount of revenue from commercial enterprises goes back into a charitable trust for purposes such as educational scholarships, marae grants, reinvestment back into infrastructure, environmental projects, and PKW investments like Fisheries.

During this period I was exposed to the many new technologies coming out of agriculture, which led to my involvement with Israel. In the late 90’s, on my first trip to Israel I got to see what Israeli dairy and agricultural technology companies were doing to improve efficiency and quality animal husbandry, especially in health status. Also Israeli trade and commerce interests. facilitated by their Ambassador and trade attaches were very active in NZ promoting Israeli technology from companies like Afimilk and SCR as well as other sectors, like energy. In fact the Tuaropaki Trust in Taupo was a first mover in this area, with their Trustees creating a partnership with Ormat to develop one of the leading private geothermal stations in NZ – creating jobs locally and sustainable revenue for their people.

After 10 years in finance and Iwi development I was appointed Regional Director of NZTE, Santa Monica. I had helped NZ Trade develop their first Māori Enterprise team to start export businesses which included the first Māori owned winery, Tohu, and working with the burgeoning fisheries sector. These interests in resources and agriculture made me aware of how technology could transform sustainability and profitability which led to the journey I am now on.  I decided at the end of my role to stay in the US to explore opportunities in Agtech and was fortunate to meet my co-founder at Finistere, Dr Jerry Calder.  We started Finistere as a vehicle to invest in and explore the agriculture technology investor space. Based on the thesis that technology in agriculture can help create greater capability to feed a growing population, but do so sustainably. Today we have offices in Europe, Israel, and the US West Coast and are looking to expand further including back home into New Zealand.

What are your links to Israel currently?

Israel is one of the leading centers of excellence in Agtech and has been for many years. As Finistere was raising our latest fund, we decided we needed to have presence on the ground. We were fortunate to build on our partnership with Yarden Group founders, Gil Meron and Eyal Rosenthal, who represent us in Israel. Around four years ago we started developing our active pipeline there which resulted in investments in CropX and Taranis which are two of our start up companies.

  • CropX combines sensor technology and software analytics to look at water flows and nutrient flows, which is useful for irrigation efficiency (using less water on crops or pasture) and also environmental monitoring such as detecting whether fertilizers are leaching into public waters.  That way the farmer can manage both better economics from yield and protect precious water resources. CropX also has some NZ technology in the company.
  • Taranis is the only ‘full stack’ imagery solution for Agriculture combining satellite, drone, and aircraft imagery with machine learning to enable farmers to analyze a wide range of situations – from nutrient spread to pest and disease detection. The image processing – there’s no way a human can deal with that amount of data – can then analyse every leaf of every plant in a field and see a bug outbreak on a single crop (or pathogen infection on an individual leaf). Instead of bowling the whole field with herbicide and creating environmental challenges like residue and resistance, autonomous robots can spray the affected plant to prevent an outbreak. That technology is being rolled out to millions of acres now in Latin America, the USA, and hopefully soon in NZ.

We’ve developed a deep network and have fantastic relationships with the agricultural centre, kibbutzim, and top-notch universities and research institutions such as the Hebrew University, Weizmann, and Technion, to name a few.  We’ve built great friendships and relationships on the ground in Israel. When it comes to building and developing companies, Israelis are not unlike Kiwis in some senses. They’ll literally travel the world to get the deal done because they are both export nations – the local markets are small. I’ve found it’s a natural and nice fit in the agricultural space – we speak the same language of feeding a hungry planet! My Israeli friends have a lot of chutzpah with an attitude of ‘let’s go get it done’ while I think Kiwis are a bit more laid back and diplomatic.  I think they like that about us.

Something I personally like about Israeli entrepreneurs is that they’re going to charge off with incredible energy to make things happen: it’s a hallmark of the “Start-Up Nation” and great for us to work with. It’s a place where we’ll continue to do a lot more work and invest. They are great people who we really enjoy working with.

I’ve been to Israel over 20 times and generally visit 2 or 3 times a year. Working in agriculture means that you get to go everywhere in Israel. I didn’t appreciate before I went just how productive the land is, how efficient Israeli agriculture is, and how much they respect the resources of land and water. Israel has the most efficient water recycling system globally. Their water recycling rate is 96% compared to United States at 3%.

Having to grow things in the desert with the challenge of water scarcity has led to the development surface drip irrigation technology by global leaders like Netafim, which has also revolutionized water management in other places like Australia, and especially California which is the produce ‘bowl’ for America. There’s also Israeli technology that is helping to improve visibility and transparency in the food supply chain, which is a hot topic globally at the moment. We work closely with Israeli innovation groups like The Kitchen, which is an incubator run by Strauss Group (Israel’s largest food company), and we have have been regular speakers and sponsors at AgriVest, the leading event for Ag-innovation in the country.

We have a lot to learn from each other and I’d like to see an exchange whereby young Māori entrepreneurs could go to Israel and young Israeli businesspeople could come to NZ. There is immense potential for shared learning in business that is underpinned by a lot of common values and there are problems that could be solved together. That’s why Dror Berman and Eric Schmidt of Innovation Endeavors set up the Farm2050 projects to create a forum for sharing innovation and building networks to use technology to address our future challenges in feeding the planet.

Other than the business, is there anything that attracts you to Israel?

One of the things I really enjoy about visiting Israel is the breakfast.  A visit to Benedict on Rothschild St to get the shakshuka egg dish is a must!  It’s incredible diversity reflects Israeli culture, where people come from everywhere – the Middle East, East Europe, Africa. This is fusion food at its best! As a young community there is a lot of energy and a young, buzzy vibe – in Tel Aviv but also out in the country. Tel Aviv is a cosmopolitan, secular, high tech, high energy Mediterranean city which reminds me of Italy and Spain – after 10pm it’s a fun place to hang out.

The way that Israel is portrayed in the media is often negative especially on security grounds but that’s not reality, of course. There are many challenges and its very different from our reality in the United States or New Zealand. There’s also many differences between the post-colonial 150-year history of New Zealand and the difficult and complex millenia-old history of Israel. One thing that isn’t reported on as much as it should is the huge amount of Jewish and Arab cooperation in the country that is happening in the private sector and around technology. Technology and innovation is a common language and the entrepreneurship model, across Israeli society, is far more common than many people realize.

The “Start-Up Nation” in my view represents a major opportunity to create a shared future and its success is a big part of the reason the Israeli economic growth is outstripping the OECD. A good friend of mine there facilitates a workshop every year where Palestinian and Israeli teens work learn from top technologists and get to collaborate. Its inspiring, and its my hope that NZ and Israel can build stronger ties around our shared passion for the land, and for its bounty that feeds the world.

  • Arama Kukutai is founding partner of Finistere Ventures.

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  • […] Part two of this focus on Israel agritech involves an interview with Arama Kukutai, founding partner of Finestere Agri and Foodtech VC, about why he invests in Israel, what opportunities exist for Maori, Agri corporates and co operatives, farmers, scientists, researchers and agri-entrepreneurs there and why New Zealand should catch up with Australia and collaborate through direct investment into Israeli companies and most particularly through joint ventures between NZ and Israeli companies. […]