My visit to Kibbutz Afikim, how a community powers innovation through a social ethos.

A community can be defined as a group of people who are all working together with one goal in mind and a shared way of thinking. It’s powerful when you can get a group of people together to form high social capital which allows the formation of new ideas which do good to society. Afterall, when you think of a community, good things always come out of it and who doesn’t want that feeling of belonging in their own life.

robert kibbutz

I have several experiences of being part of healthy community life; this comes from my adventures of living and working overseas to being apart of the first co-living experience in London and the coworking scene. All of these insights have driven me to write a book on how a community can help to power business with high innovation and productivity, within the research for this title and within my own business, I have been spending time within the Israeli tech startup community. In itself, this start-up city is a prime example of strong community focus, something which has been embedded in local society and stems from the foundations of the Kibbutzim movement.

For those of you who are new to this word, a Kibbutz is a collection of active social communities which are based in Israel, with many starting life off in the 1920’s to 1930’s they helped to create the foundation blocks of Israel. Kibbutz in translation means a collective, a group of people with shared values and vision. This way of living drove my curiosity forward to learn more, which is why I spent time discovering this unique way of life at Kibbutz Afikim. This is a site which is located in northern Israel with the mountainous peaks of Golan Heights and the valley surrounding Galilee in the distance and the border of Jordan only a short walk away.

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From entering the site, you can sense the community vibe. From walking into the dining room, we were introduced to a kibbutznik who chatted to us and explained a little more about what was going on. I travelled up to this site with a German friend as we were visiting her family at Afikim. It was only later on when I was asking questions on what makes a Kibbutz a Kibbutz? I found out that one of the key answers to this was the dining room. A social hub of the community where people come to eat, drink and chat and without this function, the kibbutz and its social meaning would disappear. A walk around Afikim amazed me, here I was in northern Israel but surrounded by the most beautiful plants and grounds, we were walking past the floral decor which entices your senses of smell while being engaged with this heavenly garden backdrop. Afikim, like with many Kibbutz started life off around agriculture. On this visit, we had a drive around the farmland of bananas, olives, avocado, and dates. The agricultural side to the Kibbutz was a traditional money earner for the community. However, most sites branched off into different directions from this. Afikim now has a successful dairy business (Afimilk) alongside mobility. It was the innovation of community life which enticed me to see a Kibbutz. I have a real passion to understand more about how a collective of people thinking together can create something special, and this Kibbutz site certainly didn’t let me down.

Not long after the land was bought to build this site in 1932, innovation was already starting to happen. A majority of the founding Kibbutzniks at Afikim came from Russia, and when setting up the community, they developed a successful Aqueduct system between Afikim and the adjacent Kibbutz locations to ensure water was piped into the social project. Not long after this, the Kibbutzniks were building and selling boxes to hold fruit and vegetables which were then adapted and supplied to the British Army during the 1940’s. After the war the transcultural community was growing and the Kibbutz (like with many at the time had increased in population and nationality). This made it an interesting social project with high ambition, and ideas came about which helped the Kibbutz to develop industry more. Paper and materials for furniture made from various plants including Ecapytus allowed the Kibbutz a new source of income. Although they didn’t have the right plants to grow initially, they brought them over from southern Africa; an idea from a French man and a French company to take them to the Kibbutz. Like with any business model, they hit a block with this idea; the kibbutzniks didn’t have the glue to stick the product together; however, this was nothing that a collective group of minds could not solve and the solution was right in front of them (literally). In the form of cows, they used the milk and dried it to create a glue and industry was booming.

The investment came from this and was put back into the community which allowed them to buy bigger machines, and through entrepreneurial mindsets, the remaining sectors of Afikim which are still running today formed. This includes Afiscooters, an idea which came from a Kibbutznik on this site to help his elderly mother travel around this vast space of land. Not only does Afimilk produce milk but they invented the milking machine which checks the amount and quality of the milk which is now sold globally. From chatting to a family of Kibbutzniks, you could see how proud they were of this sites technical background which has come from the ideas of residents. The ethos of Kibbutz life is to share, and if someone has a genius idea for the community, it is the whole community which will benefit from it. The success of these business ideas and a strong social bond on site are essential to the success of a Kibbutz and helped Afikim turnover 300m NIS last year!

Even though the Kibbutz is making good money and Kibbutznik numbers on the rise, it has not always been plain sailing in Kibbutz life. The 1980’s saw rocky waves in many Kibbutz sites in Israel as money from Kibbutz businesses were invested into outside projects, and that went with the global financial crisis. To top this, numbers were small and it was seen that this idyllic lifestyle was no longer fashionable. It was clear that the Kibbutz sites had to change ways! When they were originally developed, everything was shared. Even your clothes; what you put in the launderette would not be what you got out, and even your Childs name was decided as a community. This is no longer the modern way of kibbutz life, even the properties in Afikim were handed to the Kibbutzniks now rather than being kibbutz owned. And with all the stresses of modern life and loneliness, you can see why Kibbutz sites as with any co-living option are proving popular; Israel is already having inner city Kibbutz’s growing and another outer city kibbutz also turning into a business incubator.

Kibbutzniks have a good life with a great education system. Afikim has an onsite college with 2000 residents and a college to keep the elderly minds working with 800 students. Kibbutzniks also benefit from free medical care, high pensions alongside arts and cultural events which are all paid for out of the profit pot from the industry, and all this for a small membership fee. Although this is a modern life of a Kibbutz, it hasn’t changed from some fundamental social values that started these communities. However, some ethos changed to those back in 1932. The key starting theories of Kibbutz life back in the day were about the image of the new Jew, kibbutzniks wanted a more masculine image, and it was seen more about the new “Ivrit” or Hebrew rather than Jew as they wanted to distance themselves from the religion. Key foundation blocks of the community were also about being with nature and creating a democracy; this still exists today with an elected leader in the Kibbutz being in power for two years with some small sets of rules which Kibbutzniks need to follow to embrace community life.

 

kibbutz events
Events board for the community

 

It is important to understand that a Kibbutznik needs to contribute to the community in any way, many skills sharing and co-learning experiences happen within these sites, this is something which I believe is a crucial foundation to any community as it helps to develop and build up high trust and transparency. However, a life balance of community and privacy is needed and this is demonstrated as modern day Kibbutz homes now have a private kitchen alongside the sharing of the dining room hub.

When I visited this site, Afikim is celebrated its 93rd year of existence, something which is remarkable and shows you what can happen when you put a group of people together with a shared interest in wanting to create something. This could be a social or business related background, but it is amazing to see this site all these years later as a community which is a town, fully functional and self-sufficient in many ways.

So what about the future of the Kibbutz? From speaking to Kibbutzniks the future looks good with people wanting to belong to something, and many old members are now moving back into the sites with families for security, better quality of life, education and healthcare which are provided from the entrepreneurial wing. Some original kibbutz sites have changed direction, and are more of a town without the essential community functions such as the dining room. Locations such as Afikim have stayed as a Kibbutz but have adapted and are also helping to grow smaller private business within site, have a drive around Afkim and you will see carpentry workshops to retail shops. One thing is clear; people have chosen to come here as they want a social belonging whether they work inside or outside the site.

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