Colin Friedman’s ‘netbonding’ in Beijing

Rain falls on farms across Israel all the time, but it does not come from the sky. It comes through drip irrigation.

More than half of Israel’s land area is desert. Its arid climate and water scarcity has a crippling affect on farming. Only 20 percent of the land area gets rain. The tough condition forced Israeli to think outside the box, which helped it become a global leader in agro technology since 1950s.

China began to cooperate with Israel on agriculture in 1990s. It brought in not only revolutionary pilot projects but also an irrigation engineer who became rooted in Beijing’s expats community.

Colin Friedman recently celebrated his 8th anniversary of organizing networking events in Beijing. “I perspire to inspire and aspire to perspire,” said the British-Israeli on his Weibo account.

Colin Friedman and his wife Photos: Courtesy of Colin Friedman

Drip drop

The irrigation engineer is one of six Israeli experts who came to China in 1998 when a Hong Kong entrepreneur invited them to evaluate the feasibility of an irrigation project in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province.

Drip irrigation, also known as trickle irrigation or micro irrigation, is an irrigation method that saves water and fertilizer by allowing water to drip slowly to the roots of plants, either onto the soil surface or directly onto the root zone, through a network of valves, pipes, tubes, and emitters. It reduces water consumption by 50 to 70 percent compared with gravity irrigation.

Having completed all the field trips and research, the experts gave approval to the project. The entrepreneur then decided to have Friedman stay permanently in China to assist in overseeing the project.

“Maybe I’m easier to communicate with or my English was better (compared with other compatriots),” said the 60-year-old. “My initial answer was no. But he insisted on me staying. So I finally agreed.”

His job in Shanxi enabled him to take part in various irrigation exhibitions nationwide. In one of those fairs in Beijing’s National Agriculture Exhibition Center, he met his future Chinese wife.

“She was an interpreter for another company at the exhibition and we started talking there. Our son is three-year old now,” he pointed to his son’s photo on his office desk.

He also spent two years running up and down to Liaoning province, localizing Israeli agricultural products before an abrupt bump in his career sent him deep into Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The Israel company that he was working for announced to close its global irrigation operations in 2000, leaving Friedman without a job in China. Another irrigation company hired and relocated him to Korla, about 600 kilometers away from Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi.

He built a factory at Korla, producing irrigation equipment and supplied the products to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which was founded in 1954 by People’s Liberation Army soldiers in a bid to maintain the region’s stability and carry out agricultural production.

“It was a little bit like being in a prison, though I’ve never been in a prison,” Friedman quipped. “It was isolated. Korla is a 10-hour train ride from Urumqi and Urumqi is a four-and-a-half-hour flight from Beijing. It was impossible to make a weekend trip to Beijing.”

There was no news broadcast in English, let alone high-speed Internet. “I subscribed to China Daily. I used to get the paper twice a week, one week later than the publishing date. I felt out of touch with everybody,” he recalled. Even a satellite given by local officials couldn’t deliver him any news other than some National Geographic films.

In 2003 the company moved to its Beijing head office where he headed their irrigation division that provided new livelihoods for farmers being relocated as the result of the Three Gorges Project.

He left the company in 2005 when he was asked to return to Xinjiang.

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