Pioneering Egyptian sustainable and social enterprise SEKEM celebrated 40 years in 2017. From small beginnings, SEKEM has grown to a significant project providing individual development and work for thousands of farmers, co-workers, and other people. Warren Beaumont spoke with the group and its CEO Helmy Abouleish.

SEKEM's vision for sustainable development of agriculture in the desert land of Egypt began in 1977 when the founder of the SEKEM-Initiative, Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish, a doctor of chemistry, returned to his homeland and bought 70 hectares of the desert to the north-east of Cairo. Farmers cultivated the land using bio-dynamic methods of agriculture, which provided Dr. Abouleish a vision of "sustainable development towards a future where every human being can unfold his or her potential … and where ecological and ethical principles conduct all economic activity".

In March 2017, SEKEM celebrated the 80th birthday of its founder Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish, who passed away on June 15. The SEKEM Initiative’s 40th-anniversary celebration was held on November 2nd last year.CEO of the SEKEM group Helmy Abouleish, the son of the founder, said of his father:

"His achievements for sustainable development have always been present. Hence, for instance, many of SEKEMs contracted farmers (approximately 600), that are applying bio-dynamic agriculture all over Egypt, joined the celebrations. SEKEMs international partners who distribute the different products worldwide in a sustainable way came to celebrate the anniversary, in appreciation of Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish’s achievements."

There have been many obstacles confronting SEKEM in its mission to continue sustainable agriculture development that provides community benefits, CEO Helmy Abouleish outlined three of the most significant challenges:

"We were facing challenges since the very beginning. When my father returned to Egypt in 1977 to establish an initiative for sustainable development in the Egyptian desert, he was told to be crazy. No one believed that biodynamic agriculture could reclaim desert land. Besides, his vision to build companies and share some of the profit to establish schools and support the employees sounded even more unrealistic to most people," he says.

"And even after we could realize his vision within the past 40 years successfully, we are still facing challenges every day. Finding the balance between our ecological, economic, societal and cultural interests is, for instance, one of them.
"We have to reinvent ourselves every day, to follow the path of holistic and sustainable development. But, we do not understand challenges as something negative. We believe that every challenge we face brings the potential for development and progress. We are convinced about this since the very beginning and the past 40 years can prove it."

Looking at the three most significant achievements for SEKEM over the last 40 years, Helmy indicated: First, developing a sustainable initiative in the Egyptian desert, where every human being can unfold his/her potential. Second, a project where humankind lives together in social forms reflecting human dignity. And third, a place where all economic activity follows ecological and ethical principles, which is the main achievement.

"Reclaiming desert land by biodynamic agriculture methods is one huge part of it. In the past 30 years, we reclaimed 1,628 Feddan (approx. 680 hectares) of desert land to the vital soil," he says.

"Establishing an 'Economy of Love' that is at the same time competitive on the market is the second part. And of course, our educational institution (nursery, kindergarten, school, the program for special education, a vocational training center, Heliopolis University) wherein children learn holistically, is the third achievement.

"All together we can say that offering space for individual development and consciousness development to more than 1300 co-workers, several hundred farmers and many thousand people more, who are benefiting from SEKEM, is our biggest achievement."

SEKEM grows a good range of crops and manufactures other products such as herbal teas, supplements including echinacea and remedies against flu, organic milk, organic honey, baby products and phyto-pharmaceuticals.

SEKEM provides herbs, seeds, vegetables, fruits, dates, and cotton, and exports mainly herbs, seeds, and cotton textiles. In the last two years, it has introduced chia, quinoa, and jojoba, all growing successfully.
"Almost all crops (over 90 percent) and products are Certified Organic and even Biodynamic according to Demeter guidelines," Helmy says. SEKEM's target is to sell as many products as possible on the local market.

In 2016 SEKEM sold 70 percent of its products on the local market, and exported 30 percent."
"But due to the devaluation of the Egyptian Pound at the end of 2016, SEKEM now tries to focus a bit more on export which we estimate will lead to an export increase of (approx.) 10 percent in this year, Helmy says.
Total sales of SEKEMs companies was EGP375.7 million in 2016. Major export markets are Germany, Europe, and the United States.

Helmy says that SEKEM has around 600 contracted and supplying farmers and that all of them apply Biodynamic agricultural methods and are certified and work under fair trade conditions.

"Besides, SEKEM developed its fair-trade principles which we call 'Economics of Love.' Next to the standard fair-trade guidelines, this includes additional activities for the employees and farmers, such as regular meetings, training, and educational sessions to raise a holistic awareness," he adds.

The primary funding of SEKEM's cultural institutions comes from SEKEMs own companies that support the SEKEM Development Foundation with 10 percent of their profits, Helmy says.

"We have five SEKEM Friends Associations in Europe (Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, Netherlands, and Switzerland) that support mainly SEKEMs cultural activities and educational institutions. Besides, we cooperate with some international organizations such as the German Development Cooperation (GIZ) on some projects," he explains.

On the introduction of new initiatives, programs or facilities such as in farming, processing, the supply chain and worker education in 2017, Helmy says SEKEM is continuously initiating new projects and approaches that support holistic agriculture, solidarity in the economy and first and foremost, the development of the people.

"In 2012 the Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development was opened under the umbrella of SEKEM. At the moment, we are initiating a new faculty for sustainable agriculture. At the Heliopolis University, we recently founded the 'Space of Culture' in 2017, which is a place for cultural exchange by regularly showing different kinds of art performances," Helmy says.

"In the agricultural field, SEKEM is currently working on community development among its contracted farmers. In research, for instance, we focus for on transparency of the real prices for organic agriculture.

"In this context, we published a study, 'the Future of Agriculture in Egypt,' which compares the costs of conventional and organic agriculture by taking into account the external costs. In this study, we were able to prove that organic food production is, in fact, cheaper than the conventional system."

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From sand quarry to food forest

Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish

(23 March 1937 – 15 June 2017)
Recipient of The Right Livelihood Award (2003) for a 21st century business model which combines commercial success with social and cultural development.
“Sustainable Development is one of the most important challenges to man and it means the creation of living conditions today which will still allow future generations to live with dignity.”

“Creating a fertile earth leads us to fertile thoughts and that is what we need for the future of the planet. I hope that all people of the earth will join this movement, and open their heart to mother earth, so our development as humans on earth will continue. Everyone is welcome to visit and see how in Egypt we have made thousands of hectares of desert fertile.”

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