Case Studies, Systems Thinking

From the Egyptian desert rises new life

It was 1977 when the late Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish and his wife Gudrun started farming in an untouched section of the Egyptian desert, some 60 kilometres northeast of Cairo.

Returning to his home country from Austria where he was working in medical research, Abouleish envisioned a solution to the many environmental and social problems facing Egypt:

“In the midst of sand and desert I see myself standing before a well drawing water. Carefully I plant trees, herbs and flowers and wet their roots with the precious drops. The cool well water attracts human beings and animals to refresh and quicken themselves. […] For me this idea of an oasis in the middle of a hostile environment is like an image of the resurrection at dawn, after a long journey through the nightly desert. I saw it in front of me like a model before the actual work in the desert started. And yet in reality I desired even more: I wanted the whole world to develop.”

Within a few short years, the couple had turned the arid landscape into an oasis, growing enough medicinal herbs and food ingredients that they could start exporting their harvest. Utilizing biodynamic farming methods, Abouleish demonstrated that sustainable agriculture is possible, even in the middle of the desert.

The couple called their work the SEKEM initiative. Sekem is the Egyptian hieroglyph for “vitality of the sun.” It focuses on building healthy communities through sustainable, organic agriculture and social and cultural development. By creating an initiative that integrates each facet, SEKEM takes a holistic approach to community 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 for future generations to live with dignity,” said Abouleish.

For his commitment to making this belief a reality, Abouleish (who passed away in 2017) was recognized with numerous international honours. This includes his selection as an Outstanding Social Entrepreneur by the Schwab Foundation and the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes known as the Alternative Nobel Prize.

Today, Abouleish’s legacy is preserved through SEKEM’s continued work with more than 2,000 farmers and partner organizations. What started as a biodynamic farm has since evolved into a private company that produces and distributes sustainable food, cotton, and herbal medicine products in Egypt, Europe, and North America.

With its diversified product line, SEKEM has demonstrated that positive environmental impact, social development, and business sustainability aren’t mutually exclusive goals.

Incorporating organic and biodynamic practices

Ecology is a focal point of SEKEM. Since 1977, the company has strived to restore and maintain the vitality of soil and local biodiversity using organic and biodynamic farming.

“The biological organic principle is based on the existing symbiosis between all living things,” explained Abouleish, describing animals, crops, and soil as part of a single system. Among other practices, the company’s cultivation plan involves crop rotation and takes guidance from an astrological cultivation calendar.

Compost is used as an organic fertilizer and is critical for building up the organic matter in sandy desert soils. A further eight biodynamic preparations are used to enhance the soil, including cow manure that is added to cow horns and buried in the soil during the winter. “There is more life in one handful of biodynamic soil than there are people on this Earth,” says Johannes Valentien, an agricultural co-worker in SEKEM.

As a result of its various ecological practices, SEKEM is proudly carbon positive. This means its operations sequester more carbon dioxide through its agricultural activities than it emits.

Mainstreaming these ecological principles is a key tenant of SEKEM’s 40-year vision. That framework was shaped through a series of Sunday meetings, a long-time SEKEM tradition where employees gather to discuss their ideas for the company.

By 2057, the company would like “to spread organic and biodynamic agricultural methods in Egypt to such an extent that the majority of the country is applying sustainable agricultural practices.”

Growing a local evidence base

SEKEM’s operations are grounded in research and science. It started in 1991 when SEKEM realized that the aerial spraying of pesticides on local cotton fields was affecting its own cultivation. Knowing there must be an alternative, the SEKEM team conducted field work and proved the effectiveness of sustainable pest control.

SEKEM was responsible for convincing the Egyptian government to introduce new pest management practices that reduced the reliance on chemicals. Though challenges still persist, pesticide use declined by more than 40% in the immediate years following.

Recognizing the importance of local research, the company established the Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development in 2009. The institution has since produced ample evidence of the benefits of organic farming and its effects on people’s health.

A 2016 study released in cooperation with the university promoted True Cost Accounting. The findings confirmed that organic production is cheaper than conventional agriculture when all externalities are considered. With research conducted on Egyptian farms, the study is an important localization of a food systems debate currently underway around the world.

In addition to the work of Heliopolis University, the company’s many other schools and educational programs address gaps within the Egyptian education system and support SEKEM’s values of community building and social equity. When he was alive, Abouleish urged that it was only when educated that people could conceive the pioneering solutions necessary to combat climate change.

With values of ecological regeneration, social development, community building, and equity, it’s no wonder that Abouleish called SEKEM’s operations an “economy of love.”