Cairo — Egypt's organic-farming project has grown into a global enterprise reaping rewards. Rehab Abd Almohsen reports.
During a visit to Egypt in 1975, chemical engineer and medical scientist Ibrahim Abouleish was inspired to help improve the economic and social conditions in his home country. Two years later, after 21 years spent working in Austria, Abouleish moved home to Egypt with a vision: to create a business that would both achieve economic success and promote sustainable social development.
He decided to found a sustainable community based on organic agriculture, to improve soil fertility and increase crop yields. Abouleish bought a 300-hectare site of semi-desert land near the town of Belbeis, 60 kilometres north-east of Cairo, and named the project SEKEM - an ancient Egyptian word meaning 'vitality from the sun'.
"It was not easy to implement this in a country like Egypt, where back in 1977, few people had heard about the concept of sustainability, or even of organic food," says Helmy Abouleish, the SEKEM Group's deputy chairperson and managing director.
Helmy describes sustainable development as an approach through which "every human being can develop his or her individual potential, can live together in a way that reflects human dignity and can conduct economic activity in accordance with ecological and ethical principles".
And he points out that scientific research is high on SEKEM's strategy for promoting community development. "From the very beginning, research and innovation have been two of the main drivers," he says.
One of SEKEM's greatest research achievements has been its contribution to the huge reduction in artificial fertiliser and pesticide use in Egypt's cotton industry, while boosting the yields by up to 30 per cent.
SEKEM research has also helped drive the reclamation of desert land by transforming sand into fertile soil through the use of biodynamic agriculture, a method of organic farming that uses manures and composts to maintain soil fertility and keep microorganisms alive.
Building a new community
With the aim of helping local communities meet their needs, SEKEM began bringing local Bedouin tribes into the project and giving them work.
And to achieve its broader social goals of education and empowerment, SEKEM carries out its development work through several organisations: the SEKEM Development Foundation; a medical centre; a community school; a school for disabled children; a vocational training centre; the University for Arts, Science and Technology; and several departments of medical, pharmaceutical and agricultural research.
It strives to meet its social and cultural objectives through projects such as a programme to combat the exploitation of child labour by only allowing children aged between 12 and 16 to work in the fields for a maximum of two hours a day. The rest of the day is spent in the SEKEM school where, in addition to studying the usual subjects, they spend time learning to express themselves through activities such as theatre, drawing and singing.
Links with academia
Rigorous scientific research - mostly undertaken at the Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development, of which SEKEM is a strategic partner - is also central to the project. "The two organisations work hand-in-hand," says Helmy.
Kadria Abdel-Motaal, the university's director of academic research, is also head of the Special & Sponsored Programs Department, a SEKEM-supported unit established in 2008 to help initiate innovative sustainable development research activities, encourage interdisciplinary research and disseminate new best practices based on its findings.
Abdel-Motaal says that one of the department's main roles is to strengthen links between development-oriented researchers and practitioners, and to bring them together with new technology stakeholders via workshops. So far, the department has funded 23 university research projects, spanning organic agriculture, phyto-pharmaceuticals, education for sustainable development, and social development and environmental sustainability.
Holistic development successes
Since 1977, SEKEM has grown into a multifaceted agro-industrial group of companies and non-governmental organisations that is regarded by some as one of the world's leading social enterprises.
Today, it has more than 2,000 employees and a network of more than 3,000 farmers who produce the food that SEKEM then processes. The SEKEM group includes ten industrial companies that together produce 150 different types of organic product, including food, herbal teas, medicines and cotton products.
Thomas Abouleish, the SEKEM Group's new media and communication director, points out that, through the Egyptian Biodynamic Association established by SEKEM, the company has been able to help thousands of Egyptian farmers switch from conventional to organic agriculture. As a result, hundreds of organic products are available on the Egyptian market, produced both by SEKEM's companies and others.
Ten per cent of profits from the SEKEM companies go towards social development projects, which also raise money by collaborating with international and national funding partners.
Through its medical centre, SEKEM also offers healthcare using holistic medicinal approaches to therapy. In 2011, the centre treated almost 4,000 SEKEM employees and almost 30,000 individuals from surrounding communities.
At the heart of SEKEM's activities is a commitment to promote every individual's right to equal treatment, as well as the equality of women in society and the workplace.
In all SEKEM institutions, for example, intercultural and religious differences are respected and valued, with both Muslim and Christian rituals being practised. In recognition of its role in promoting women's rights, in 2009 SEKEM was awarded the Gender Equality Award by the UN Development Fund for Women.
Completing the cycle
Thomas sees SEKEM as a model that can inspire other communities to put their faith in sustainable development and organic agriculture. He describes the company's economic success as resulting from "the ability to complete the cycle between agriculture and industry".
The biggest challenge now, Helmy says, is to "maintain or improve our competitive position, attracting and training the necessary workforce".
Ibrahim has received wide international recognition for his efforts. In 2003, he received the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes referred to as the 'Alternative Nobel Prize'.
The award committee stated that SEKEM had shown "how a modern business model can combine profitability and success in world markets with a humane and spiritual approach to people while maintaining respect for the environment". Ibrahim's early vision has been amply fulfilled.
This article is part of a series Africa's Minds: Build a Better Future produced by SciDev.Net in association with UNESCO, with funding support from the Islamic Development Bank.