40 Years of Vitalizing the Desert

“Crazy!” That was how people called Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish, when he first declared his vision of greening the desert and building a sustainable community in Egypt. The SEKEM founder started to sustainably vitalize the Egyptian desert in 1977. When looking back, it becomes obvious that the environmental situation in Egypt wasn’t easy but not as vulnerable as it appears nowadays: The country suffers from water scarcity, desertification, climate change, and the list goes on. Because Dr. Abouleish was already foreseeing these challenges, he insisted on realizing his vision of sustainability, and established the SEKEM Initiative.

In 2015, SEKEM received the Land for Life award for its outstanding commitment in fostering sustainable agriculture in Egypt which combats soil erosion and protects the soil fertility. But what exactly was the motive behind this long-standing commitment?

“In the midst of sand and desert I see myself standing as 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. Trees give shade, the land turns green…”, Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish says in his vision.

The SEKEM founder deeply believed that his idea could be realized in Egypt. Precisely, it would be about regaining the desert and greening it sustainably; as only from the green, vivid soils everything can begin and grow. Not only food is secured, but also jobs are created and hence a flourishing society starts to grow.

Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish walking next to the first green areas on SEKEM Farm.

The green is growing

40 years ago, on an untouched area of 70 hectares desert land, located 60 Kilometers north-east from Cairo, Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish started to realize his vision by applying Biodynamic agriculture. Today, this plot is the main SEKEM Farm – the starting point from where various other developments had been initiated. A whole community has grown there, including factories, schools, a medical center and a vocational training center for the youth. Additionally, SEKEM now has three other farms scattered at different locations: the Sinai Peninsula, the Bahariya oasis in the Western Desert and in Upper Egypt in Al-Minya governorate. Besides, SEKEM cooperates with around 800 contracted farmers all over Egypt that also grow their crops under biodynamic guidelines.

Together for a sustainable green growth

“Our main purpose has been always to maintain sustainable agriculture that would neither harm the environment nor any living being,” says Attia Sobhy, director of the Egyptian Bio-Dynamic Association (EBDA). In 1994, the EBDA was founded by SEKEM as an independent non-governmental organization that supports farmers in Egypt to shift from conventional agricultural practices to sustainable, biodynamic ones. That is done by providing the farmers with agricultural training and consultancy services.  

“I joined SEKEM in 1999 as a trainer and was lucky to work with and learn from Klaus Merckens and his father,” says Attia Sobhy. The Merckens family and the Abouleish family are long-standing friends. And this connection played a crucial role in the development of SEKEMs ecological activities. “Only by including the expertise of the Merckens, SEKEM could establish other farms. Also the EBDA had been strongly benefited from this cooperation,” Sobhy recounts.

A paradigm shift in the Egyptian agriculture

In the early 1990’s there had been a huge leap in Egypt’s agricultural processes and SEKEM was the driving force behind it. Thanks to the efforts of SEKEM founder Dr. Abouleish and his team of researchers, the methodology of spraying cotton fields with chemical pesticides was amended after proving the efficiency and high crop yield of biodynamic and sustainable cotton cultivation. This action resulted in a total reduction of almost 90% of the pesticide use for cotton production in Egypt.

Soil saviors: Compost and biodynamic preparations

Compost and bio pesticides are efficient supporters for the farmers in order to retaining their soil’s vitality and biodiversity. “In the beginning, the compost, made out of plant residues, animal manure and biodynamic preparations that we imported from Europe, had been mixed manually,” says Angela Hofmann, SEKEMs agricultural coordinator. “Today we are able to produce it by our own and can even provide our contracted farmers with the mixture.”

SEKEM has always been benefited from international experience and support. As the Merckens, Angela Hofmann is one of them. The agricultural coordinator joined SEKEM in the early 1980’s “after getting attracted to the idea of building a community out of nothing”. “With 40 brown Swiss cows, I moved from Germany to SEKEM to start this pioneering project”, she recalls. The cows now live already since generations together  with Egyptian cattle and Holstein Friesian Cows. Today, SEKEM owns 135 dairy cows and the same number of calves, heifers and bulls.

Angela Hofmann, next to a SEKEM co-worker with the brown cows in 1981.

“Many people consider the power of shaping the future positively either as crazy or illusory. But these dreams change the world!” Helmy Abouleish

Nowadays, Egypt suffers especially from a rising food insecurity, land degradation and desertification. The Egyptian population exceeds 90 million and lives concentrated surrounding the narrow green strip along the Nile River – the only natural arable area, which represents about 5% of Egypt’s total land. The desert is still occupying the region and the green areas decrease more and more as a result of disastrous soil practices.

However, SEKEM remains hopeful. And it is not a crazy illusion anymore. “Many people consider the power of shaping the future positively either as crazy or illusory. But these dreams change the world”, says Helmy Abouleish, SEKEMs CEO. The green blooming SEKEM Farms do not only reflect this hope, but also prove that a crazy vision can become reality. It requires bravery, patience, resilience and a strong belief – maybe a little bit like the impression is given by SEKEMs first trees: planted 40 years ago, steadily grown, they are now standing strong, upright, and are able to break even the strong desert winds.

Noha Hussein

The SEKEM Founder, Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish
SEKEM wins the Land for Life award 2015
Organic Cotton as a sustainable alternative
Day of Biodynamic Preparations in SEKEM
SEKEMs ecological activities