The Miracle in the Desert
Sekem / Egypt
Led by the vision to promote sustainable development of the individual, the society and the Earth, Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish began to cultivate the hot, arid sandy ground of Egypt. Here, he initiated a community as an incentive for new approaches to economy, science, culture and societal life. He named this initiative Sekem – the ancient Egyptian Hieroglyph for “vitality”. Dr. Abouleish received many awards for his achievements, including the 'Right Livelihood Award', and an honorary doctorate from the Graz University.
I carry a vision deep within myself: in the midst of sand and desert, I see myself standing at a well drawing water. Carefully I plant trees, herbs and flowers and wet their roots with the precious drops. The cool well water attracts humans and animals to refresh and quicken themselves. Trees give shade, the land turns green, fragrant flowers bloom, insects, birds and butterflies show their devotion to God, the creator, as if they were citing the first Sura of the Koran.
The beginning, 1977: The country, which stretched out in the desert fallow and empty towards the horizon, was gently hilly. I liked the fact that it was not as flat as the delta. After a few more steps in the shimmering heat, a vision appeared before my inner eye: I saw the wells, plants, animals, compost heaps, houses and working people here. We would have to expend a lot of energy to cultivate such an impassable, difficult surrounding and to transform this wasteland into a garden! So many jobs could be created in doing so, and so many people would have the chance to educate themselves while creating something healing for the landscape!
After buying the land in the desert north of Cairo, a period of intense planning began. From the very beginning, Sekem was to be a model for sustainable development: where farming, making products and services, business, education, cultural and social development are always a part of an holistic approach. Since then, we have been working on the transformation of the desert into fertile land; restoring and maintaining a healthy soil and biodiversity in Nature by applying biodynamic agricultural methods.
Water is a key factor in the desert. Right from the beginning, we dug five wells on the farm, with a depth of 100–110 metres. Even before the first water was pumped up from the depths, I had been thinking about its distribution, or better said: I planned the irrigation network. How should we channel the water so that it could reach the plants and animals? You need a clever plan to irrigate effectively. Canals have to be built and pipes laid. Nowadays Sekem is criss-crossed by a huge underground irrigation system.
Organic Agriculture has become the basis for our successful cultivation. Sekem´s own farms and those of our suppliers are cultivated according to the principles of biodynamic farming. The continuous enhancement of soil fertility has been achieved through compost prepared from organic materials. Modern laboratories monitor the quality and purity of soil, compost and harvested produce. To ensure the quality and purity of the crops, healthy organic seeds and seedlings are produced on-site at the Sekem main farm. Modern grafting techniques result in increased productivity of seedlings, high resilience against soil diseases, and better adaptation to extreme climate. Other recent innovations include the breeding of predators for natural pest control and the application of Effective Microorganisms in wastewater purification.
Egypt has lost much of it’s knowledge of traditional medicine since the pharmaceutical industry entered the market. Sekem introduced herbal teas in the country and started a huge awareness campaign 25 years ago, and is today the market leader in herbal teas, but also in the production of phytopharmaceuticals. Our development of biodynamic cultivation methods for cotton in 1992, was also revolutionary for Egypt. Convincing field trials led to a change in governmental policy which ended the aerial spraying of 35,000 tons of pesticides per year.
In recent years, new areas of desert land have been acquired and transformed into fertile soils through Sekem's organic cultivation. In Egypt and worldwide, both additional fertile land and its sustainable cultivation will be crucial to ensuring future food security.
Approximately 850 farmers from all over Egypt are now members of the “Egyptian Biodynamic Association”, that we established. The Association advises and instructs the farmers and works to promote biodynamic agriculture in Egypt based on scientific methods. Once a month, all farmers working together with Sekem meet. It is very impressive when, each meeting, around two hundred tall, strong men with huge beards wearing long galabeyas stand up and express, often with tears in their eyes, how much they feel supported by Sekem. Their simple words, which come straight from their hearts, show that they see an ideal of economic life realized, which is based on brotherliness, rather than competition and egoism.
Today, Sekem runs a variety of successful companies, producing organic foods, spices, and tea, textiles from organic cotton, and herbal medicines for local and international markets. A fairly organized supply chain: from farmers to final consumers, based on trust, transparency, fair pricing and contracts, defines the “Economy of Love” that Sekem stands for. An Economy of Love ensures that everyone in the supply chain is getting a fair part of the added value, enough to develop themselves, enough to satisfy one’s own needs and the needs of one’s family and one’s community, while regenerating one’s natural environments. The 'Economy of Love' is very similar to ‘Fair Trade’.
The Sekem community is built on equality and respect for the dignity of every individual. For all employees in Sekem’s companies and institutions, from farmers to managers, the working day starts by meeting in a circle: a symbol for equality and for the unity of the shared vision.
The vibrant network of the Sekem community needs functioning organs, as in every living organism: social institutions that secure rights and claim responsibility, organisations which set rules to guarantee equality and to support the main goal of developing the dignity and full potential of every member of the community.
In Sekem, economic growth and the promotion of cultural impulses go hand in hand. Profits made from fair economic trade are invested in cultural and social institutions. The Sekem Development Foundation is the supporting non-profit organisation that sustains the social institutions for education, health and research. We follow the principle of “learning by doing”. Through continuous professional training and art courses, the employees have the possibility of improving their skills and unfolding potential. In 1989, we opened the Sekem school. In 2012, the Heliopolis University. In the Sekem Kindergarten, children can play creatively. The Sekem Elementary School promotes learning and practical skills which are then further extended in the Secondary School, or in the Vocational Training Centre.
Sekem’s holistic development work includes curative care of children and adults with special needs and their integration into a suitable work environment. For children whose social circumstances led them to drop-out of school, the Chamomile Childrens Programme offers basic education followed by vocational training. They work part-time on the farm, carrying out light tasks such as harvesting chamomile blossoms which enables them to support their families.
In cooperation with national and international partner organisations, the Heliopolis University conducts research in the fields of art, medicine, pharmacy, organic agriculture, economics, social sciences and technology. Interdisciplinary research teams work to improve agricultural cultivation methods, to develop new products for the Sekem companies or to adapt green technologies to the local context.
An ecologically sustainable community needs a healthy environment and healthy members. The Sekem Medical Centre provides medical care for approximately 40,000 people from the surrounding areas. Medical specialists use modern techniques of diagnosis and therapy and prescribe natural pharmaceuticals.
We were all so engulfed in work, that the Egyptian revolution of 2011 took us by surprise. Through false accusations, Helmy Abouleish, my son, ended up in investigative custody. He recalls the inner stillness that spread in him after he heard. For 100 days, he lived without a telephone or appointments. He recognized this period to be a big chance for personal new beginnings. In the end, he was acquitted and, since then, has focused back on the tasks in Sekem. But these difficult personal challenges, in a time of national crisis, have spurred a great advancement, both personally and for Sekem as a whole. In the 3 years since the revolution, two thirds of all businesses in Egypt perished. Sekem prevailed. That is the miracle of our times.
I see that in the meanwhile, my original vision of sustainable development has spread to the national level. Today the Egyptian government has implemented land resettlement projects in current desert areas. Villages are emerging so that people can found new communities. The experience of the Sekem pedagogy is having an increasing influence on the student’s curriculum and the teacher’s education within our society.
I always stand up and appeal on behalf of the formation of authentic communities. We humans are not efficient alone. This would be an illusion. Sekem arose out of encounters of earthliness and soulfulness, and became something new. We are proving that, by creating sustainability in all dimensions, and by investing into the education of our coworkers, we can build thriving economies.
So I feel confident in saying: Without Sekem there would be something missing from this world.