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Entering and Cultivating Desert Country

After arriving in Egypt Abouleish went to see the Ministry of Agriculture, and told them he was looking for a patch of desert, which he wanted to cultivate using organic methods. He was shown a patch in Belbeis, near Cairo, where the quality of ground was very bad and water supply difficult, but he knew he wanted it. If biodynamic farming could thrive

in this wasteland, then it would be possible to transfer this model to easier environments. So Ibrahim bought the land and moved over, leaving his family behind in Cairo. Most of the time he was alone, with only now and then a Bedouin with goats wandering by. They could not understand his idea, but they saw it develop before their eyes.

The Prophet says every one of you is a shepherd, and everyone is responsible for those under your protection. For those living with their feelings, like the Bedouins in the desert, a concrete step is to establish social forms. This starts with elementary principles: starting punctually, getting up and catching a bus. Since then, the morning circle has been invented, not only to start the day together but also to share a sense of unity and invariably to listen to a beautiful poem, or a recitation, to praise the beautifulness of nature and human beings. After Ibrahim had positioned the first roads and plotted the fields, the next task was to drill two wells. He did not know how to do this himself so found himself in the position of having to employ people. They terraced the entire ground together and dug canals for the water to flow to the fields.

Nature and Culture, Society and Economy

Abouleish's wish, then, was to build a community for people of all walks of life. It had to be built, for cultural reasons, on the borders of civil society. To begin with there was just a two-man team, a Bedouin Mohamed and himself. Mohamed was a local villager who, when he was walking around the local area, came to him, put his hand on his shoulder and said "I am with you". There was no infra-structure, no energy, nothing. The two of them began the reclamation and greening of the land, and people started coming. It was clear to Ibrahim by that time, in the late 1970s, that the implementation of his dream was a life's task. In fact it would probably take many generations to progress.

Because the whole initiative was, from the outset, a cultural as well as a natural one, Ibrahim had to generate capital. The necessary cash flow started with the sale of the extract of a medicinal plant which he exported to the United States. Sekem moved on from there. To create the environment and microclimate people see today they had to plant 120,000 trees. The economic life of the initiative began at a practical level to "heal" the soil through biodynamic methods, in partnership with close friends and colleagues in Europe, and local partners in trade. This associative way of doing business is one of the major success factors underlying the way in which the "mission impossible" of biodynamic agriculture in the desert has worked out. What then are the overall implications for Sekem today?


Sekem aims to establish a blueprint for the healthy corporation of the 21st century. To begin with, as such, it was the first entity to apply biodynamic farming methods in Egypt. Its commitment to innovative development thereby led to the nationwide application of biodynamic methods to control pests and improve crop yields. Sekem has since grown exponentially into a nationally renowned enterprise and market leader of organic products and phyto-pharmaceuticals, which are now also exported to Europe and other countries.

The Sekem group that represents the economic branch of the initiative, includes a holding company with five main subsidiaries: Sekem for Land Reclamation for farming and organic seedlings, fertilization and pest control; Isis for fresh fruits and vegetables as well as for organic foods and beverages (such as juice, dairy products, oils, spices and tea); Lotus for herbs and spices; NatureTex for organic cotton and textile children's clothes and home wear; and Atos for phyto-pharmaceutical products.

Sekem has a highly unconventional business model that incorporates what are usually considered social and environmental externalities and in fact maintains this to be the basis for an increasing competitiveness in the future. While it is a profitmaking enterprise, it does not aim for profit maximization. Through a profit- sharing methodology, it shares its returns with the smallholder farmers in its network called the Egyptian Biodynamic Association (EBDA). Of Sekem's profit, 10 per cent goes to the Sekem Development Foundation (SDF) that has launched many community development initiatives to benefit communities. These include establishing different schools and a medical centre, celebrating culture and diversity, and promoting peace, cooperation and understanding between all human beings.

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