Sekem, Egypt: An Oasis of Regeneration & Inspiration
The Story of How One Organization Is Changing the Face of Agriculture in Egypt
In a country with 96% desert and high use of chemical inputs, creating a holistic approach to regenerative agriculture is no small task. Fortunately for the farmers, the people, and the land of Egypt, some dedicated individuals have taken it on–and they have managed to accomplish a lot for the movement of regenerative agriculture in Egypt.
Sekem is an expanding project in Egypt that has pioneered sustainable development in the country. Their vision is big, and their accomplishments show that having a big vision isn’t as unrealistic as it may seem.
Producers Trust is proud to partner with Sekem as we support each other in a shared vision. We recently had an opportunity to speak with Max from Sekem, and he is a wealth of knowledge.
An Inspiring Conversation with Sekem
Our conversation began with Max telling us a bit of the history of Sekem. The vision began with a man named Ibrahim Abouleish. Ibrahim was born in Egypt but had spent 20 years traveling, living, and studying abroad in Europe. After being immersed in the European cultural context, he visited home with an awareness of the value of fusing cultures and knowledge. It was the 1970s, and Ibrahim was 40 years old. At that time, Egypt was in a war. The nasser dam had been built, putting an end to the natural rhythm of flooding and fertility, and Egypt had become the most pesticide-intensive country in the world. He felt like things were moving in the wrong direction, and he was worried about his beloved home country.
And from there his vision was born.
Egypt is nearly all desert, and since you can’t just start farming anywhere, Ibrahim decided to create a fertile oasis in the desert. And that is just what he did–beginning with one well. Now, this desert oasis is a sustainable community that is home to many families, projects, and initiatives.
The land Ibrahim found for Sekem is about 60 kilometers north of Cairo and occupies a bit more than 50 hectares of earth. Ibrahim knew that the starting point of any sustainable community must address food security, and he believed in working with nature rather than against it. He also wanted to incorporate value creation for the local bedouin people. Many people thought he was crazy to be leaving his previous life behind to start farming organically in the desert–but he persisted anyway, even with a clash of cultures. Ibrahim committed to reinvesting 10% of profit and employee time into the life of the community. His first purchases were a tractor and a piano.
Changing Systems In Egypt & the World
From there, the oasis turned into a thriving community and continues with many moving parts and a vision to change systems in Egypt and the world. Today Sekem works in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and textiles. They are supporting farmers all over the region to transition to regenerative agriculture. Their top product is tea, and they also operate schools and universities.
“It’s not about teabags or textiles or t-shirts. Of course we need these products, and they should be created biodynamically, but rather than focus on the products, we focus on social innovation and societal transformation. These come from doing things in a different way, and this is how we create a paradigm shift,” says Max.
The oasis community may have started from the vision of just one man, but through consistency and hard work, it has grown tremendously and successfully. Max shared with us a bit about the daily life of the community.
“We have around 70 people living here at the farm continuously, a mixture of Egyptians and Europeans. Then we have around 1,200 people coming to work here every day on the company side and then another 600 who work in the institutions, on the educational side, for example. We have another headquarters near Cairo, and we have 3 desert farms. In the university there are 3,000 students, and all over Egypt we are working with 2,500 small scale farmers currently.”
Although sadly, Ibrahim passed away at 80 years old a few years back, the original farm and community continues evolving into something that touches all aspects of healthy living. The team has recently updated their vision goals for the next 40 years.
One of the big goals is to transition all of Egypt to biodynamic farming. While this may sound like an unreachable goal, Sekem has decided to aim high. Our planet and our people deserve it. They began with an initial phase that included 600 farmers. These were the farmers that they have been working with for decades already.
“We love them and they love us, and it’s great,” says Max about their relationship with these original farming members.
Recently, they have started on a phase 2, which they finalized at the end of last year. This phase involves a new approach for another 2,000 farmers. This group of farmers are the pilots for scaling the program and the approach. Now Sekem will also initiate a third phase, scaling even bigger to around 40,000 farmers. They are really hoping to build more momentum into the regenerative and biodynamic movement in Egypt and the world.
Many farmers, however, are suspicious. Max says that they have seen many NGOs coming and going, promoting different techniques, offering services and taking some nice photos perhaps, but the farmers don’t always see the bigger value in that. Sekem knows they must have success stories. The farmers need to see their neighbors succeeding economically with biodynamic farming. Fortunately, due to their persistence and hard work, Sekem has a strong name and solid track record in the region.
Max says that if Sekem merely focused on farming biodynamically on their onw land, that would be great and important. However, it would involve less than 1% of agriculture in Egypt, which means there is no system change, and Sekem is devoted to bringing big changes to systems. He says they are aiming to reach the tipping point with around 15% of agriculure transitioning to biodynamic. Max explained that they are working on making a business case for biodynamic and regenerative farming to make it attractive and viable for farmers. Part of this includes sequestering carbon and receiving carbon credits.
“We know that land farmed conventionally emits 5 tons of carbon per acre per year. With regenerative, the same land can sequester 10 tons per year. So this is who the whole story shifts and it is a real kind of business case and rationale that we put out there in the world. We share it at COP 27, and we want to share with whomever is interested.”
Max says that they are aware of their strengths and their challenges. What they do well is build community and start things from scratch. What they need are the partners and technology to truly scale their projects. And that’s where Producers Trust comes in. We want to see initiatives and ambitions like theirs spreading to and empowering small farmers and producers around the world, and they can use our tools and platforms to help scale and share their good work.
“Producers Trust understands our story. You all see the need for good platforms to manage these transitions to biodynamic and regenerative farming and to get tens of thousands of farmers on board. Ultimately, we need the market to accept the transitions too and to be cost efficient in the verification of carbon credits.”
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