The Sekem Initiative, Egypt
First published in LEDIS, Local Economic Development Information
The Sekem Initiative is a successful example of social capitalism,
operating on organically managed farmland reclaimed from the
desert, outside Cairo. It promotes both economic and social and
cultural development among its 2,000 employees.
Sekem started with the personal vision of Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish,
who was born in Egypt in 1937. After training in Austria in
chemistry, medicine and pharmacology, Dr. Abouleish returned
to Egypt in 1975, where he was overwhelmed by his country’s
lack of education, its overpopulation, and its pollution, particularly
from the use of chemical pesticides.
A vision was kindled in his heart, and he returned in 1977
to establish Sekem, which means “vitality from the sun”.
Egyptians recognize that the sun is a life-giving force, permeating
and enlivening the Earth’s entire being. “I had a
vision of a three-fold project that would allow me to contribute
to community-building, humanity, and healing the earth. The desert
was like the canvas of a painting, but without a frame.”
He founded Sekem on a 70-hectare patch of scrub and desert near
Belbeis, 60 km north-east of Cairo, on the eastern edge of the
southern Nile Delta. With a group of Europeans and local Egyptian
farmers, planted many trees, bringing life to an untouched part
of the desert with the aid of natural biodynamic organic fertilizers.
As the soil improved, they planted herbs, and started producing
and selling herbal medicines. By 1983, they were harvesting their
first crops of organic fruits, vegetables and spices. In the
years since, Sekem has grown into a rich community of businesses,
schools, and non-profit societies that employs some 2,000 people.
Aims and Objectives
Sekem is intended to establish a blueprint for a healthy corporation
in the 21st century, and to show that profit-making can go
hand-in-hand with social and cultural enrichment. To quote
Dr. Abouleish: “We strive at Sekem to build a community
in which people of all nations and cultures work and learn
together with the aim to acknowledge, nurture and love the
super-sensible world and noble ideals.” As well as producing
a large variety of organically grown consumer products of high
quality, and restore the earth by means of biodynamic agriculture,
Sekem seeks to achieve a greater integration of the arts, religion
and sciences, with the main aim of developing people.
“It was my wish for this initiative to embody itself as
a community in which people from all walks of life, from all
nations and cultures, from all vocations and age groups, could
work together, learning from one another and helping each other,
sounding as one in a symphony of harmony and peace.” (Dr.
One of Sekem’s offshoots, the Egyptian Society for Cultural
Development, aims to elevate the total welfare of the Egyptian
people by enabling them to determine and realize their own socially
unique and culturally appropriate development path.
“All the different aspects of the company, whether the
cultural ones or the economic ones, have been developed out of
Islam. We believe that it is possible to derive guiding principles
for everything from pedagogics, to the arts, to economics, from
Islam.” (Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish)
The Sekem Holding Company operates six businesses, and the Egyptian
Society for Cultural Development, which is responsible for
social, cultural and health initiatives. Sekem has also established
the Centre for Organic Agriculture in Egypt, and the Egyptian
BioDynamic Association (EBDA). The six businesses are:
Sekem, a processing company whose 81 employees process and sell
herbs, spices and dried vegetables from biodynamically cultivated
plants. Founded in 1979.
Atos, a phyto-pharmaceutical joint venture with Gebrüder
Schaette AG in Germany, whose 384 employees research, develop
and produce medicines made from natural ingredients for heart
disorders, cancer, hepatitis, and many other diseases. Founded
Libra, an organic farming company whose 225 employees grow
rice, cotton, legumes, oils, oil seeds, and essential oils,
for distribution to other Sekem companies, and in Egypt,
Europe and America. Founded in 1992.
Conytex, whose 241 employees use organically grown cotton
to design, develop and make 250 different articles of baby
bathroom wear, bedsheets, and kitchen ware. Founded in 1994.
Hator, whose 74 employees produce and pack fresh organic
fruit and vegetables for local and export markets. Founded
Isis, whose 84 employees produce and pack organic cereals,
bread, dairy products, oils, spices, teas and conserves for
Sekem’s chain of five “Nature’s Best” shops
in Egypt, all supermarket chains, grocery shops and pharmacies,
and the herbs in Europe. Founded in 1997.
The Sekem Holding Company supports Sekem’s six companies
by promoting the overall biodynamic concept to the public, cooperating
with the government, NGOs and other partners, and supporting
Sekem’s six companies in the areas of finance, exports,
graphics, business solutions, legal affairs, information
technology, etc. Founded in 2001.
The Egyptian BioDynamic Association groups together and advises
400 different farms throughout Egypt which use the biodynamic
organic methods of agriculture on over 8,000 acres of land,
1,800 acres of which is newly reclaimed desert land. The Centre
Organic Agriculture in Egypt certifies the farms as organic.
Founded in 1994.
On the social and cultural side of Sekem’s activities,
the Egyptian Society for Cultural Development, founded in 1984,
is designed to develop a strong sense of self-consciousness and
dignity among Sekem’s farmers and families. It has helped
Sekem to build a kindergarten, the Sekem primary and secondary
schools (300 pupils), a vocational training centre, an Institute
for Adult Education, the Sekem Academy for Applied Arts and Sciences,
an illiterate children’s programme, a special education
programme for handicapped children, and the Sekem Medical Centre,
which provides medical, health outreach and women’s health
services to Sekem’s families and to the local community,
treating 30,000 people a year.
Structure and Finance
Sekem Holdings is a privately owned holding company, whose six
companies are wholly owned subsidiaries. The Egyptian Society
for Cultural Development and the Egyptian BioDynamic Association
(EBDA) are non-profit, non-governmental organizations.
Taken together, approximately 40% of Sekem’s income comes
from its own activities. A further 30-35% comes from grants,
and 15-20% from aid, mostly from the EU and the US. Sekem workers
contribute a small part of their salaries to help maintain a
social fund for colleagues in need, managed by the cooperation
of Sekem Employees, and Sekem itself donates 15-20% of its profits
to the social development side of its activities.
The EBDA is almost self-sufficient, based on fees from participating
farmers (50 E£ per acre). (1 Euro = 8 E£). In 2002,
Sekem obtained a $5 million US loan from the International Finance
Corporation (an arm of the World Bank) to expand, reorganize,
and financially restructure its six companies.
There is one other aspect of Sekem’s structure that should
also be mentioned. Every morning, at a set time, the employees
of every company meet in a circle, where each person reports
briefly about their activities of the previous day, and their
intentions for the present day. Each company has an administrator
who is responsible for the wellbeing of the workers and the quality
of their work environment, and who organizes their training,
career development, and health care programme. The Cooperative
of Sekem Employees works to ensure that workplace issues are
looked after, and that the democratic rights and values of the
workers are respected.
Sekem has grown from one man’s vision, in 1977, to employ
2,000 people. Revenues grew from 37 million Egyptian pounds in
2000 to 100 million in 2003. In 2003, Sekem earned $81 million
E£, and realized a 25% increase in profits. 55% of its
sales are domestic, within Egypt.
In 2003, Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish was awarded the Right Livelihood
Award in Stockholm, “for a business model for the 21st
century in which commercial success is integrate with and promotes
the social and cultural development of society through the ‘economics
of love’”. In 2004, the World Economic Forum selected
Sekem’s founders as outstanding social entrepreneurs, establishing
the blueprint for the healthy corporation of the 21st century.
In addition to the successful employment of 2,000 people, and
the provision of social and cultural services to their families
and other villagers, Sekem’s initiative in founding the
Egyptian BioDynamic Association has led to a major expansion
of organic farming in Egypt and further afield in Tunisia, Morocco,
Palestine and Lebanon. Within Egypt, 600 farmers from Aswan to
Alexandria are applying the international guidelines for biodynamic
agriculture on over 8,000 acres, after undergoing a 2-3 year
In one specific area – the cultivation of cotton – Sekem
has achieved a major breakthrough. After the Aswan high dam was
built in 1970, the Nile no longer floods, and the farmer’s
fields have been deprived of the nutrients that came with the
silt. As a result the farmers have turned to the heavy and expensive
use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, especially on cotton,
but with no increase in their average yields pf 900 kg per acre.
Working in collaboration with Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture,
Sekem researched and then introduced the use of biological pheromones
to control cotton insects, which led to a ban on crop dusting
throughout Egypt. (Pheromones are hormonal substances secreted
by female insects, used by organic farmers to trap and eliminate
male insects.) By 2000, the use of pesticides on Egyptian cotton
fields had fallen by over 90%. 80% of Egypt’s cotton is
now grown without synthetic insecticides, and average yields
have risen by nearly 30% to 1220 kg per acre. The organic cotton
also has better fibre elasticity, and is less contaminated with
Sekem also has a deep aesthetic commitment to beauty. The farm
and other buildings are painted in pastel colours, and the pathways
are all lined with flowers and trees, in striking contract to
the chaos, noise, dirt and smog of nearby Cairo.
As the number of farmers who are growing biodynamically increases,
Sekem can expect to see a major increase in the direct suppliers
of organic produce sold to Sekem for processing, packaging
and distribution. The market for Fair Trade products is also
opening up, now that a number of Sekem’s business activities
have been Fair Trade certified.
For further information contact :
Helmy Abouleish, Managing Director
3 Cairo-Belbeis Desert Road,
P.O. Box 2834
11361 Cairo, Egypt
Tel: +2 02 65 64 124/5
Fax: +2 02 65 64 123