SEKEM’s Sustainable Business Model Creates Benefits for Climate Change, Water Scarcity, Food Security & Sustainable Livelihoods in Africa
SEKEM was founded by Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish in 1977 and is located about 60 km northeast of Cairo in rural Egypt. In 2003 the SEKEM Initiative was honored with the Right Livelihood Award for its holistic business model which integrates societal and cultural dimensions and thereby successfully supports sustainable development.
The companies of the SEKEM Group create high quality food and medicines, processed from its own organic agricultural products and sold on the national and international market. The returns of these companies are partly reinvested into the social and cultural activities. Today the SEKEM Development Foundation runs a school, a medical center, a vocational training center, various programs for socially disadvantaged children and several research and training programs from which all SEKEM employees can profit. In 2012, SEKEM successfully co-founded Heliopolis University which aims at enabling the students to find creative solutions to the most pressing needs of the world community.
The Green Africa Directory was privileged to interview Mr. Helmy Abouleish, Deputy Chairperson and Managing Director of the SEKEM Group. SEKEM exemplifies a successful sustainable business model that creates benefits for climate change, water scarcity, food security and sustainable livelihoods in Africa.
1. What is biodynamic and organic agriculture, what are its main benefits (particularly with regards climate change, water scarcity, food security and sustainable livelihoods) – and how does it differ from conventional agriculture?
Since its inception, SEKEM applies biodynamic agricultural methods including the extensive use of compost, to turn desert ground into living and healthy soil. The use of resilient crops and natural predators render obsolete external inputs such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Biodynamic agriculture means eco-intensification where fertilization, pest control, and irrigation are implemented innovatively through compost tea, the use of predators and of subsurface irrigation technologies. Biodynamic agriculture also means closed nutrient cycles in which SEKEM rears livestock to produce its own compost, grows cereals to feed the livestock, and uses crop rotation to enhance soil fertility. The surplus is sold in supermarkets and organic shops both nationally and internationally.
Biodynamic agricultural methods enhance climate change adaptation of the plants and the farm as a whole while they also substantially promote to mitigate climate change through an increased soil carbon sequestration rate. The sponge structure of the compost increases the waterholding capacity which in turn decreases water consumption by up to 40% compared to conventional agriculture. Further, food security is promoted through the provision of healthy foodstuffs that has been produced on formerly desert land that has been reclaimed through biodynamic agriculture and the intensive application of compost. Conventional agriculture however is not able to sustainably convert desert land into arable land. The lack of chemicals and the premium of organic produce added to the regular market-price increase the income for farmers, provide them a healthy environment and most importantly, ensure that their soil is built up and stays fertile in the long run instead of short term profits and leaching out the soils.
2. What was the inspiration to found SEKEM and how does SEKEM maintain sustainability throughout its processes and operations?
The decision to come to Egypt and found SEKEM matured some years before 1977, the founding year of SEKEM, when my father saw in one of his travels to Egypt, his home country, during the 20 year period he studied and worked in Austria that Egypt developed to the worse. He had the vision to create a sustainable community, to provide them with healthcare, education, food and jobs. All this he wanted to build up in one of the most hostile natural environments, the desert.
Sustainable development is the guiding principle of all SEKEM processes and operations. The integrative value chain helps significantly to ensure sustainability. We built up our own seed bank, we grow the seedlings, we produce the compost, we grow the foodstuffs with these seedlings and compost on our own farms, and we process the raw materials in our own companies. Fourteen different certifications guarantee that our high standards are met and kept. The raw material we cannot produce ourselves come from farmers that are members of the Egyptian Biodynamic Association which is the Egyptian arm of Demeter International, which provides a high quality biodynamic standard.
3. SEKEM is often referred to as a model for sustainable business in Africa. Do you think that the SEKEM business model could be used elsewhere in Africa to enhance social, cultural, environmental and economic sustainability?
Of course! But not as an exact replicate. It rather needs to adapt to the specific circumstances of the location. The framework to run such a business model is the Sustainable Development Flower which SEKEM in cooperation with its partners from the International Association for Partnership developed over the last years. We currently develop a specific variation of the Flower for normal farmers. For them, there will be a simplified version with a limited number of so called Key Performance Indicators which monitor and assess the economic, ecological, social and cultural dimension of the farm. The most important element to ‘create’ a business model like at SEKEM are however the people!
4. What advice would you give to other businesses in Africa looking to transition towards more sustainable business practices?
Look for people that share your vision and want to take ownership in your business. Without such commitment, it will not be sustainable.
5. One of the main concerns for many farmers about converting to organic, is that there will be many associated costs, lower profit margins and lower yields. What has been SEKEM’s experience and do you feel that organic farming and products can be economically viable in Africa?
It is a wide-spread myth that organic agriculture is equal to lower yields. Many studies show that particularly for traditional farming systems in Africa, the conversion to organic agriculture promises great yield increases. While there is an increased labor demand for organic agriculture leading to increased costs, the premium on organic produce on the market increases the income. The true costs are already lower than from conventional products because other costs, for example environmental degradation or health problems, are externalized. Another aspect is that in our limited world natural resources needed for chemical fertilizers and pesticides decrease more and more while conventional agriculture over time degrades the soil, which in the end leads to decreasing yields. Even the consumers, at least in Western countries, become more and more aware of the benefits. This is crucial because the markets then have to reorient, which is a great opportunity for African organic farmers. Therefore, in the medium and long run, there is no alternative to organic farming!
6. What do you think could help other African farmers see the value of converting to organic agriculture and what do you see as the future for agriculture in Africa?
The future is organic. The farmers have to be explained that the soil is their most valuable resource and they need to treasure it. They also need to understand that the adoption of organic agricultural methods can provide higher yields than by solely relying on traditional ways of cultivation. Awareness raising and capacity building, but also the removal of distorting subsidies for conventional agricultural and the establishment of organic farmer associations will strengthen organic agriculture.
7. What is the role of events like SusCon in promoting sustainability, connecting businesses and helping to share ideas world-wide?
The role of events like SusCon lies in the provision of a knowledge-sharing platform on best practices and innovative solutions. Public display of the importance of sustainability, not only for nature, but also businesses and governments can trigger a new momentum. Here, new alliances can unfold, synergies of existing structures can be found and new projects can be initiated.