Wednesday, February 16, 2011

SEKEM: A Beacon in an Otherwise Oppressed Egypt

In my last blog post, I highlighted the destructive role business has played in Egypt and in Egyptian democracy more generally. Less recognized unfortunately are those companies that stand up to oppressive regimes by addressing head-on some of the undemocratic and social injustices that plague a nation.

During my PhD field research in 2005, I was very fortunate to visit such a company in Egypt. It is to this day one of the most remarkable I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. By remarkable I mean its fundamental contribution to human rights, social equity, cultural freedom and the environment in the backdrop of an autocratic regime complicit in social and ecological degradation.

The Beginning

The company is called SEKEM (meaning “Vitality from the Sun” in Ancient Egyptian) and was started by an entrepreneur named Ibrahim Abouleish in 1977 (photo to the right). I use the term “entrepreneur” lightly here because Abouleish’s motivation for starting SEKEM did not fit the mold of a typical entrepreneur where the underlying drive is associated with filling lucrative market gaps and identifying profit opportunities. Abouleish’s primary motivation was to build an organization that would heal the land and the people of Egypt.

Similar to the events that transpired a few weeks ago, the Egyptian people took to the streets in 1970s in anti-government riots to fight market fundamentalist policies that created substantial social inequalities. Unemployment was at a shocking 50% and only 4% of land in Egypt was suitable for agriculture, the output of which was not going to the Egyptian people. Population densities had reached 1,000 people per square kilometer and pollution of the Nile River increased substantially, forcing farmers to resort to significant amounts of agrochemicals, which contaminated soil and poisoned farmers.

Abouleish explained:

“On my last journey through Egypt I had experienced a deep sense of hopelessness caused by the way of life of the Egyptian population. This had deeply moved me, as I knew that people’s surroundings mirror their soul’s disposition. I felt compassion for these people who could not be made responsible for their situation, but were forced to bear it and had learnt to carry it….I wanted to be able to change this situation of hopelessness” (Abouleish, 2008: 67)

What Makes SEKEM Unique?

I recall my first visit to SEKEM, driving 60 km outside of the metropolitan city of Cairo towards the entrance of the SEKEM mother farm – a massive plot of land that looks like a green oasis surrounded by desert. Over 120,000 trees mark the boundaries of the farm, creating a shield against desert storms and a habitat for plants, insects, and large animals. As we slowly drive through the complex, I see a tractor piling compost from animal dung to build soil fertility, a slew of children walking single file from their classroom, and endless fields of agricultural harvest in the background.

Once inside, I learn that the SEKEM Company is made up of three interrelated and remarkable components.

1. SEKEM’s commercial ambition is to prove that desert land can be used to produce natural medicines and foodstuffs that are healthy and environmentally friendly. Through leading agricultural practices in biodynamic cultivation, SEKEM produces fruits and vegetables, pharmaceuticals, and textiles without the use of agrochemicals. But while SEKEM’s mother farm could have alone provided crops, Abouleish chose to solicit Egyptian farmers as partners in the provision of crops to the business. Without their involvement, SEKEM's reach in healing the land would have been restricted to the mother farm. Getting farmers on board, however, was no easy task. Farmers believed that organic farming was a risky venture with low yields and limited returns on top of a very immature market for organic produce at the time. Switching to organic agriculture required that the land undergo a transition phase, usually two years, during which no chemicals could be used.

But Abouleish persisted and to this day has close to 900 Egyptian farmers working with SEKEM. What is more, the total use of pesticides in Egyptian cotton fields has been reduced to less than 10 per cent, saving about 30,000 tons of pesticides per year. By 1999, these methods had been applied to nearly 80 percent of the entire Egyptian cotton-growing areas. The average yield of raw cotton increased by nearly 30 percent to 1,220 kg per acre. SEKEM was the first organization to produce organic cotton at higher yields than conventional agriculture at a similar cost.

2. The second main component of SEKEM is the Egyptian Society for Cultural Development (SCD), the goal of which is to contribute to “the comprehensive development of Egyptian society” and to realize “Egypt’s unique contribution to global development”. It focuses on education and training, establishing kindergarten, primary, and secondary schools for children of all employees and neighboring communities regardless of religion. Conventional courses are supplemented with music, dance, crafts, and culture, a stark contrast to the Egyptian government's suppressive anti-creative education system. These same cultural opportunities are also offered to employees and members of the surrounding community. In light of the poor opportunities in the regular Egyptian labor market, SCD’s goal was to equip young people with the skills necessary for self-employment.

SEKEM opened a medical center in 1996, at which time medical staff found that all members of the community suffered from some form of illness resulting in the treatment and ongoing health care provision of more than 30,000 people. The SCD also established an Academy of Applied Arts and Sciences in 2000 to advance scientific research in areas of medicine, pharmacy, biodynamic agriculture, sustainable economic and arts. The goal of the academy is to serve the needs of Egyptian society by establishing links between development-oriented researchers and development practitioners.

3. The third component is called the Cooperative of SEKEM Employees (CSE), the objective of which is to make sure “that all members of the SEKEM community grow towards taking responsibility for society”. I was fortunate to join all SEKEM employees at the end of the workweek to recite a brief text that reminded everyone of the shared values of SEKEM. Its purpose largely revolved around establishing a common identity among SEKEM employees, one that centered on healing the Egyptian people.

Lessons for Business

Although this description only scratches the surface of what SEKEM has and continues to accomplish, there is a clear distinction between what SEKEM is doing and what many western companies are doing when they claim that they are “embedding” sustainability into their core operations. SEKEM therefore offers a wake up call for what this means along with a number of important lessons to businesses out there working to take on this task seriously.
  • A company like SEKEM acts like a change agent. They’re not just creating a new business model that is meant to satisfy a market need. They are changing the way the agriculture industry works in Egypt. They are changing the way Egyptians experience freedom. They are challenging the fundamental ideologies of the Egyptian government by promoting creativity and cultural awareness. Any company looking to embed sustainability needs to think beyond the provision of a product or service…they need to help lead change.
  • SEKEM thinks systemically. A company like SEKEM builds the supporting infrastructure for its business rather than relying on what’s already in place. Notice that SEKEM redefined the agriculture supply chain in Egypt or at the very least created a parallel supply chain. SEKEM had to build the biodynamic cultivation capacity of over 800 farmers who eventually became suppliers. They had to develop an independent inspection and certification body called the Centre for Organic Agriculture in Egypt (COAE) because no such body existed previously. They had to build the educational infrastructure to support research in biodynamic cultivation. And they had to build consumer markets in Europe and in Egypt for organic products that had not existed before. Most firms refer to the limits of the existing infrastructure when explaining their lack of progress in sustainability - "There are no suppliers available"; "The market isn't ready for this product"; "There is no certification body". SEKEM took it upon themselves to build the infrastructure to support their vision.
  • A company like SEKEM makes decisions for the long-term. The educational and health care facilities for employees and the surrounding community attests to SEKEM’s view that their survival and integrity is inextricably linked to the health and welfare of the Egyptian people. By making these elements central to the SEKEM business, they take full ownership and responsibility for their development. This means that SEKEM is able to incorporate social, ecological, and economic dimensions in an integrative way. Each of the three components described above feeds the other. Without one, the business model fails. Adoption of sustainability means that firms have to emulate the intricate interconnectedness of social, ecological, and economic systems.
  • SEKEM possesses a common identity, a consensus among employees of why the company exists. The movement of goods from farmers to the consumer is really only part of a broader purpose associated with healing land and people of Egypt.
SEKEM redefines the purpose of business. It demonstrates the feasibility of a for-profit entity to deal with the complexity of sustainable development. When managers, students, and colleagues ask me what a firm that has embedded sustainability looks like, I tell them about SEKEM. In my view, they remain the most impressive expression of how business can be a fundamental agent for social change in a destitute environment. They act as an inspiration for what the private sector can be in an era of public mistrust towards the for-profit entity and unprecedented social and ecological issues.

The SEKEM logo was reproduced under Creative Commons
Photos were taken from the author and were reproduced under Creative Commons

Reference: Abouleish, I. (2004): A sustainable community in the Egyptian desert. Berlin: Verlag Johannes M. Mayer & Co.


  1. Mike - Good to see you are writing on these issues. My blog does the same. Visit us and comment too @

  2. Mike,this is fascinating. Was this field work part of your Phd Dissertation and if so, can I find a copy somewhere? I did my MBA thesis on Fair Trade Coffee and visit a Cooperative in Peru whose work in the community is very similar to SEKEM.

  3. Amazing, i visited SEKEM several times. they have a special vision for sustainability in new land.
    Mokhtar Taha