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...for a 21st century business model which combines commercial success with social and cultural development.
Egyptian Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish started his career in pharmaceutical research and in 1977 he founded SEKEM, a comprehensive development initiative to address some of the most pressing issues affecting Egypt, such as the country’s crumbling health, educational and cultural preservation capacities. Over the years, SEKEM has broadened its scope, also becoming the first entity to develop biodynamic farming methods in Egypt. With the goal of contributing to the comprehensive development of Egyptian society, Dr. Abouleish has introduced a business model which combines commercial success with social and cultural development.
3, Belbeis Desert Road
POB 2834 El Horreya
Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish was born in Egypt in 1937. He began his studies in chemistry and medicine at the University of Graz, Austria, receiving his Ph.D. in Pharmacology in 1969. He then engaged in pharmaceutical research, taking on the position as Head of Division for pharmaceutical research until 1977.
In 1975, on a visit to Egypt, he was overwhelmed by the country's pressing problems in overpopulation, environmental degradation, inadequate education and health care. Agriculture involves 40% of the workforce and remains the least developed sector of the Egyptian economy. Cost of agricultural production has increased while the resource base has shrunk. Today, Egypt has become one of the world's largest importers of food.
It was to address these interrelated problems that Abouleish returned to Egypt in 1977, and established a comprehensive development initiative, which he called SEKEM. Over the years, SEKEM has built a thriving social and cultural base to address Egypt's crumbling health, educational and cultural preservation capacities.
SEKEM is about establishing the blueprint for the healthy corporation of the 21st century. Taking its name from the hieroglyphic transcription meaning "vitality of the sun", SEKEM was the first entity to develop biodynamic farming methods in Egypt. These methods are based on the premise that organic cultivation improves agro-biodiversity and does not produce any unusable waste. All products of the system can be either sold or re-used in cultivation, thereby creating a sustainable process.
SEKEM is formed by three closely interrelated entities: The SEKEM Holding Company comprising eight companies and multiple project-based initiatives, each responsible for an aspect of SEKEM's business value proposition, the Egyptian SEKEM Development Foundation (SDF), responsible for all cultural aspects, and the Cooperative of SEKEM Employees (CSE), responsible for human resource development. Working together, they have created a modern corporation based on innovative agricultural products and a responsibility towards society and environmental sustainability.
The SEKEM "mother farm" and processing facilities are located on 300 hectares of land near the town of Belbeis, 60 km away from Cairo. To spread the sustainable agricultural method and secure raw material for the SEKEM companies, the Egyptian Biodynamic Association (EBDA) was established - a non-governmental, non-profit organization to provide training and consultancy to all the farmers in Egypt enabling them to apply the organic and biodynamic agricultural method and getting the necessary certifications. Until today the EBDA has succeeded in facilitating the conversion of more than 200 farms with over 7,000 acres to biodynamic farming from Aswan to Alexandria. Through its research, EBDA was the first in the world to supervise the cultivation and harvesting of biodynamic cotton in 1991. One direct result of this achievement probably was a landmark reduction in the use of synthetic pesticides sprayed by airplane by 90 percent, from over 35,000 tons per year due to the stoppage of crup dusting by airplane.
In 1990 SEKEM facilitated the establishment of the Center of Organic Agriculture in Egypt (COAE) as an independent regulatory and certification body, according and adhering to DEMETER guidelines and the European Regulations for Organic Agriculture.
SEKEM has grown exponentially to a nationally renowned enterprise and market leader of organic products and phyto-pharmaceuticals. It has established reliable links with European and U.S. customers in the export trade. Moreover, 55% of its sales are domestic - an essential element for SEKEM's long-term sustainability. Today, 1,800 people work in SEKEM. Through cooperation on projects with sister organizations in Germany and the Netherlands, SEKEM has received support from institutions such as the European Commission, Ford Foundation, USAID, and the Acumen Fund.
The SDF is SEKEM's way of reaching out beyond its commercial activity in pursuit of its goal to contribute to "the comprehensive development of Egyptian society". It employs approximately 200 people in four main domains of activity:
In 2012, SEKEM co-founded the non-profit “Heliopolis University” offering undergraduate degrees in science and technology and the arts. In its first year, some 70 students were studying at faculties such as Pharmacy, Engineering and Economics - all with a strong emphasis on sustainability.
Other recent developments include new commercial and educational activities in the field of renewable energy generation, specifically photovoltaic energy, and work on a new vocational training course in the field of solar engineering.
Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish was elected as one of the distinguished Social Entrepreneurs by the Schwab Foundation. Being a Muslim, he also emphasizes the consistency of SEKEM's approach with Islam: "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." He received an honorary degree of the University of Graz in 2010.
December 8th, 2003
It is with a deep sense of joy and gratitude that I am here today. The honour to have been chosen amongst others to receive this award is immense. I accept it in recognition to Egypt and the many thousands at Sekem who have given of their time, their skills and their effort.
Since 1977 I have been guided by a similar vision as you, Mr. von Uexkull; that vision which led to your founding of the "Right Livelihood Award" in 1980, also known as the "Alternative Nobel Prize". On the one hand there was the endeavour to find ways to heal the earth, and on the other, seeking ways to initiate progressive steps towards the development of the people.
At that time it became clear that the implementation of this ideal would become a life's task. I knew that it would require patience and most likely would take many generations to progress. It is as if one tries to reach the horizon, which seems to retreat at every step you take.
During my initial years in Austria I absorbed much European culture. Through this cross-cultural exchange, I could perceive my own roots, as well as Islam, from a totally new perspective. This kindled the first flame of my vision. Carrying this in my heart, I returned to Egypt after 21 years, in 1977 and prepared for the initiative. After much consideration I chose the name SEKEM; The reason being, that the Egyptians had recognised the light and warmth of the sun as well as the third life giving force, permeating and enlivening the earth's entire being. The name SEKEM portrays this.
It was my wish for this initiative to embody itself as a community; 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.
Over time and from within the bounds of the community, the "Council for the Future" was born. The goal of this council is to strengthen our direction and simultaneously renewing it according to contemporary needs. To achieve this we draw our source of inspiration from spiritual and natural science, religion and art.
Added to this, the "Council for the Future" has created a network based on communication and cooperation between Sekem, our friends and partners, co-workers and supporters, as well as scientists and artists from all over the world.
Over the past 26 years Sekem founded various institutions based on the Three-Fold order of economic, social and cultural life, striving to inspire, aid and develop our natural and human resources. Although all three areas are entities in their own right, they do constantly interact with one another.
Economic life within Sekem's group of companies begins on a practical level by healing the soil through the application of biodynamic farming methods. Through this method we have raw materials at our disposal and are able to develop and manufacture natural medicine and a wide range of other products, adhering to the highest possible quality standards, which conform to the true needs of our consumers. In partnership with our close friends and colleagues in Europe, and our local partners in trade, we strive to market our products, employing what we call the "Economics of Love".
To ensure that the democratic rights and values for our co-workers are adequately implemented, we founded the "Cooperative of Sekem Employees", which addresses all questions concerning civil society in the workplace. It is our objective here that all members of the Sekem community will grow towards taking responsibility for society.
Cultural life within Sekem is nurtured and cultivated by the "Egyptian Society for Cultural Development". It has the never-ending task of educating our children, youth and adults, consolidating both their cognitive and practical skills, while enhancing their command of free will. Furthermore the institution offers health care and therapeutic services, based on holistic medical care, including outreach programmes in neighbouring villages. Within the Sekem Academy we initiate research, dealing with all aspects of life, searching for solutions to major questions.
Our next goal is the founding of the Sekem University. Here it is our ambition to give future generations a comprehensive education, inspiring creative and courageous youth, with the aim to send them into the world as bearers of ideals. To achieve this, the Sekem University is at present weaving a network of associates from affiliated Universities around the world.
For me, personally, the year 2003 has brought a number of wonderful events, all of which are results of the efforts of Sekem's Council for the Future. It is my genuine wish to find friends in spirit, who, through perseverance have manifested their visions. Mutually we can build a living network of people and organisations, endeavouring to fulfil humanity's most noble ideals.
I wish to close by expressing my gratitude to Allah and His endearing support. My gratitude extends to you here, not only for choosing Sekem as recipient of the award, but also for your acknowledgement of Sekem. I convey my immense appreciation to my friends, partners and co-workers for their trust in my vision. But above all my never ending thanks go to my wife and family. Without their continuous practical support, guidance and love, none of this would have been possible.
Questions asked in 2005
1. What do you mean by the "Economics of love"?
Economics of Love means transparent relationships between different actors in the supply chain. To attain the essence of this relation we also establish partnerships with farmers and traders, where this long-standing relationship embraces the concepts of fair trade and the ultimate care for society.
2. Do you believe that your business concepts could be transferred to other economical sectors and enterprises?
Yes, these concepts could be adapted to other economical sectors and circumstances. However, for these concepts to spread and flourish it is essential that people who believe in the responsibility of their business towards their society would devote a part of their time, effort and resources towards the idea of corporate social responsibility.
3. What were the main obstacles you faced when launching SEKEM?
The concept of environmental care or environmental awareness did not exist at all in Egypt, it was not even considered. The government officials and administration were totally prejudiced against organic cultivation which was unknown to them. They were suspicious and fearful that the natural constitute micro-organism in the compost might multiply like a disease which will "poison" the surroundings. The unusual activities at Sekem farm aroused suspicion and fear amongst the Bedouins as well as the military, the administration and the department of agriculture.
The Banks had their set economic policies and could not adapt to new economic attitudes and principles of co-operation and partnership.
Skilled labour was non-existing; all training had to be undertaken as in-service training over long periods. The lack of trained experts is still one of the main obstacles for Egypt's further development.
Sekem: A Sustainable Community in the Egyptian Desert. Floris Books (Edingburgh), 2005.
In German: Die Sekem-Vision. Mayer Verlag (Stuttgart) 2004.