BELBEIS, EGYPT — Egypt, or even the Arab world, isn't noted as a hotbed of social capitalism. In fact, the companies most famous for their do-gooder business products - The Body Shop, Ben & Jerry's, Starbucks - are best-known for catering to first-world customers and tastes.
That's part of what makes the Sekem Group's desert experiment so remarkable.
Last year, this environmentally friendly agro-business defied gravity within Egypt's sagging economy, and produced a 25 percent boost in profits. It made $14 million and supplied quality schooling, healthcare, and vocational training to its 2,000 employees, plus tens of thousands of members of the local residents. Sekem also donates 15 to 20 percent of its profits to social development.
In one of the world's poorest nations, where globalization and free trade often mean shrinking margins for businesses, Sekem - a transliteration of a hieroglyph meaning "vitality from the sun" - is proving that helping people and making money are not mutually exclusive.
"We have seen that aid alone can not improve the lives of poor people. Development has to be profitable to be sustainable," says Stephan Barg, the senior corporate adviser at Canada's International Institute for Sustainable Development. "This project is a signpost for how it should work."
Sekem started a quarter century ago on a 170-acre patch of hard-scrabble desert 50 miles outside Cairo.
"I had a vision of a three-fold social project that would allow me to contribute to community-building, humanity, and healing the earth," says founder Ibrahim Abouleish, describing his light-bulb moment in 1977. The desert, he added, "was like the canvas of a painting, but without a frame."
With a brush stroke here, an irrigational canal there, Mr. Abouleish's masterpiece slowly came to life.
First came Sekem's herbal medicines. Then ISIS brand herbs and Libra organic fruits and vegetables. Over the years, more products were added: organic cotton clothing, natural pharmaceuticals, rice, tea, and honey, as well as a packing company that bundles the goods, now sold in Egypt, Europe, and the US.
Other landmarks included the formation of the Egyptian Biodynamic Association - or the EBDA - which promotes chemical-free farming on 8,000 acres across the country (more than half of it reclaimed desert land) and groups more than 400 small and medium-sized farms. In collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, Sekem has deployed a new system of plant protection in cotton, reducing total pesticide intake to less than 10 percent, leading to a ban on crop dusting all over Egypt.
The EBDA is now self-sufficient at home, since Egyptian farmers pay $7 per cultivated acre to use Sekem's trademark on their goods. These fees largely cover the cost of running EBDA.
The EBDA is also making use of foreign donations to promote organic farming methods in Tunisia, Morocco, Palestine, and Lebanon.
All the while, the Sekem community has grown alongside the organic plants: first building an adult training center, then a kindergarten and a literacy program.
The Sekem Group's Society for Cultural Development, which still relies in part on grants and donations, now includes a hospital, a special education program for disabled children, a vocational training center, and an arts and science academy.
So how do you make money, and treat your workers to benefits - especially in a country where most companies do neither? It's complicated, says Abouleish, but not impossible. Sekem workers contribute a small portion of their salaries to help maintain the schools, the health clinic, and other cultural benefits.
Approximately 40 percent of Sekem's money comes from its own activities, including sales and contributions from workers. A further 30-35 percent comes from grants, with an additional 15-20 percent coming from aid, mostly from the EU and US.
Some nonprofit projects inside Sekem, like the EBDA, have already become almost self-sustained. A training project for seamstresses is heading in that direction too. In a world where aid projects are increasingly criticized for bleeding money and failing to make a difference, development experts and funding agencies are roundly gushing in their praise for Sekem.
"To me this is one of the most exciting projects coming out of the Muslim world," says Asad Azfar, portfolio manager at Acumen Fund, a New York non-profit financier that helps support Abouleish's social programs.
In fact, the most common complaint about Sekem is that there aren't more projects like it. There are precious few missions like Sekem, they say, which operate from the developing world and take a holistic approach to community building, and which place importance on learning, the arts, even playtime.
The Sekem compound boasts a soccer field for its employees and an open air theater, among other recreational centers.
"We have to build a healthy, knowledge-based society," insists Abouleish. "Developing a cultural sense must be one of the highest priorities in development."
It's that attitude that has won the Egyptian doctor newfound attention in recent years. Last August, the Schwab Foundation, in association with the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, named Abouleish one of the world's 25 outstanding social entrepreneurs. And the jury of the Right Livelihood Foundation awarded Sekem its "Alternative Nobel Prize."
"It's the first time we have chosen an entrepreneur for the prize," says Right Livelihood founder Jacob von Uexkull, a writer and former EU parliamentarian. "Dr. Abouleish practices what he calls the economics of love - and it works. He proves that you can do the right thing and make a living out of it."
And living well, workers back home at the Belbeis farm say, is the best revenge.
On the compound that's more commune than corporation, trees waft gently in the afternoon breeze. A tractor rumbles down a green field. Children at the primary school are putting on the weekly singing show for their classmates and a beaming Abouleish.
The whitewashed factories and school, trimmed with bright-hued paint, are humming with activity. It's an island of tranquility outside the chaotic, smog-choked streets of nearby Cairo, a stark contrast to the gripping poverty and desperation seen across this nation of 70 million.
"We are eating healthy and our children are learning," says Mohammed Tahoor, a computer science teacher at the Sekem Group whose 2-year-old daughter hopes to start soon in the kindergarten. "What more do we need?"