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Egyptian firm is clean, green, and in the black

By Gretchen PetersCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 27, 2004


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.

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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.