A conversation with Helmy Abouleish, CEO of SEKEM, a legendary bio-dynamic farm in Egypt, about growing an agriculture company with 2000 farmers in the desert of Egypt, carbon credits and more.
LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION ON:
Learn from 46 years of sustainable development in the desert of Egypt! If you can grow an agriculture company with 2000 farmers and soon scaling through carbon credits to 40000 farmers and 2000 people working on the processing in those challenging circumstances than you can do it anywhere.
BIODYNAMIC FARMING WORKS, ALSO IN THE DESERT
Against all odds, a miracle unfolded over the last 46 years, a miracle in the desert where today 1000s of biodynamic farmers all over Egypt work successfully with biodynamic agriculture and 2000 co-workers in SEKEM possess their biodynamic raw materials, and sell them in the local market, and 1000s of kids go to SEKEM schools, and 1000s students go to SEKEM university for sustainable development.
”When he came up with a dream and explained that this dream is all about biodynamic agriculture, that it is all about economy of love in the supply chain, and it’s all about potential unfolding for all the people involved and about community development and corporate social responsibility. Obviously, everyone told him that this is never going to happen. And it’s never happened before in the desert, in Egypt, in the region. And so I think it’s safe to say that it was very much considered a mission impossible by everyone around them. And everyone thought this is going to fail very soon.” – Helmy Abouleish
”So we are really quite a global community there. And we prove every day that it’s possible to work in such a community without any issues between religions, ages and genders and all these kinds of things. So it’s really an international community, a learning living organization, where we every day try to reflect on ourselves and reinvent what we are doing. And I think it’s also fair to say that is the result of a very holistic approach, as you may have felt from the stream at the beginning.” – Helmy Abouleish
”It’s about biodynamic agriculture. It’s about a new alternative economic system. It’s about a new different educational system, which is focusing on potential unfolding and a different societal development approach, which I think altogether can get such miracles everywhere in the world. It just needs people who engage on all these four levels of sustainable development in a passionate and reflective mood.” – Helmy Abouleish
THE PEOPLE SIDE IS AS OR MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE SOIL SIDE
When you start in Egypt, or in any piece of desert, you always start in a very basic situation, that is sand and stones, which for 1000s of years has not seen a lot of vegetation or life. There are not a lot of people or animals or anything around. It’s desert.
”This is the situation my father started with. We had access to water from the Nile. But the Nile was about two-three kilometres away. And so, we had to dig a well, and we had to search for electricity as a source of energy to get out water. And then we had to plant trees and create this wonderful place called SEKEM today, out of nothing, of really nothing.”- Helmy Abouleish
”I think one of the very good manifestations of the craziness of this idea is that the first two big investments we ever did in SEKEM, the obvious, one tractor, when the water came out to start working on the land, and the other one was a big piano, which my father basically got in the same day as the tractor. Really to show that it’s not about only soil management, but it’s about much more nourishment of souls at the same time. And so I think this picture which everyone considered very crazy at the beginning but gives you an idea of how we think in SEKEM. It’s always about people in the first place. And then it’s also about all the things people need, whether it’s food or economic activity or any other things.” – Helmy Abouleish
WHY THEY NEVER EXPORTED MORE THAN 20%
The market came looking for SEKEM and not the other way around. They were very much focused on the local market. But then at a certain stage when people heard about this crazy idea in the desert people came and asked and they always tried to support those who really wanted those products and couldn’t get them from another place.
”We never entered into any kind of competition with anybody from Europe or something, we always were very clear we don’t want to compete, we want to support… but luckily still the case that we never were really exporting more than 20/25% of what we do. And this is still okay as long as we are doing really specialized products, which people in other countries like Europe, the US, the Arab countries and so on, could not produce themselves.” – Helmy Abouleish
THE PRICE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BIODYNAMIC PRODUCTS AND EXTRACTIVE IS AN ILLUSION
Everyone of us as a consumer, citizen, and human being need to feed himself and the community in a meaningful and healthy way, but also need to feed nature with all its natural kingdoms in a meaningful and healthy way. By following these regenerative agricultural practices, the whole society would be much better off, whether it’s a rural society or an urban society, both of them would benefit.
”This way of agriculture is the most economical one, ever, because whatever we consider today expensive- organic, biodynamic or regenerative versus agro-industry, conventional agriculture- is a mere illusion, is a mere Maya dream where, just through externalising of costs, we seem to have cheaper products on the shelf. When in reality, they are much more expensive. And counting on their effects on the climate, on biodiversity, on future generations or directly on pollution of water and air, the effects on health and social web of communities, we are already much much better off. So food and the life forces of food are what we need not only for a healthy life, but also for healthy thoughts and feelings. So, it’s the best investment ever.” – Helmy Abouleish
”Organic and biodynamic are much cheaper when you factor in all the externalized costs. Now, this is not happening. And interestingly, neither in Egypt nor in Holland, when you tell the consumers when he goes into the supermarket, it will change their purchase behaviour.”- Helmy Abouleish
OTHER POINTS DISCUSSED
Koen and Helmy also talked about:
- Who is buying soil carbon credits?
- Farmers on the winning side
- The social side of farming
- Volkert Engelsman: “Organic isn’t too expensive, chemical is too cheap”
- Pietro Galgani on paying the true price for food and agriculture products and how to get there
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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.