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Vitality from the Sun
By
Elisa Pierandrei

Hectares of green and fertile land. A gentle breeze rustling through the trees. Air that smells like Jasmine. People in a circle, holding their hands, announce what they want to accomplish for the day, while thanking Allah with the mantra: "Goodness of the heart, light of truth, love of the people." 

This is not a picture of a 1970s hippie community in the middle of the European countryside. This is Egypt, the SEKEM 'mother bio-dynamic farm' where the economic, cultural and social spheres of life form a sustainable way of development. Today, it is also the favorite place for dozens of local and foreigner back-to-nature holiday lovers.
SEKEM - the transliteration of a hieroglyph meaning "vitality from the sun" - is an agricultural company located near the desert road to Belbeis, a 75 kilometers from Cairo. Last summer, the management opened a rest house for its local visitors to make the bio-dynamic experience possible also in Egypt. It turned out to be a great idea and, today, more than 1200 people, Egyptians and not, work and learn in the SEKEM 'mother farm', the headquarters located near Bilbeis.

The SEKEM initiative began more then 20 years ago, when the Egyptian agronomist Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish returned home after an extended stay in Europe. When he came back to Egypt, he discovered a land where pesticides were becoming dangerous not only to farmers, but also to the population at large. For years Egypt had seen public outrage when a number of people became ill allegedly from eating cucumbers, potatoes, or tomatoes tainted with toxic levels of pesticides. 

In 1977 Dr. Abouleish decided to pioneer bio-dynamic methods in Egypt, to increase soil fertility through the composting of natural fertilisers and the use of natural pesticides. Anthroposophy, the scientific "introspective observation, following the methods of Natural Science", is the name of these 'bio-dynamic science' developed at the beginning of the 20th century by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, and utilized in Egypt by Dr. Abuleish.

In the beginning, when working the desert soil, Dr. Abulaish felt that "the most difficult task was to be patient." Together with a group of colleagues, Europeans and local Egyptian farmers, he first built a climate controlled environment by planting trees, then herbs, vegetables and spices to fertilize an untouched part of the desert. A mixture of curiosity and skepticism were the first fruits that they harvested. They had to wait 7 years before their efforts were rewarded with a crop of real organic tomatoes and carrots.

Today, SEKEM's mother farm consists of a series of stalls and fields cultivated with fruits and vegetables, each one delineated by long shady trees and crystal streams of water. Among the fields, the pastel-colored houses of few farmers are small and tucked away near immense gardens of flowers. 

For the discerned visitor a rest house opened last year. Snow-white walls and bright-blue doors welcome the guest, together with a glass of the best caracadè of the season. He or she will sleep in a simple spacious room, where everything is built according to the natural harmony and embracing a peaceful style of living. 

The 70-hectar SEKEM farm located near the Bilbeis desert road is the biggest agribusiness in Egypt, a farming co-operative that groups more than 850 farms from the Delta to Upper Egypt. In order to join SEKEM, farmers must first join the Egyptian Bio-dynamic Association (EBDA), a non-governmental organization set up in 1994 by SEKEM. After joining the EBDA, farmers can either choose to sell their products to SEKEM - which then markets them in Egypt, the United States and Europe - or they can sell their produce to the private market.

Healthy food is not SEKEM's only concern. In 1984, the Egyptian Society for Cultural Development (ESCD), a non-governmental organization, decided to start a program that would develop a strong sense of self consciousness and dignity among SEKEM's farmers and their families. As a result, the mother farm now employs several human resource officers who are responsible for their employee's career development, work environment and education. 

The ECSD also helped SEKEM build a kindergarten, a Vocational Training Center, an Adult Training Center and an Academy for Applied Arts and Sciences. Following the Egyptian Ministry of Education's curriculum, students from each of these centers develop their individual skills through extra-curricular activities. SEKEM students grow up to possess a better understanding of themselves and the natural environment around them. "It is important that we educate locals first. There is no reason to grow organic food if you don't understand the educational benefit of doing it" claims Regina Hanel, one of the German teachers in the SEKEM kindergarten.

http://www.sekem.com  

SEKEM currently owns several companies: ATOS for pharmaceuticals, HATOR for exporting fresh edible crops to the US and Europe, and CONYTEX for garments made out of organic cotton. Another widely recognized brand name that distributes cereals, bread, oils, spices, jams and a wide variety of herbs and teas is ISIS, also certified by SEKEM. ISIS's products are also available at Metro supermarkets, Sainsbury's, as well as in most of the tiny baqqal's around the country. SEKEM also has its own NATURE's BEST distribution points in Heliopolis, Zamalek, Mohandesein and Maadi where fresh food is delivered every day.

NATURE'S BEST shops are:

Maadi: 29 Mostafa Kamel Street, Tawfiq Tower near Road 9
Maadi: 69 206 Street, Digla Maadi
Heliopolis: 10 Salah Magdy Street, El-Golf
Heliopolis: 163 El-Hegaz Street
Zamalek: 8 Ahmed Sabri Street, From el-Brazil Street
Mohandessein: 3 Gezziered el-Arab Street

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About Elisa Pierandrei
Elisa Pierandrei - Click to Enlarge

Elisa Pieranderi is a travel-added Italian journalist based in Cairo, Egypt. After pursuing a career in translation and linguistics - she speaks fluent Arabic, English and Spanish - Elisa decided to challenge herself and develop her writing skills with a Masters in “Journalism and Mass Communication” at the American University in Cairo. 

At the moment Elisa is freelancing for a few local newspapers by writing stories on art, history and travel in the Middle East. Elisa has recently published for the monthly magazine Egypt and Middle East Life and the weekly newspapers Middle East Times and Cairo Times.

Please visit her personal web page a leave your comments: http//digilander.iol.it/middleastoday/index.htm . (More about the writer.)

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