HES Case Study by Professor David A. Kirby & Dr Iman El-Kaffass
SEKEM Holding is an Egyptian agricultural business that introduced biodynamic agriculture to Egypt and turned 70 acres of desert located 37 miles northeast of Cairo into a thriving, fertile oasis. Its 150 products, including organic foods, herbal teas, medicines and organic cotton products, are produced by 10 companies and sold nationally and internationally through 4 subsidiaries – ISIS Organic Food (vegetables, honey, dates, oils, beverages), Lotus Organic Herbs and Spice, NatureTex Organic Textiles (Baby and children’s wear, dolls, toy, home textiles), and PharmaAtos (pharmaceuticals).
Instead of focusing solely on business growth, though, the objective of SEKEM Holding is somewhat broader, namely the introduction and promotion of sustainable agriculture through the holistic development of the individual, society and the environment. Profits generated by the Holding Company are used to fund social and cultural projects through the Co-operative of SEKEM Employees and the SEKEM Development Foundation. While the former has responsibility for all aspects of the HR development of the workforce, the latter is responsible for all cultural matters.
In total, the Holding company employs some 2000 people with a network of over 3000 farmers who produce for the Group. To help meet its objectives of promoting sustainable agriculture, it has trained some 477 Egyptian farmers in biodynamic agricultural methods which are applied across approximately 4600 acres of land. Since 2000 around 1000 students have graduated from the Company’s Vocational Training Centre, In 2012, it opened a not for profit university that specialises in sustainability and offers knowledge transfer opportunities to farmers, employees and the community. Employees are entitled to free courses and to reduced fees for their children at SEKEM’s Steiner or Waldorf schools. Healthcare is accessed in SEKEM Health Centres.
The initiative was founded in 1977 by the late Dr Ibrahim Abouleish (1937-2017), an Egyptian Pharmacologist who studied Chemistry and Medicine in the Technical University of Graz in Austria. On returning to Egypt, he became aware of the pressing problems of overpopulation, pollution and education, as well as the parlous state of Egyptian agriculture, with the country importing some 40% of its food and 60% of its wheat. His vision was to create a comprehensive, holistic business venture, based on a synthesis of the Islamic values of equitable business and social responsibility, and the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner that would promote sustainable agriculture and enable employees and farming communities to improve their living conditions, health, education and quality of life. When the project was first launched he planted 120,000 casuarina, eucalyptus and Persian lilac seedlings. He also engaged the internationally renowned Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathy, to design traditional adobe housing for he native Bedouin residents. Some 43 years later his vision has resulted in some 684 acres of the desert being reclaimed and converted to agricultural use with a 90% reduction in artificial fertilisers and pesticides and a 30% increase in the production of Egyptian cotton.
In 2003 Dr Abouleish received the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) from the King and Queen of Sweden in recognition of his creation of a 21st-century business model that provided a practical and exemplary solution to one of the challenges of the 21st century.
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