Helmy Abouleish: SEKEM, sustainable water management in Egypt and the Economy of Love

  • 05.06.2024
  • article
  • Climate Change
  • People
  • Soil Health
  • Water Quality
  • Alicia Miller

Helmy Abouleish is the CEO of SEKEM, a sustainable development initiative that has transformed desert into vitally productive agricultural land in Egypt through biodynamic and organic agricultural principles. It is now a thriving enterprise, reflecting the incredible impact of land restoration on climate, nature and people. We invited Helmy to gives us his thoughts on climate change, water, sustainable development and the Economy of Love.


SEKEM is such an amazing project, and it has achieved so much in terms of realising meaningful sustainability in a broad-based way, but as we face a rapidly changing climate, what do you feel is most important to be doing to preserve a liveable world?

“Since 1977, we have been pioneers in sustainable development, promoting organic and biodynamic farming as a key solution to global challenges including food security and climate change. As the climate crisis intensifies, we need to act quickly. We believe organic agriculture is a crucial part of the solution.

This holistic system emphasizes biodiversity, biological cycles and soil activity, significantly enhancing the health and resilience of agro-ecosystems. Studies have shown that organic farming practices can store significant amounts of carbon in the soil, helping to mitigate climate change. Ultimately, this approach will lead to ecosystem restoration, and a more resilient and liveable world for current and future generations.”

SEKEM's sustainable Farms in Egypt
SEKEM’s sustainable farms in Egypt


Water is such a critical issue across the globe and SEKEM has been so successful in terms of managing water systems sustainably – do you think what has been learned from SEKEM can be disseminated more widely, especially in arid climates?  And more broadly, what do you see as the future of water on our planet?  How do we manage it in a way that is fair?

“In terms of sustainable water management systems, we need more action, we need more change. It needs the expansion of concepts like agroforestry, and also really up-to-date technologies to reduce water use. In a country like Egypt that only has 50% of the water it needs to survive, even the 20% that we save if we switched to biodynamic agriculture is not enough. We need many, many more researchers and projects, looking at biodiversity, agroforestry and technological innovations. I’m very happy to tell you that we have a lot of research going on.

I could tell you that even with only 50% of the water, we could feed the whole population – but it would need collaborative research and initiatives. But I’m very optimistic that with a bit more wisdom, we can live a meaningful life with the systems available on mother earth. Some of it is going on already at SEKEM and at the Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development. We are happy to share our research regarding sustainable water management.”

You’ve been hugely committed to sustainable development – what is needed to drive it forward faster?

“Sustainable development from our understanding is holistic development. A development where political development, economic development, cultural development and ecological development go hand in hand. We feel that this kind of basic development will approach us out of the future, whether we wish to or not, or we want to or not, it’s coming. And it will either come out of our enlightenment, so we understand why we choose the light, or out of crisis. What we can do today is opt for enlightenment, opt for contributing to sustainable development, opt for innovating and engaging with sustainable development. It is the development of the future, there is no other option, there is no plan B or alternative to it, and hence, it’s very important that we engage and work with it sustainably. We want to make sure that it provides all goods and services in a competitive way – it doesn’t harm nature, it helps society and supports societal development and ultimately contributes to the unfolding potential of each individual human being. I don’t think that there’s any alternative, it’s just the degree of engagement and emotional interaction of a person to another person which will differ, but in the end, it is something which I believe will come because mother earth will not leave us to destroy nature or abuse the natural kingdom.”

SEKEM's sustainable Farms in Egypt
SEKEM’s sustainable farms in Egypt


How do we prepare ourselves for the impact of climate change on agriculture? It’s already clearly visible across the globe – how do we turn the tide?

“In Egypt, we have 7 million acres managed by 7 million small-holder farmers, with each one of them having approximately an acre or less, and obviously climate change with the temperature rise and humidity is already affecting us, changing the varieties that we grow. And on the other side, today, Egypt’s 7 million farmers are contributing to climate change in the same way as all other farmers, in the UK and across the world, just by emitting three to four tonnes of CO2 every year. The whole of the agricultural sector contributes nearly 30% of all emissions. But our organic and biodynamic farmers can prove that there’s an alternative, they can sequester carbon in their soils, sequester carbon in their trees, they fight the emission of methane by their system of waste management, turning wastage into compost into black gold for farmers. In the end, they contribute to carbon sequestration in the soil, at five, six, seven tonnes an acre – at least – a year. When you put this together and evaluate it, it’s a real ecosystem service and farmers could do a fantastic job if you honour that work and pay them for this service by issuing carbon credits, which would allow them to simply grow biodynamic crops and sell them at the conventional price and still have a much better income to survive on. And at the same time, it would improve biodiversity and reduce water consumption in Egyptian agriculture. All this together shows us that there are alternatives and that by engaging in organic and biodynamic farming, we can turn around this huge challenge.”

SEKEM's sustainable Farms in Egypt
SEKEM’s sustainable farms in Egypt


Tell us about the Economy of Love? It’s such a vivid idea; how does it work?

“The inspiration for the Economy of Love comes from my late father. At the very beginning, when we started 47 years ago in the desert to set-up SEKEM farm, it was very clear that biodynamic agriculture, which is the method that we applied, was fantastic. It really supports the stability of soil in the Sahara and generates a real contribution to systems change. It also feeds a different management of the supply chain, a different management of the economic system – it has transparency, and everyone gets a fair part of the value. We ultimately aim for a fair and just price for the consumer. And at the same time, we ask all the time, can this farmer develop himself and his family? Can this farmer develop his abilities and contribute to his village? The Economy of Love tries to include social, cultural, economic and ecological criteria, bringing in many more dimensions. Only those farmers who enter this Economy of Love, in the end can apply for carbon credits, which will enable them to sell their biodynamic products in the market at the same price as conventional products which makes it much easier.”


All photos courtesy of Samuel Knaus.

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