It's not supposed to be like this. The desert does not give up its grip lightly. Yet some 60 kilometres north-east of Cairo, what should have been (and was 30 years ago) a parched dry scrubland of desert and rock is now a place of vivid green, a patchwork of fields rich in fruits, and vegetables, herbs and spices, all contained within a network of mud brick walls and spotless lanes that lead through avenues of tall trees to the Sekem farm.
Today Sekem produces fruits and vegetables; herbs, spices and seedlings; milk; cotton for textiles and clothing and phytopharmaceuticals (natural medicines, medicinal teas and healthcare products). Everything, including the cotton, is organic. The first impression when you arrive and breathe in the pure scent of herbs, spices and acacia trees is that it shouldn't be here. It doesn't make sense, surrounded as it is by a dry country on the edge of Cairo's suburban sprawl. But then you meet Dr Ibrahim Abouleish, the man whose vision and laughter and unbounded optimism brought Sekem into being in 1977, and you begin to understand: perhaps the land had no alternative but to surrender to his infectious will.
It started when Ibrahim, an Egyptian expatriate, returned from Austria with his family for a visit in 1975. What he found horrified him. "Everything was destroyed in my country. I witnessed misery and I wanted to analyse, to diagnose, why people could suffer without trying to do anything to relieve it. I wanted to help? it took some years." The doctor's way of helping was to give up his comfortable European life and start a farm. Looking out from his studio on to his verdant creation he laughs, "I never had any contact with farming before. As you know, my profession was as a doctor of medicine, far away from all this beautiful nature."
His friends and other members of his family, not to mention the bemused Bedouin already living on the land, thought he'd gone crazy, but Ibrahim was adamant. "I had this vision after I had visited the country; that I should set an example for the future, to show the developing countries how they can, if they have the knowledge, and the will, convert misery into beauty." His son, Helmy, now Sekem's CEO, describes what was here when the family arrived: "Nothing. Desert. You can't imagine. Really nothing and basically no infrastructure, no electricity, no water, no drinking water. I mean, no waste water system, so from the very beginning we had to really build the infrastructure."
Because Ibrahim insisted on using biodynamic methods (a form of organic farming that creates a closed, self-sustaining environment - Sekem farm produces all its own compost) it took a time to bring the land to life. "The first thing was to get electricity as a source of energy," Helmy says. "Then for a year or more we started digging the deep wells and bringing up water, but the whole process took several more years because even when you had the water you needed the organic matter to increase the soil fertility before you began planting things. It was like the question of the chicken and the egg. Where do you get your compost when you hadn't yet got a farm? So you had to buy in compost and start to develop the soil and so on."
It was four years before Sekem began exporting medicinal herbs and spices and two more years before its organic food came to market. It's been expanding and developing its range of products ever since, with annual growth over the last few years of between 20 and 25 per cent. In 2007 Sekem, working with a regional network of 800 farmers, had sales of over 200 million Egyptian pounds (Dh138 million) and a net profit of over 12 million pounds. It could have made a lot more profit but that's the key to the Sekem enterprise - it has never been just about the produce.
From the start, Sekem was meant to be different. It was one of the first proponents of fair trade, making sure, as Ibrahim puts it, that "the whole supply chain from the poor farmer to the consumer in London is transparent. Every participant in the chain should know what the next in line is doing and the end result of this transparent chain is the farmer gets the fair price for his product? "From our first beginnings the idea of fair trade came up in our discussions with many people around the world; that the rich should care for the poor, that when the rich buy the products the money must go back to the poor."
Back in 1977, this philosophy was unheard of but Ibrahim was determined Sekem would always give back to the community. It hired the help it needed from the surrounding villages (last year it employed around 2,000 people). Then it began providing the village kids with schools; offered vocational training varying from carpentry to electronics; opened classes for children with special needs and, if the parents were too poor to let their children attend school, paid them for their kids' time. It started adult education and literacy programmes and opened a medical centre that now provides primary care as well as specialised services including ophthalmology; gynaecology; paediatric care; x-rays and a dental clinic.
And you don't actually have to work for Sekem to benefit from the education or health care. Both schemes are open to everyone from the villages and only around 20 per cent of students are children of Sekem employees. Over the years, the company kept innovating. It opened an arts and sciences research centre and encouraged all its employees to participate, during working hours, in art and music classes. Then it created workers councils so its employees could participate in the company's decision-making process.
Thirty thousand people in the villages surrounding Sekem's mother farm benefit directly or indirectly from its presence. But again Sekem is taking things further. "We're now collecting solid waste from all these villages," Helmy says. "We are recycling it and using the organic part for the composting site and selling on the plastics and metals. We are collecting their liquid wastewater and purifying their biological waste products. We are cleaning up the villages and we are really trying to build their sense of pride in their villages, their sense of beauty and hygiene. People from the medical centre are going into the villages, teaching them about hygiene, how to use water, how to cook, how to feed your children. We also have a programme for nurses and for midwives."
Sekem's concern for the environment has always been one of its principal motivating factors. It was the first farm in Egypt since the introduction of chemicals into agriculture to be completely organic. Then it accomplished what should have been impossible for one small farm to do: the total transformation of a country's agriculture. By the time Sekem had started, Egypt's agricultural industry was approaching a crisis. The building of the Aswan Dam had ended the Nile's annual floods, which refertilised the soil, and forced the farmers to turn to chemical fertilisers.
"They quickly went from using nearly zero chemicals and fertilisers to huge quantities, 20 million tons of chemical fertilisers," Helmy says. The industry compounded the damage through the use of chemical pesticides. "Egypt went from zero chemical pesticides to six kilos of pesticides per acre, per year," Helmy says. "So with six million acres of farmland we ended up with 36 million kilos of pesticides applied by aeroplanes over the whole country.
"Now, applying it by aeroplanes means you cannot really separate between fields and villages, between irrigation channels and cows, and between the people and plants. So it was really pesticides applied on everything. The first feedback they got on this policy was in the Eighties, when exports of our agricultural products to Europe were refused because they found residuals. They were testing it in Europe and everything was exceeding the limits, so they sent back the products. The Ministry of Agriculture then came to us and said, 'Is there a way to safeguard our exports? Is there a way to grow the things without pesticides, whether it's herb and spices or cotton or whatever?' And we told them, 'Yes there is a way, but you have to stop spraying chemicals over the whole fields'. They said, 'That's not possible. We have huge areas of cotton and it has to be sprayed five or six times a year - there's no way not to spray it'. So we said, 'OK let's do a test.'"
Sekem's tests worked. By using biological, organic measures such as pheromone traps to capture insects, they removed the need for pesticides. In fact, the results were so successful that Egypt "stopped aeroplane spraying and reduced pesticides usage by 95 per cent, so from 36 million to three million kilos per year. This was environmentally the biggest achievement we ever had." But Helmy maintains that was just the start of their environmental breakthroughs. "We have set up programmes and even companies to work on the field of renewable energy. We are in the process of setting up the first private wind park in Egypt so that we can really show you can work with wind energy on a competitive basis and as an alternative to fossil fuel. We are working on solar heaters as an alternative to electric heaters. We're even in the early stages of working on photovoltaic cells to capture solar energy because, as you know, the sun provides Egypt with more than 15,000 times the energy it needs - if it only would use it. So photovoltaic I think, even if it's still expensive, will be an alternative in a maximum of five to 10 years."
Sekem is also trying to reduce the amount of water used in agriculture. Its biodynamic farming methods already reduce the amount of water consumption by some 20 per cent compared to traditional agriculture, but the company is "now testing some new technologies in irrigation such as sub surface irrigation, which can reduce water usage by another 10 or 15 per cent. We are also working on desalination."
And they're working to make all their operations carbon neutral, even with the amount of transportation involved in getting their products to market, by turning agricultural waste into compost rather than burning it or letting it rot. Their project already captures 60,000 tons of carbon emissions. Next year they intend to at least double that. Sekem continues to grow. They've expanded their operations to other countries in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. And they have proved they can achieve seemingly impossible goals. But after spending time on the farm you get the feeling they've only just started.
Simon Mars is a TV producer based in Dubai and Cairo.