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Education Is the Key - Right Livelihood Award Laureate in Interview

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Right Livelihood Award, the City of Bonn invited all Award Laureates in September 2010. Helmy Abouleish, Managing Director of the Egyptian SEKEM initiative and one of the keynote speakers in September, now discusses with UNU-ViE about major challenges for the world´s population, sustainable agriculture, social entrepreneurship and SEKEM.

Helmy Abouleish is Managing Director of the SEKEM Group in Egypt. It is under his stewardship that SEKEM received the ‘Right Livelihood Award 2003’ and became a member of the Schwab Foundation. Mr. Abouleish is a recognized leader of sustainable change in Egypt and the Arab world, driving manifold initiatives for sustainable development mainly in the field of Organic Agriculture, Social Entrepreneurship and Responsible Competitiveness.

Mr. Abouleish, what do you think are some of the major challenges facing the world today?

We are facing multiple crises at once; however, they all are interconnected. There is poverty being the underlying cause for hunger and diseases; there is population growth which burdens social systems and the environment with its scarce resources; there is water scarcity threatening food security and health; there is climate change and biodiversity loss which threaten livelihoods and the invaluable treasures of our fragile earth; and there is lack of education which is inhibiting sustainable development.

Developing innovative solutions to these challenges and enabling our young generations to implement them needs to be seen as major responsibility of our universities today. This is why SEKEM is now establishing the Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development in Egypt, partnering with the United Nations University as RCE. Heliopolis University aims to realize a renewed concept of an academic institution, and is dedicated solely to developing the consciousness and capacities of its students to effectively tackle our major developmental challenges.   

Before we go any further, I would like to ask you: How did it all start? What was your father’s vision back then, in the 1970s, when he decided to found SEKEM?

My father had the vision to green the desert in a sustainable way. He wanted to prove that organic agriculture, or to be more precise, Biodynamic agriculture, is possible in the most hostile environment. He wanted to build up a farm and to employ the local population. He didn’t only want to produce food but also clothes and medication, thus everything people need to live. Beyond these environmental and economic aspects he wanted to educate the people in schools he builds at the farm. And he wanted to provide better medical care for them as it was the case in this rural location. So he envisioned a holistic approach to sustainable development encompassing the environment, economic, societal and cultural life. Today, his vision is reality.

What is SEKEM´s approach to agriculture?

SEKEM’s approach to agriculture is a sustainable one. We apply biodynamic agricultural methods with compost being the major source to create living and healthy soils. The application of resilient crops and natural predators prevent the introduction of external inputs such as chemical pesticides. Biodynamic agriculture means closed nutrient cycles including livestock to produce SEKEM’s own compost and growing cereals to feed the livestock. The surplus is for sale in supermarkets and organic shops. Social aspects are also of SEKEM’s concern. Thus, SEKEM applies Fairtrade with all its implications.

What are the benefits of sustainable agriculture?

The benefits of sustainable agriculture are numerous: Healthy soils with a high content of solid organic matter have a high water holding capacity and thus save water. Sustainable agriculture is mitigating climate change because its energy consumption is low and because it sequesters more carbon than conventional agriculture. If applied on a global scale, sustainable agriculture could single-handedly stop climate change. Through intercropping methods such as agroforestry, the risk of crop failure is lower. Intercropping and abstinence of external inputs increase biodiversity. In turn, less costs for external inputs make resources available to cover the costs for higher employment and thus promoting rural livelihoods. Lastly, organic produce is healthier than conventional food and does not expose farmers, soils and surface waters to hazardous chemicals.

What are the factors that facilitate social entrepreneurship?
Social Entrepreneurship needs a universal definition and conducive regulatory and legal frameworks to unfold its full potential. Sufficient financial resources are a necessary prerequisite. And as mentioned before, education is the key. Through education and consulting, capacity building can be achieved to scale up successful business models. In the end, however, it is all about the individual entrepreneur and his or her spirit and belief in the possibility to single-handedly change the world. So this is what we need to nurture most of all.

Interview: Oksana Buranbaeva, UNU-ViE.

About SEKEM:

Dr Ibrahim Abouleish founded the SEKEM (transliteration of a hieroglyph, meaning "vitality") initiative in 1977 in Egypt to realize the vision of sustainable human development. SEKEM aims to contribute to the comprehensive development of the individual, society and environment. A holistic concept encompassing integrated economic, social and cultural development forms the key SEKEM vision. In 2003, he and SEKEM received the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the "Alternative Nobel Prize", for “establishing a business model for the 21st century in which commercial success is integrated with and promotes the social and cultural development of society through economics of love”.

About the Right Livelihood Award:

The Right Livelihood Award was established in 1980 to honour and support those “offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today.” It has become widely known as the 'Alternative Nobel Prize' and there are now 137 Laureates from 58 countries.

Helmy Abouleish
Farmers working on a SEKEM site


Farming for the future: Egyptian biodynamic agriculture by Helmy Abouleish on OurWorld 2.0