“…creating land where mankind is living together in social forms reflecting human dignity.”
“We won’t have a society if we destroy the environment.” A quote by the anthropologist Margaret Mead that is so simple but points to the core. And if we take it the other way around it will still be true. This is why SEKEM is not only caring about creating a healthy environment, but also fostering a healthy society that keeps people from destroying the environment. A society “where mankind is living together in social forms reflecting human dignity and where all economic activity is conducted in accordance with ecological and ethical principles”, how SEKEM Founder Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish summarized it his vision.
As most of Egypt is desert land and even the small amount of fertile soil is continuously decreasing, Egyptian society is naturally confronted with the existential question of having enough land for its people to live on. The growing desertification is making it even harder. Losing land means losing spaces for life, means missing food, means missing water. Prices rise and the gap between poor and rich is increasing. Hence, people lose a safe livelihood, migrate and start to fight for their basic needs and rights. This finds its expression in all parts of societal life – starting with politics and going to each individual by affecting everyday needs like food, accommodation, education, health and much more.
A society needs a healthy and safe place to live in
The past decades brought many examples for this development. Recently the Egyptian revolution expressed the problems in the governmental system as well as the dissatisfaction of the Egyptian nation. The number of inhabitants in Egypt tripled in the last 50 years, from around 30 million in the 1960s to approximately 90 million today. But fertile land to produce food and to live on remained more or less the same. Especially, people from rural areas start to immigrate to Egypt’s capital. The population of Cairo and its metropolitan area is estimated to more than 22 million, which makes it one of the most densely populated capital cities in the world. One third of the total population in Cairo is under 15 and nearly three fifth is under 30. Cairo struggles with many health problems, including malnutrition, bacterial infection (Egypt has one of the highest hepatitis C rates worldwide), and serious air pollution.
To solve these societal problems – or likewise named problems of losing land – SEKEM Initiative includes the dimension Societal Life to its holistic vision of Sustainable Development. SEKEM strives for a peaceful society that is grounded on equality, respect, freedom and dignity. But how to achieve that in such challenging conditions that Egypt faces?
Equality is the pillar of sustainable society
Let’s start with a very simple, but in the same time fundamental and powerful ritual that SEKEM includes to its daily routine. Every day in the morning managers, farmers or factory workers of each SEKEM institution gather in circle welcoming each others and the new day. The circle symbols a community in which everyone is equal. It creates awareness about the society, but in the same time also about the individual.
To strengthen an equal society SEKEMs activities do not target only a specific part of society members but all people from different ages, different educational backgrounds or different believes. A nursery and a kindergarten are providing to the smallest community members, different schools educate children and young adults. There is a Vocational Training Center, but also the Heliopolis University running under the umbrella of SEKEM as a society needs academics as well as craftspeople. And SEKEMs companies produce healthy products for different societal needs: Organic food and beverage, pharmaceuticals and textiles.
Societal issues integrated to all parts of business and personal life
The SEKEM Code of Conduct summarizes the framework of values guiding the operations of SEKEM. Based on its vision of Sustainable Development, the principles of the UN Global Compact and the relevant UN and ILO conventions, it formulates explicit commitments regarding legal compliance, business ethics, anti-corruption, labor standards, human rights and environmental responsibility.
Weekly Social Meetings are held in SEKEMs companies that offer employees a space to discuss their personal or team related concerns.
A safe environment and access to health services are some of the main requirements for a humane workplace. SEKEM promotes health and safety at the workplace by offering regular training courses on all relevant issues in this context.
But sustainable societal development means not only caring about the own enterprises and co-workers but also taking into account the people that surrounds you. The SEKEM Farm is located in a rural area about 45 kilometers from Cairo. It’s closer neighborhood consists of small, very traditional villages. To contribute to the health of this surrounding community and in the same time offer its employees proper healthcare SEKEM established the Medical Center. Here, people are told about sanitation and hygiene, provided with information on health, nutrition, disease prevention and environmental issues and are encouraged to use the services of the Medical Center for preventive and curative treatments. Every day the day-hospital serves several hundred patients by a holistic and advanced approach to medicine, also those who are not able to pay for their treatments. Recently the SEKEM Medical Center joint a national wide campaign in regards to combat hepatitis C virus, as Egypt has one of the highest rates of hepatitis C in the world.
Gender equality – For a society with two wings
The Medical Center builds as well one part in SEKEMs efforts in order to empower women. Female employees attend here regularly sessions with a gynecologist to raise awareness about women’s and children’s health and wellbeing including clarifying information about the female genital mutilation that is unfortunately still a widespread practice in Egypt.
To support women’s empowerment, which contributes enormously to a sustainable society SEKEM organizes various activities in- and outside the company. On the one hand, social workers support SEKEM female employees in any work-related or personal issues and on the other hand, women’s position shall be fostered in the outer community through microcredit and education programs. “We don’t do this only to promote gender equality, but for a much higher goal: A sustainable future”, says the CEO of SEKEM, Helmy Abouleish. “We know that gender equality is one of the basic conditions to reach a sustainable society.”
Due to traditional rural habits, the majority of women marry early and concentrates on family life. But of course the Egyptian society needs women not only as mothers and housewifes but also in economy, societal and cultural life. Therefore, SEKEM published a comprehensive “Gender Strategy for a Balanced Society”, which summarizes the targets and efforts of the initiative in regards to the empowerment of women, from schools to factories.
Bonds between people enable societal development
These are the approaches that lead to the answer to the question of how a society can be strengthened in Egypt. But the real “how”, which is about the realization of all this, is named: partners. No matter how strong a vision is and the commitment to its implementation, nobody can achieve anything alone. To strengthen a society it needs a bond of people that work and stand together for one goal. From its beginnings in the 1970s SEKEM was able to build up a network of partners, which support the SEKEM approach directly in the initiative in Egypt but also spread its spirit in their own regions and networks. SEKEM has strong business partners but also a vast number of people, who come and contribute with their knowledge to many activities that enable a sustainable societal development. A worldwide network of friends, stakeholders and shareholders carries SEKEMs vision and thereby support the development of a sustainable society in Egypt, which hopefully will keep on growing and become able to carry other communities itself that care holistically about its people and the environment that they are living in.
Read more about how SEKEM tries to combat Egypt’s desertification in: