Creating sustainable farming communities in the Egyptian desert

Creating sustainable farming communities in the Egyptian desert

8 March 2017 at 07:00 - by Archie Pearson, Monica Middleton - 0 comments

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 From desert land, to shop, to a jolly good cup of organic, herbal tea

 Chamomile lawn, Egypt. Photography, SEKEM

Over the decades, much of the previously lush, fertile land surrounding the River Nile has been destroyed by urban expansion or overtaken by desert tundra.  The small canals which feed into the Nile overflow with rubbish and sewage, damaging the local ecosystem and irrigation of small parcels of land used by smallholder farmers.  For local communities who have lived off the land for centuries, this renders the environment unhealthy and the soil useless for generating subsistence crops or a modest income.

The United Nation’s 17 global sustainable development goals (SDGs) increasingly provide an erstwhile lens for examining the mounting challenges we face in the world.  From ‘no poverty’ and ‘climate action’, through ‘sustainable communities’ and ‘peace & justice’, perhaps they likewise offer a meaningful, holistic structure for investment decision-making.  So, whilst we diligently weigh up the blend of financial, social and environmental returns across our various investment opportunities, should we also be asking ourselves:

‘Which (and how many) of the 17 sustainable development goals do we support when we invest our money for a positive financial, social and environmental return?’

Archie Pearson from international social investor, Oikocredit, considered these global goals on a recent visit to Egypt to see one of Oikocredit’s social enterprise partners, SEKEM.  He provides some unique insights into SEKEM’s holistic use of social investment on the ground:

I’ve never been partial to tea. At least, not until I spent a week in the Egyptian desert watching the detailed processes involved in nurturing herb seedlings from the field to the organic, herbal teas we find in our shops.

Founded in 1977, SEKEM Holdings is a sustainable social enterprise which (among other things) grows, processes and markets agricultural produce in line with biodynamic (organic+) and fair trade principles. The name ‘SEKEM’ derives from the Egyptian hieroglyph for vitality. And they’ve made it their life’s work to reclaim desert land, returning it to the fertile plains of yesteryear so that local, smallholder farmers can thrive.

Mr Goma Iraqi, SEKEM farmer. Photography, Oikocredit 

I spoke with Mr Goma Iraqi, one of SEKEM’s 130 contracted farmers who initiate the sustainable supply chain for herbal teas.  Goma’s farm employs local farm workers and family members and produces organic chamomile, spearmint, peppermint and fennel for organic tea brands such as Pukka.  A SEKEM agronomist visits these farmers twice weekly to provide compost and seeds; as well as technical training in aspects such as reducing harmful fertilizers and pesticides; and awareness and education of issues such as water management and land diversity.

Once the herb farmers have produced their harvest, SEKEM use their critical mass to secure fair prices and sell the produce onwards and upwards through the supply chain.  At the end of this chain, you’ll often find the brands of organic, herbal teas we love to drink.

Alongside sustainable supply chains, SEKEM focus on desert land reclamation and building efficient irrigation systems. They also concentrate their organic and biodynamic methods on enhancing air quality and cleaning rubbish, sewage and disease from the canals, as well as improving the soil fertility to yield better crops. 

On my return home to the UK I went in search of some Pukka™ teas in the shops.  On one of their packs I found the inscription: ‘Produced from the wilds of Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Egypt’s organic soils’

A poignant reminder of the painstaking processes involved in producing organic, herbal teas, as well as SEKEM’s absolute dedication to harnessing a sustainable environment for those who rely on the land. 

Credit: SDG Icon, the United Nations.


Oikocredit first invested in SEKEM in 2012 with a loan to support desert land reclamation and capital expenditure. They now hold an 11% equity stake in SEKEM.

Established in 1975, Oikocredit invest in more than 800 social enterprise partners across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Central & Eastern Europe.  We prioritise inclusive finance, agriculture, renewable energy and infrastructure sectors to reach the most disadvantaged communities in the world, particularly women and rural communities. Our activities support 16 of the 17 sustainable development goals and we issue annual Social Performance Reports on the social and environmental outcomes.

The investment opportunity for both institutions and individuals in UK and Ireland is via depository receipts in the Oikocredit International Share Foundation (OISF), which have delivered a 2% gross return, each year, every year since 2000*.  There is no fixed notice period for redemption, no annual management charge, and investors have always had their capital repaid. The minimum investment is £150 (or €200), there is no maximum.

Conditions apply, your investment is as risk.  It is not covered by a Financial Compensation Scheme and is potentially illiquid.  Past performance is not a guide to future performance and repayment of your investment is not guaranteed.  Oikocredit have the right to postpone redemptions for up to 5 years.  If you are in doubt about the suitability of this investment, please contact a financial expert. *Taken from Annual Reports & Accounts.


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