Twice a year, I go to our partner farm in Egypt where I design our next season’s collection. The farm, and where the factory is located is in the eastern section of the Nile Delta region. This is where I meet and work with Konstanze Abouleish who runs the factory. About an hour north of the farm is where the headquarters are located and where, on most days, you will find Helmy Abouleish, the CEO of the Sekem initiative. I know how difficult it is to get some time with Helmy, so I get creative and entice the husband and wife duo to a good meal where we can sit and chat and get caught up on what’s happening with Under the Nile and, of course what our children are up too.
I wanted to learn more about their initiative to make Egypt sustainable by the year 2057, so between laughs, bites and good conversation, I dug a little deeper.
How did you come up with the project of achieving a “Sustainable Egypt “by the year 2057?
Helmy: My father, Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish founded the Sekem initiative in 1977 and worked for 40 years on his vision of a sustainable Egypt. Some people would call him a dreamer (or even crazy), but in reality, he was a visionary who knew that his dreams for a better Egypt could come true with a lot of hard work and with dedicated people who would work alongside him. He passed away on June 15, 2017 and in his memory, we brought our partners, educators, Egyptian businessmen and women, and the dedicated Sekem community who started this journey with him 40 years ago, together to define and work out a plan for the next 40 years.
What long term initiatives are you working on?
Konstanze: We came up with 18 defining goals for what we wanted to achieve which will deal with 4 categories pertaining to Human Development, Ecology, Economic Value Creation, and Societal Life. We will be concentrating on two specific goals each year.
What are your short-term initiatives?
Helmy: Our two goals for 2020 is “Ethical Banking/ Green banking” and “Integrative Medicine”.
Ethical Banking is a banking system that serves the community instead of a banking system that is centered around making money and more money. This type of banking's primary goal is only to serve the community it is operating in instead of taking interest. Many of the people in rural villages around Egypt have never been in the banking system. They keep whatever money they have under their mattress and their home. They don’t know what options are available to them to grow their farms, or to start a business. Many are illiterate and can’t fill out forms. The idea around this type of banking is to make it as easy as possible for people in rural areas to receive micro loans at zero interest that can be used in making their life, their family lives, and their communities better. Members from the Ethical Bank do whatever it takes to help them succeed, because when they succeed, the community wins.
The second program we will be working on this year is “Integrative medicine”. The goal here is to provide communities with the best treatment and medicines that is available to serve the patient. All kinds of therapies would be implemented including homeopathic and conventional medicines. We have a big problem that families in the rural areas don’t believe in sending women and girls to the doctor. We have to start by educating both the men and the women on the importance of all family members seeing a doctor. Whether they are sick, pregnant or preventative care. We also will offer programs that teach them how to lead their life to keep them healthy.
What are you doing to explain and involve the Egyptian society in this project?
Konstanze: The first thing we’re doing is working on changing people’s attitudes. Their way of thinking needs to be changed so when we implement programs that the people see is making their life easier and better they are more receptive to making the change.
An example of this is how we implemented the “Chamomile Children Program”. Our families in the 13 rural villages surrounding Sekem would not send their children to school because they needed them to work and earn money for the family, even if this meant working for people who mistreated them. We told them that if they send their children to our school, we would let them work after school for a few hours a day picking chamomile and pay them a full day’s wage. We would assign a social worker to each family and give the children healthcare benefits, clothing, shoes, and provide two meals a day for them. The immediate response was one of distrust and it took time to work with these parents to gain their trust. But not only did this program break the cycle of illiteracy in their families, but it transformed the community as a whole.
The second is our “Greening the Desert” project. This is where we are taking desert land that is 80% sand and building new communities with our infrastructure and sustainable plans in place. Everyone who joins the community learns from the beginning what is required to live in that community. Families have all the benefits of our social and educational programs and the communities flourish and thrive together.
Is the HU ( Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development) participating, and if yes, what are the students' role going to be?
Helmy: The HU was my father’s dream. He worked on the idea, inception, and curriculum of the HU for 20 years before the university opened its doors. Yes, the students will play a role in the programs we are implementing. Their first role is to work on the revitalization of our 13 villages project.
We have 13 rural villages that surround our farm. This makes up around 40,000 people. These villages are part of our community. They work on our farm and companies, their children go to our school, and they use our health care facility. All the programs we implement on our farm is also implemented in these 13 villages.
The first step in revitalizing the 13 villages is finding out from the people who live there, what they need to improve the lives of their family and their village. This is where the HU students come in. We trained the students on field work and taught them how to interact with the villagers and together they came up with the questions that they would ask them in regards to their needs. Questions dealing with their infrastructure like water, waste management, electricity, and renewable energy.
They also had questions about the quality of education they wanted for their children, health awareness, micro loans and banking. If we are going to implement programs to help them, they must want it and need it.
The students learned so much and enjoyed interacting with the people in these villages. A sampling of 1300 questionnaires was filled out by the HU students and they are now conducting focus groups to put together a list of the needs of each village.
Once this is finished, they will take part in helping implement the programs the people in the 13 villages are needing to make their communities sustainable and the quality of life better.
Pictured: One of the 13 villages surrounding the farm.
Helmy: There is no limit on what we can accomplish. I believe that. I am very excited to go to work every day and see firsthand what sustainable contributions we are making to our society, and the changes that our programs accomplishing to make Egypt a better place for everyone.
It was great catching up with both Helmy and Konstanze. Their enthusiasm, passion, and commitment to both a sustainable Egypt and to making the lives of the Egyptian people better, is truly amazing. I’m looking forward to checking back in with them and seeing how their projects are moving forward. It’s also very exciting for me to see that the 13 Vilages Project is being revitalized. We have been a part of this project since the inception in 2005 by making our fruit and veggie toys in the 13 Villages...I definitely will be visiting the villages on my return to Egypt.