Healing the Desert
An initiative that transformed desert land into fertile soil using organic agriculture and established a community around it. They focus on sustainable agriculture to restore soil vitality and promote biodiversity while advocating for holistic farming regulations


Fertile agricultural land is shrinking across swathes of the world, not least in Egypt where desertification increases annually with global temperature rising. Throughout the 20th century, Egypt saw industrial farming techniques introduce chemical fertilisers and pesticides to the land, and production companies exploit workers and resources for exporting fruit, vegetables, and cotton.


Facing these injustices to land, ecosystems, and communities, the Egyptian social entrepreneur Ibrahim Abouleish, together with Gudrun Erdinger from Austria, established SEKEM (meaning “vitality from the sun”) in 1977 as a cooperative farming community. Located across 70 hectares of desert land about 60 kilometres northeast of Cairo, the community worked with local Bedouin communities to rejuvenate the soil using biodynamic methods, and produce fruit, vegetables, cotton, and medicinal herbs. Water was sourced from wells and transported in irrigation systems, and 120,000 trees were planted to provide shade and buffer desert sandstorms.

Continuing to this day, SEKEM’s biodynamic farming methods – including composting, natural fertilisation (initially by Egyptian buffalos), cover cropping, and crop rotation – understand land, climate, animals, and people as belonging to an interrelated system.1Helmy Abouleish, Matthias Keitel, and Philipp Maximillian Boes, ‘Egypt, SEKEM, and Climate Change | World Resources Institute’, World Resources Report, 2010 <> [accessed 14 November 2022]. Their farming methods are based on the premise that organic cultivation improves agrobiodiversity and does not produce any unusable waste. It became the first entity to develop biodynamic farming methods in Egypt and managed to convince the Egyptian government to introduce new pesticide management practices that reduced the reliance on chemicals. Employing more than 2000 people, SEKEM now produces textiles, teas, and medicines through fair trade principles. SEKEM also extends its remit to education, providing nurseries, schools, and even a university and development foundation to foster ethical and ecological practices whose commercial success bolsters local communities and ecosystems.2In 2003, SEKEM received the UN Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) for its combination of commercial enterprise and social and cultural development. Like the farming collective Somankidi Coura, founded in Mali the same year, SEKEM understands agriculture and culture as tightly connected practices for helping social relations flourish within ecologically careful parameters.

Restoring desert practices using biodynamic farming methods and principles of permaculture provide an alternative to the problem of soil erosion and degradation by replenishing essential nutrients and restoring soil organic matter, microorganisms, and biodiversity. By adopting regenerative practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, intercropping, and reduced tillage, farmers can promote soil health and resilience.3Christopher Rhodes, “Feeding and Healing the World: Through Regenerative Agriculture and Permaculture”, Science Progress, 95 (2012), pp. 345-446 <> These practices also help to sequester carbon in the soil, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the effects of climate change. One of the key takeaways is the importance of understanding the interdependence of natural and human systems considering the environment, social life, and human health as a unified system.


External links

Global Ecovillage Network (GEN)—a worldwide network of communities and initiatives that promote sustainable living practices and social, cultural, and ecological regeneration 

Economy of Love—a community of companies and consumers committed to sustainable, ethical, and transparent supply chains, working towards an economy built on respect for people and nature 

Egyptian Biodynamic Association (EBDA)—an independent non-governmental organisation that supports farmers in Egypt to shift from conventional practices to sustainable, organic, and biodynamic agriculture 

Global RCE (Regional Centres of Expertise)—a network of regional centres that are recognised by the United Nations University (UNU) as leading initiatives for education on sustainable development in their respective regions, and that collaborate to promote and implement sustainable development goals at the local and global levels