Cultivating in the desert: a real challenge

Cultivating in the desert: a real challenge

Rémi Oriot, 2016/10/27

A fruit production managed with the use of chemicals

Spring 1997. Pear trees, apple trees, lemon trees, datte trees and olive trees in production on 20ha, in the Egyptian desert – 80 km South - Southeast of Cairo – in the village of Al Qababt.

The farm was located outside the irrigated perimeter of the Nile River.

The water was pumped from 200m deep and the crops were all watered through a PVC tube irrigation system. Fertilisers were added to the water for irrigation.

At the time I visited this farm, it had been 17 years since it rained.

A fruit production in difficulty

The farm was encountering several difficulties; the production was poor and the operating costs were very high. The farmers were looking for other production methods.

Different technical issues had been cumulated:

  • To pump the water 200m deep was very expensive, but it was not possible to proceed in any other way.
  • The water was salted; its evaporation created an accumulation of salt around trees and this eventually killed the fruit trees.
  • The farm was highly infected by pests because it was the only farm in the area; all the pests were concentrated there as it was their only source of food. There was therefore a significant health issue.
  • The pests were able to adapt to the chemicals, creating significant damage to the fruit trees already weakened by the salt.

A disastrous technical and financial appraisal

After ten years of farming, the crops were still not under control and the death rate of the fruit trees was at a critical level.

At a financial level, the crops didn’t provide any profit, and the investments were still not paid off.

A technical change was needed, but what to do?

The farmers were aware of the situation and they wanted to find a solution before the activity died out.

That was why I came to visit them to evaluate the possibility of converting to organic agriculture.

Technical training needed

After an audit of the farm, it was obvious that technical training was needed in order to change the way the crops were managed.

But before starting any training, I organised a visit to an organic farm in a similar environment. We visited the Sekem farm, in the desert close to Cairo, where there was also fruit productions.

Sekem farm: a green zone with high biodiversity

The farm was created twenty years ago and they initially started with only medicinal herbs (rosemary, thyme, lavender,.. ) that were adapted to poor soil and dryness.

Twenty years later the farm produced cereals, cotton, medicinal herbs, vegetables, fruit trees, sheep, cow, poultry and notably a greenery zone, in high contrast with the desert area around made of sand and stones.

Sekem farm: a successful economic strategy

Sekem farm had made big economic moves. They were selling their products as processed goods.

Organic cotton was transformed into organic cotton clothes, medicinal herbs to organic remedies, cereals and other vegetables and fruits to organic canned food.

Several processing units were implemented on the farm campus.

Forty other farms were networking with Sekem, and therefore they were marketing their products as a group.

A container per week was exported to the German market.

Fresh products were also sold on the local market.

Sekem farm: a social involvement

From the beginning, Sekem was involved in a fair trade approach. In addition, they built a village for the employees on the farm campus with a school, a clinic and a mosque.

Artistic activities (painting, theatre, dance, music… ) were organised for free at the end of the work, every day.

The Sekem company covered health and education fees for their employees’ families.

Sekem farm: a strong push for the environment

During our visit of the fruit tree area, we observed the benefits of sustainable agriculture; the soil was covered with a local leguminous (bessem) reducing the evaporation and the need for watering and giving fodder for cattle.

Fertilisation was done with compost made of cattle manure mixed with crops residues.

A high level of biodiversity was present, limiting pest attacks in a natural way.

The yields were bigger than on the Al Qababt farm, from 50% to 70% more, depending of the production. The quality of fruits was better. The dattes were much more appealing compared to the ones on the Al Qababt farm.

The farmers were very much interested in receiving trained, with the aim of joining the Sekem farm network; which provided training and technical support.

19 years after the visit

Sekem farm continues to grow in all the directions that were already implemented.

The Sekem network now covers 700 Egyptian farmers.

M. Abouleish, the founder of the farm, received the Economic and Ethic Development Award in 2008, the Business for Peace in 2012, and the Excellency Award from the Global Thinkers Forum in 2013.

Several professional training workshops and a university were launched on the farm campus.

The Sekem farm is becoming a global model of development.