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Ibrahim Abouleish, the Egyptian who made the desert green

Ibrahim Abouleish

The chemist and magnate of organic agriculture and sustainable development, the Egyptian Ibrahim Abouleish, died five years ago. A modern-day hero who revolutionized his sector.

Only three African countries have more than one Nobel Prize awarded to one of their nationals: South Africa with eleven Nobel Prizes, Egypt with four and Algeria with two. The reason: a lack of resources allocated to scientific research. Consequence: African researchers, in all fields, struggle to stand out internationally and the brain drain has been one of the African problems in recent decades.

Nevertheless, some African scientists, for several reasons, do not hesitate to give up stable positions in order to invest in their countries of origin. This is the case of the Egyptian Ibrahim Abouleish. This chemist and doctor of pharmacology, Goethe lover, is surely one of the most famous Egyptian figures in the world, even if the Egyptians were rather disinterested in his work.

Ibrahim Abouleish, between politics and science

Ibrahim Abouleish is a mysterious man. It was discovered, shortly before his death, on June 15, 2017, that he belonged to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), then to the Fatah movement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Some said he was a Nasserist — a supporter of late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Al-Azhar University assures him that he had Islamist tendencies. One hell of a melting pot.

Strange when you know the background of Ibrahim Abouleish, from a wealthy family, originally from Sinai. He admitted in an interview to having been marked by the Arab-Israeli war. His father and his uncles were leaders in the food industry, and lost a lot in Abdel Nasser's Plan, then with the Israeli invasion of Sinai. Ibrahim Abouleish is also a convinced Europeanist. He had studied in the 1950s and 1960s between Austria and Germany, where he became close to the alter-globalist and future creator of the Council for the Future of the World, Jakob von Uexkull.

Later, moreover, in 2003, the latter awarded Ibrahim Abouleish the Right Livelihood Prize – the alternative Nobel Prize. Jakob von Uexkull assured that “Ibrahim Abouleish practices what he calls the economy of love. It proves that we can both do good and make a living from it”.

And, indeed, since his final return to Egypt in 1977, Abouleish has moved heaven and earth to create his crazy project. A XNUMXth century utopia: an integrated community, focused on agricultural production and cultural and scientific development, which not only is self-sufficient, but exports its products.

How the SEKEM community was born

It was in the desert of Bilbéis, north of Cairo, that Abouleish started his SEKEM community in 1978. He began by investing in the vast agricultural lands of the region, and quickly found an agreement with the hundreds of farmers and ranchers in the region. In return, Ibrahim Abouleish began by building roads and installing two water treatment plants in the center of the region.

On the agricultural level, the scientist voluntarily planted more than 120 casuarinas, Persian lilac shrubs and eucalyptus trees between 000 and 1978. During the same period, he installed large enclosures equipped with wells, where local Bedoins came to get veterinary services, food and water for their thousands of buffaloes. The nomads finally settled down. And later, Ibrahim Abouleish built a buffalo milk processing plant for export.

Community projects did not focus on the economy alone. Having become an organization, SEKEM built in 1986 the first medical clinic using anthroposophical medicine in the country. This clinic, now equipped with a research center, is also a world leader in phytotherapy.

Then, Ibrahim Abouleish created the continuing education center of Bilbéis (Mahad), where a wing was reserved for children and the disabled. Then, a school and a high school in 1988.

Ibrahim Abouleish's utopia developed so rapidly that anthropologists and organic farming specialists have been flocking from all over the world since the late 1980s to visit the community. Some had even settled there, where organized missions of specialists who taught in the new structures of the city that stood out in the Egyptian desert.

Qualitative transformation of cotton cultivation in Egypt

Today, Bilbays has more than 400 inhabitants. It is a strange agricultural region, landlocked in the middle of the desert and known to Cairois as an oasis whose infrastructure is reminiscent of that of Western capitals. The SEKEM community contrasted clearly with the chaotic Egyptian urban landscape, just as it stands out from the rural areas of Upper Egypt, sparsely populated and lacking in health, educational and cultural structures.

But in the early 1990s, Bilbéis was a destination of choice for specialists in sustainable development, agriculture, medicine, etc. The model installed by Ibrahim Abouleish survived him, but did not gain momentum in Egypt. Although, on the other hand, it has greatly interested communities in other countries. Similar projects overseen by Ibrahim Abouleish have been launched in Germany, Ireland, Iran, Sudan, Palestine, Turkey, Lebanon and Senegal. Several have succeeded, moreover.

Anyway, the next step for SEKEM and Ibrahim Abouleish was the fight against pesticides and intensive agriculture. Ibrahim Abouleish launched several organizations for the promotion of organic agriculture in the world. In Egypt, in the early 1990s, Ibrahim Abouleish conducted experiments showing the profitability of organic cotton cultivation. In 1994, the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture adopted Abouleish's research, and converted 4 square kilometers – almost all of Egypt's cotton crops – to 000% organic cultivation.

Moreover, the Giza 45 and the Giza 92 – the “Egyptian cotton” – monopolize the luxury market until today. Cotton revenues in Egypt exceed, for example, those of Benin or Côte d'Ivoire, yet ranked among the largest exporters in the world.

Ibrahim Abouleish, an anthology of an unsung hero

Ibrahim Abouleish created in 1995 the first private pharmaceutical company in the country, specializing in medicinal teas. Two years later, SEKEM had enough funds to launch one of the largest professional training centers in the country, the SEKEM Academy, which has since become a University.

The community created by Ibrahim Abouleish today has its own holding company, schools, churches, mosques, hospitals, schools. SEKEM also owns four NGOs focused on training farmers and supporting other communities in more than twelve countries.

The initiative is now known as a subject of study in sustainable development, or as a success story for organic farming. Since the death of Ibrahim Abouleish, his son Helmy and his wife Gudrun have taken up the torch. From time to time, on social networks or in the media, Egyptians question the exact reason why Ibrahim Abouleish is not recognized at his fair value, even vis-à-vis other Egyptian scientists like Ahmed Zewail or Farouk El-Baz.

After his Right Livelihood in 2003, Ibrahim Abouleish was decorated with the German Cross of Merit, and awarded twice by the United Nations.

But in terms of anthology, this unsung hero has above all left a self-sufficient city in the middle of the desert, and set an example of what hard work, coupled with knowledge and organization, can really achieve.

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