The “One Million Feddans” desert farming project, or land reclamation project, is one of Egypt’s national megaprojects. One of the major components of the country’s sustainable development plan, it was recently given an additional boost by expanding it to cover one-and-a-half million feddans. Extensive economic, social and environmental studies support that increase.
Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development (HU) held a recent workshop under the title “1.5 Million Feddans for Life”. The event was hosted by HU Founder and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Ibrahim Abouleish, who is also the founder of the SEKEM initiative, which was established in 1977 to promote biodynamic and organic agriculture and sustainable development, and is Egypt’s pioneer in this field.
Experts in development
Participating in the workshop was a host of expert figures in the field of sustainable development including Laila Iskandar, former minister of urban development; Ayman Farid Abu-Hadid, former minister of agriculture; Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, former minister of irrigation; Helmy Abouleish, CEO of SEKEM Holding; Ashraf Fikry, director of the Research Institute for Groundwater at the National Water Research Centre; and Ibrahim Hemeida, groundwater consultant at the Desert Research Centre.
After in-depth discussions relating to the 1.5 Million Feddans for Life project, the workshop recommended that SEKEM and other similar initiatives should be taken as role models so that the project can be implemented in line with Egyptian pioneering experience in sustainable development.
Biodynamic agriculture: best answer
Watani attended the workshop and talked to Helmy Abouleish, who stressed the importance of adopting strict measures to confront the escalating problem of desertification or the loss of fertile agricultural land to urban activity. To achieve this, he believes that the State must adopt two different approaches in parallel. It must work on finding solutions to prevent desertification while at the same time increasing the area of cultivated desert land.
“The expansion in biodynamic agriculture can have a positive impact on this problem,” Mr Abouleish said. “It is the best solution for the land, the investors, and the consumers. Studies indicate that biodynamic agriculture will undergo a major leap during the coming five to ten years to become more cost-effective than conventional [chemical] agriculture in the long term. The State is currently spending millions to subsidise agricultural inputs such as water, fertilisers, and the power needed to draw water for irrigation. This State subsidy will not last forever; on the contrary, the subsidy is expected to be gradually phased out which will then lead to an inevitable increase in the cost of conventional agriculture. Biodynamic agriculture is therefore the farming practice of the future and is definitely more cost-effective in the long term.”
Help for impoverished communities
As for the projected social and developmental impact of the 1.5 Million Feddans project, Dr Iskandar drew on her first-hand experience with developmental projects in slums and impoverished communities. She praised the career development opportunities, supportive work, environment and agricultural training that the SEKEM initiative provides for its female workforce and the services the company is providing for its employees.
“As the cost of desert farming exceeds EGP1 million per feddan, especially when it comes to drilling wells, we can expect that only big investors can afford such a large outlay of money,” Dr Iskandar said. “It is important that these investors work on creating integrated communities on the sites of their projects complete with infrastructure, schools, roads, drinking water, power generation, and irrigation channels. Developing the community must go hand in hand with agricultural development.”
Development expert Mamdouh Saad Eddin displayed pride in the fact that many farms in Egypt had grown to the extent of matching the mega farms in developed countries. “Our exports now consist of many crops planted in specialised agriculture farms,” he said. “Egypt now ranks third worldwide in the number of agricultural scientists and researchers, following only the US and Germany.”
Regular water supply
For agricultural activity to succeed, indeed to be initiated in the first place, a constant supply of water is a pre-condition, which drove Dr Fikry to talk about Egypt’s potential for groundwater and its distribution around the country.
“Egypt’s Western Desert and southern border stand on a huge geological formation, the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS), which Egypt shares with Libya, Sudan and Chad,” he said. “It is the world’s largest fossil aquifer and is considered the main supply of more than 100,000 cubic kilometres of groundwater essential for future agricultural development plans in the desert.”
Dr Fikry warned that it was important to adopt a scientific approach to manage the waters of the aquifer to preserve it as an important water resource, since it is slow-refilling and must thus be used wisely. Dr Hemeida was in full agreement with this, pointing out that the best site for desert farming projects extended to the west of Minya in Upper Egypt, because of its proximity to the Nile, to roads, transport networks and residential communities.
In reply to a question posed by Dr Abu-Hadid on whether Egypt had the capability of drilling the number of wells necessary for the reclamation of the 1.5 million feddans, Dr Hemeida answered that the key factor was not the drilling of the wells, but the sustainability of the water supply.
“If studies show the availability of groundwater for 50 years, this is no sustainable water supply,” he said. “Any project must be based on precise maps that show the nature of the soil and the presence and capacity of aquifers and wells.”
Cost of cultivation
Cultivating land in the desert is a very costly business, Dr Ibrahim Abouleish warned, and can in no way compare to cultivating the fertile land of the Nile Valley or Delta where the soil and water supply secure an abundant yield. Not so, in the desert, he said; the cost of desert farming is so high that even banks frequently balk at financing it; especially since the return on the investment is not immediate. Dr Abouleish said these initiatives therefore need strong financial support. “The long experience of SEKEM in this field puts us under the obligation of highlighting the difficulties of desert farming so that others who venture into the field can take them as guidelines,” he added.
The SEKEM initiative for desert farming can be taken as a role model for sustainable development in Egypt. The company has gained international acclaim and recently received the Land for Life 2015 award, established by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). It received too The Right Livelihood award, also known as The Alternative Nobel Prize, in 2003 for being “a 21st-century business model that combined commercial success with social and cultural development.”
With 35 years to its credit in state-of-the-art biodynamic agriculture desert farming, SEKEM has on the ground experience in greening the desert and helping bridge the food gap in Egypt. The company provides professional training to its workers, makes use of the latest research and technology to boost its agricultural methods and routines, and has successfully built an integrated community of workers by offering them housing, education, and health services. The recent workshop made it clear that the Egyptian government would do well to draw upon the pioneering experience of biodynamic desert farming in Egypt as it contemplates its 1.5 Million Feddans Project.
22 September 2015