Employees gathering for a prayer at the start of the day

On land that 30 years ago was nothing but desert, you can now walk through acres and acres of lush lucerne, knee-deep camomile, and the tall golden spikes of evening primrose. This is SEKEM, the organic farm 60 km north east of Cairo pioneered by Dr Ibrahim Abouleish, who went as a young Egyptian to study pharmacology in Austria and then introduced the concepts of Goethe and of Rudolf Steiner to Egypt. The encounter of east and west merged in a new concept of sustainable community in the Egyptian desert.

In the midst of this oasis, there’s a massive processing plant where they produce phyto-pharmaceuticals, prepare organic vegetables for export, and train seven hundred farmers in bio-dynamics. Each morning the employees gather in groups of about 100 and after a short prayer, each person says what they’re going to do today – an eclectic mix of German precision and Egyptian indifference. It baffles visitors but it works.

It takes almost an hour to get to Heliopolis, the university in Cairo that has developed from SEKEM principles and - as far as I know - is the only one in the global South devoted entirely to sustainable development. To get there we drive through miles of desolation – abandoned attempts to tame the desert, mountains of plastic garbage everywhere, perilous half built apartment blocks that the desperately poor have already moved into.

When you arrive at Heliopolis University, right near the airport, you discover another oasis, albeit urban this time. Casuarina trees surround the buildings - trees that manage with almost no water to hold the soil in sandstorms - and in the centre a botanical garden with herbs planted according to their properties, by a full time efficient volunteer German herbalist. Vast airy buildings in colours of biscuit and peach, original local paintings on the walls, and an excellent café make you forget the smog.

The challenge for this university is whether it can become much more than a conventional course delivery factory, and instead pioneer in higher education what the SEKEM social enterprise has done so brilliantly in agriculture, winning awards & accolades worldwide.

  • Can it build real community?
  • Can it model, live, the values that will enable human beings to survive, and thrive, in the 21st century?
  • Can it set the pace of social innovation in education; for example, can degrees in engineering, business and pharmacy embody sustainable development?

It is only by becoming the change we want to see in the world...that we can actually affect what happens in the world at a deep level.
My undertaking was to deliver a 3-day course to provide the leadership and teaching staff with the personal and interpersonal skills to engage with these challenges, as well as to catalyse positive social change. My starting point – which I share with the founder Dr Abouleish - is that the key to transformation lies in realising that change starts with us, and within us. It is only by becoming the change we want to see in the world, as Gandhi said, that we can actually affect what happens in the world at a deep level.

Scilla Elworthy providing leadership and teaching on a three day course at Heliopolis University, Egypt, Cairo.

We know from experience that if the ‘inner’ issues in any enterprise are not addressed, the outer ‘results’ can be severely compromised. The course therefore started with the personal and more internal issues, progressing via team building work to addressing the challenges currently facing Egypt.

Given what I observed of those challenges, this seems an accurate summary of some of them:

The country’s political forces are focused on gaining or maintaining power. The dominant force, the Muslim Brotherhood, is not inclined to dialogue and is openly trying to consolidate its political grip through elections. And while liberal forces have lots of ideas, they have few followers.
The economy is dangerously close to collapsing. The political uncertainties generated by the revolution, the street violence, the disorientation of the security apparatus, and the elusive national consensus have combined to worsen Egypt’s economic and financial situation.

Tourism fell sharply, foreign direct investment shied away, Egyptian domestic capital fled, and the central bank quickly started running out of usable reserves. The economy is now teetering on the brink of disaster.

Foreign currency reserves dropped from $36 billion to below $14 billion. Manufacturing industries in need of hard currency encounter harsh restrictions, fuel shortages are common, and the number of people living on less than $2 per day has risen substantially.

Each day en route to the university we passed kilometre-long queues of motorists waiting for petrol; the grid-lock of Cairo traffic and almost total absence of workable public transport render logistics a nightmare; and corruption and cronyism has far from disappeared.

By contrast the knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment of the university teaching staff, particularly the younger female faculty members, was remarkable; and their extensive command of English enabled us to cover complex topics such as:

Personal and more internal issues

  • The various methodologies for self awareness
  • How to acknowledge and ‘own’ the darker or shadow aspects of the self, and in this way avoid projection on colleagues
  • The concept of projection - an ego defence mechanism when our thoughts, impulses and feelings are projected onto another person or peoples.

Team building work

  • Meditation Practice – effective ways to start the day & connect with your team, including a brief daily check-in: “how are you today, really?”
  • Building a safe container for your work - the steady building of an atmosphere of trust where colleagues can rely on one another
  • Transparent communication
  • Meeting facilitation skills - ground rules & processes to produce fruitful meetings
  • Balancing masculine & feminine qualities in our work.

The challenges currently facing Egypt

  • The energy of conflict, and how it can be used to transform a stuck situation
  • Coaching skills for student support
  • Co-development of a values system that we are prepared to stand up for
  • The new Social Innovation Centre at Heliopolis University
  • Community building in Heliopolis University and in the desert
  • Leadership as service.

Heliopolis University has a good chance of becoming an oasis of social entrepreneurship as inspiring and effective as its parent – SEKEM
At the end of the seminar, we had managed to meet about 90% of the participants’ desired outcomes as stated at the outset. The energy of the teaching staff and their grasp of concepts enabled them to quickly apply these to live situations. In 4 working groups they produced practical, realistic plans and next steps. This makes me conclude that, notwithstanding the vast challenges facing Egypt, Heliopolis University has a good chance of becoming an oasis of social entrepreneurship as inspiring and effective as its parent – SEKEM, the enterprise that exports phyto-pharmaceuticals and camomile tea, food and textiles worldwide.