Building Resilient, Regen­er­a­tive Agri­cul­ture Busi­ness Models

Aisha Hassan and Lukas Paltanav­ičius are cycling across the world to learn hands-on about prac­tices of regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture. In a series of arti­cles, they share their insights from the field. In this guest article they look at the busi­ness models of regen­er­a­tive farms.

Often people ask whether regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture is scal­able, this ques­tion is usually answered in terms of hectares. While a hectare is a useful measure for under­standing the size of a farm, it does not consider the specific crops grown or the nutri­ents produced or the oper­a­tions of the farm. For example, the farms we have visited vary signif­i­cantly in terms of their busi­ness models, as well as the types of crops they grow and the methods they use to culti­vate them.

More­over, the farmers deal with a variety of chal­lenges that impact their busi­ness model. Such as no clear defi­n­i­tion of regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture leading to various stake­holders not knowing how it differs from for example organic agri­cul­ture; Lack of certi­fi­ca­tion leading to retailers that cannot put the right price tag on it; Labour inten­sity which requires at times for them to have a lot of employees.

Sustain­ability, regen­er­a­tion means also ,people care, fair share’, you need to earn money to be sustain­able.

Howard Koster, De Biesterhof

In this article, we will dive deeper into the complex and diverse busi­ness models that the farms employ. From small-scale farms to large-scale farms, each farm has its own unique and holistic approach to their oper­a­tions.

Lukas analysing the label of cactus fruit jam at LPC, Kenya

Large scale regen­er­a­tive farming in the desert

Sixty kilo­me­tres north­east of Cairo, SEKEM stands in the edge of the Egyptian desert. Upon entering the main gate with our bikes, we were welcomed by the wind and shade, providing a much needed relief from the heat. We could see groups of people walking to various build­ings on the compound, where they work in one of the ten different compa­nies that together produce 150 different organic prod­ucts span­ning from food and herbal teas to textiles and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals.

Forty-five years ago, Ibrahim Abouleish and a commu­nity of Bedouins set out to restore land in area of 70 ha desert land, proving that a new, sustain­able world is possible through adopting regen­er­a­tive and biody­namic approaches. During our visit, we were able to witness the inte­gra­tion of economic, social, and cultural life with an eco-friendly and holistic approach. Sekem has in 2022, 473 hectares of total culti­vated land and an addi­tional 7487 ha are culti­vated by supplying farmers. As of 2022 Sekem has 1959 employees. The company’s revenue was 20.86 million € in 2022.

We are able to produce at a lower cost than conven­tional farms because we do not use external inputs and we operate on large scale with extreme diver­si­fi­ca­tion that allows us to compete.

Helmy Abouleish, CEO at Sekem

In 2008, Sekem’s success has stretched to the Wahat project which is located 300 km south­west of Cairo. The project aimed to increase the self-suffi­ciency and long-term food secu­rity of local commu­ni­ties. To achieve this, it is impor­tant to move to desert areas and use avail­able water resources effi­ciently. With the Wahat Initia­tive, 315 hectares of field is being culti­vated. At Wahat, the current focus is on culti­vating biody­namic pepper­mint and spearmint, and camomile, peanuts, jojoba, moringa, hibiscus, and cactus, while increasing the area planted for herbs.

Sekem employees gath­ering for their evening circle before the weekend and going to the yearly Sekem festival

Sekem organic textile produc­tion. Photo by Aad Vlug

Chil­dren from Sekem schools at the annual festival demon­strating the impor­tance of biodi­ver­sity

Today Sekem is Egypt’s biggest tea producer and also exports its tea outside of the country to Germany, Austria, the Nether­lands, Italy, Iceland and UK. Sekem also export its organic cotton and natural medi­cine and health­care prod­ucts. Produc­tion of tea, medi­cine, and textile are not the only things produced at SEKEM. Other prod­ucts such as peanut butter, post­cards, and candles and can be found on their online webshop and in their on site stores. As we visit the clothing shop on the compound we find a variety of items, mainly children’s clothing, as well as some COP 27 merchan­dise hats, shirts and bags featuring a picture of an Egyptian Farmer and the words “climate heroes”. All items made from organic cotton and designed with natural dye.

Sekem is confi­dently committed to fostering a more sustain­able future by priori­tising educa­tion. This objec­tive is achieved through several means, including their own univer­sity (Heliopolis Univer­sity), various schools, and by offering oppor­tu­ni­ties for the self-devel­op­ment of their employees through holistic educa­tion with a focus on art and Eury­thmy, an expres­sive move­ment art. Further­more, they extend their educa­tion to a wider audi­ence. During our visit, Sekem was proudly hosting diverse indi­vid­uals from around the globe, who had the chance to learn about their oper­a­tion through field visits and lectures.

About Cycle to Farms

Cycle to Farms is a project by Aisha & Lukas, who cycle 7000 km from farm to farm in Europe, The Middle-East and Africa. Along the way Aisha & Lukas docu­ments regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture prac­tices, here they share a series of posts about their learn­ings.

The journey of Aisha & Lukas started in May 2022 in the Nether­lands and took them through Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herze­govina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Jordan, Egypt, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. Cycling through these coun­tries they gained various insights of regen­er­a­tive farming prac­tices, which they cover in a series of arti­cles.

They visited regen­er­a­tive farms in various contexts to gain valu­able lessons and insights on tran­si­tioning to climate-resilient agri­cul­tural prac­tices. It gives them a better under­standing of how farmers regen­erate their land, how to best support regen­er­a­tive farmers and inspire others to tran­si­tion to regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture.

The farms they visited varied in size, from a few hectares to thou­sands, and in soil type, from clay to rocky and sandy desert soils. They also had different produc­tion systems, such as arable farming, fruit orchards, food forests, and market gardens, and often had a mixed produc­tion system.

Despite the diver­sity of the farms, they all shared a common goal: combat­ting climate change, strength­ening soil health, managing water, and increasing biodi­ver­sity. All the farmers Aisha and Lukas visited were solu­tion-oriented and focused on shared prin­ci­ples, while main­taining indi­vidual prac­tices and unique busi­ness models.

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Farm to table approach in Jordan

In Jordan we cycled to Carob Farm and Carob House, a creative initia­tive by Rakan Mehyar in which he combined his interest in hospi­tality and sustain­able farming. Rakan’s initial aim was to start a farm to produce nutri­tious food for his family. However, he soon realised that nutri­tious food should be widely avail­able in the commu­nity. This led him to estab­lish the Carob House, a restau­rant with a farm-to-table approach that aims to reimagine the way food is produced and consumed in Jordan.

I believed it was crucial to inno­vate a busi­ness model based on the ethos of coop­er­a­tion, diver­sity, and inclu­sion, similar to the way our farming soci­eties have lived for thou­sands of years. Thus, I created CAROB to serve as the linking point and medi­ator.

Rakan Mehyar

The restau­rant engages with the local commu­nity by offering a food expe­ri­ence that empha­sises the impor­tance of commu­nity and nutri­tious and sustain­ably produced food. Rakan has collab­o­rated with fellow local farmers and artisan producers who share his ethos, ensuring a consis­tent supply of quality food for guests of the Carob House.

Rakan believes that it’s crucial for the customers of the Carob House to compre­hend the origin and cultivation of their food. To facil­i­tate this under­standing, a Farm to Table expe­ri­ence is offered, where customers can book a farm tour before dining at the restau­rant. During the 2-hour tour, visi­tors learn about Rakan’s moti­va­tions and how his farming prac­tices differ from conven­tional methods. Ulti­mately, Rakan’s goal is to educate as many people as possible about regen­er­a­tive farming prac­tices. He hopes to enlighten the local commu­nity and encourage them to make tangible changes that will protect future gener­a­tions’ access to a healthy food envi­ron­ment.

Rakan and Abdo giving a tour of the farm before going to the Carob House for dinner
Group dinner at the Carob House
Tradi­tional organic Jordanian food with a modern twist (Carob House picture)

Added value prod­ucts sold on the farm

During our visit to Kenya, we cycled to the Laikipia Perma­cul­ture Center (LPC), where Joseph Lentunyoi began working with various women’s commu­nity groups in 2014 to utilise natural resources in Laikipia and provide a source of income for their house­holds. The commu­nity in the area is suffering due to the harsh effects of climate change, making their pastoral lifestyle increas­ingly diffi­cult and unsus­tain­able. Shifting to sustain­able agri­cul­tural prac­tices is the only way to achieve food secu­rity for this commu­nity. Joseph is dedi­cated to working with the local commu­ni­ties to teach them regen­er­a­tive prac­tices.

As we walked through the LPC agro-forest, surrounded by fields full of greenery as far as the eye could see, Joseph mentioned the following:

Our focus is on creating value-added prod­ucts because, in Africa, most prod­ucts are perish­able.

Joseph Lentunyoi, Laikipia Perma­cul­ture Center

The local commu­ni­ties in this area use tradi­tional methods to create prod­ucts with a longer lifespan. For example, they make pulp from cactus fruit to produce value-added items like cactus fruit jam, wine, and juice. They also do the same with aloe secun­di­flora plants, harvesting the juice for various cosmetic prod­ucts like creams, soaps, shampoo, and shower gel for the local market. They even sell the excess to retailers like their client, Lush Cosmetics. Addi­tion­ally, the small shop on the premises sells other prod­ucts like honey, moringa powder, and resur­rec­tion bush tea, which are made by local women commu­nity groups.

LPC’s busi­ness model is to teach perma­cul­ture and regen­er­a­tive prac­tices. They offer work­shops to both national and inter­na­tional indi­vid­uals inter­ested in learning. They also provide a retreat center, where guests can stay on the camping site or in guest­houses made out of cob. Guests are invited to partic­i­pate in farm work to learn about the prac­tices used. LPC also has an organic restau­rant where staff and guests have their meals.

LPC product: prickle pear wine and jam, acacia honey, moringa powder, herbal tea and aloe soap and cream

Entrance to the organic restau­rant at LPC

Packing “skumawiki” (kale) for the local client at LPC

Diver­si­fi­ca­tion is Key to Successful Regen­er­a­tive Busi­ness Models

When it comes to regen­er­a­tive solu­tions and busi­ness models, it’s impor­tant to recog­nise that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The success of these systems is heavily depen­dent on the context of the region and the crops that grow best in that area. Adapting to the chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties in the local setting is crucial for achieving success.

One successful approach in regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture is the use of holistic busi­ness models that incor­po­rate multiple income streams through diver­si­fi­ca­tion. Successful farms do not rely solely on food produc­tion. Instead, they have highly diver­si­fied busi­nesses, often offering a variety of comple­men­tary prod­ucts with a focus on added-value items. By expanding beyond just food produc­tion, these busi­nesses are able to generate income in a variety of ways and remain inde­pen­dent from global commodity market fluc­tu­a­tions. Farmers also view them­selves as educa­tors, teaching the commu­nity about the impor­tance of regen­er­a­tive prac­tices. Soci­etal engage­ment is a key to under­standing the efforts that go into regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture and is often one of the goals of the farmers visited.

A more common and general under­standing of regen­er­a­tive prac­tices will help to solve the discon­nect of under­standing the concept and also help the future devel­op­ment of putting regen­er­a­tive prod­ucts on the market for a fair price.

While tradi­tional busi­ness strate­gies might suggest focusing on a single product or service to achieve economies of scale, the oppo­site approach can often be more effec­tive in regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture. By embracing diver­sity and exploring a variety of income streams, farmers and busi­nesses are able to build resilient systems that can adapt to changing circum­stances and continue to thrive in the long term.