Green Rev­o­lu­tion in the Desert

In Egypt’s tra­di­tion­al farm­ing regions on the allu­vial soil of the Nile, there is hard­ly any good farm­land left. Mul­ti­ple projects are there­fore try­ing to trans­form the desert into arable land. Can that work, and is it sus­tain­able?

The dark embank­ments extend up to the row of date trees at the edge of the wide field. Some 60 t of com­post are fer­ment­ing in each row and giv­ing off a strong aro­ma. “You almost want to eat it.” Tais­sir Saqr holds a hand­ful up to his nose. Behind him there is a trac­tor pulling a hay ted­der through one of the embank­ments. The com­post must not become hot­ter than 65 °C, oth­er­wise the microor­gan­isms die. That is why it is reg­u­lar­ly turned and watered.

“I look after it as much as I look after my chil­dren,” laughs Mr Saqr. The Egypt­ian Sekem farm pro­duces 8,000 t this way every year.

“The com­post is at the heart of our method,” says Angela Hof­mann as she casts her gaze over the field. The farm­ing expert has been work­ing on the farm 60 km north-east of Cairo, which was found­ed by Ibrahim Abouleish, since the ear­ly 1980s.

“When we start­ed out, there was noth­ing but sand here,” she remem­bers. About 90 % of Egypt is desert, but Mr Abouleish and his col­leagues have made it bloom. Today there is fen­nel, cumin, mullein, sesame, wheat, egg­plants, toma­toes and much more grow­ing on the company’s orig­i­nal farm.

Soil for­ma­tion with com­post

Angela Hof­mann is one of the pio­neers in the Sekem farm team.

But how can any­one get fer­tile farm­land out of this bar­ren desert? First of all, these pio­neers plant­ed a wide belt of trees to pro­vide shade and act as wind breaks. Then they sunk wells, applied silt, cow dung and var­i­ous organ­ic sub­stances to the soil along with com­post, before sow­ing plants and irri­gat­ing them. Ini­tial­ly they flood­ed the fields. Now a sys­tem of pipes sup­plies sprin­klers and an effi­cient drip irri­ga­tion sys­tem. “Now we only use half as much water,” says Ms Hof­mann.

And so over the years a 30 cm thick lay­er of humus has built up. At the heart of this is the com­post. To begin with, 44-54 t/ha are mixed into the sandy soil once, then around 10 t each sea­son after. Hav­ing the right crop rota­tion and avoid­ing fields lying fal­low is also essen­tial. “Oth­er­wise we’ll quick­ly end up with a desert here again,” explains Ms Hof­mann.

Sekem is now the largest herbal tea pro­duc­er in Egypt, as well as sup­ply­ing bak­eries across the coun­try with sesame seeds. Con­tract­ed farm­ers across the entire coun­try work 3,000 ha. The com­pa­ny exports herbs and med­i­c­i­nal plants, which it pro­duces accord­ing to strict organ­ic guide­lines, and in addi­tion oper­ates a man­u­fac­tur­ing facil­i­ty for clothes made of organ­ic cot­ton from its own fields.

Con­crete desert instead of a sea of sand

And yet, where there had been a desert of sand since the begin­ning of his­to­ry, there is now a con­crete desert. Cairo is grow­ing non-stop and with the mega-metrop­o­lis come pol­lu­tants: Auto­mo­tive and indus­tri­al exhaust gas­es, dust and diox­in from ille­gal­ly incin­er­at­ed waste. That is why Sekem is invest­ing in an 890 ha new loca­tion hun­dreds of miles away, in the mid­dle of the Libyan desert.

Expen­sive but effi­cient: with rotary irri­gia­tion you can plant more dense­ly and use machines on the whole field.

The desert shows off its great diver­si­ty in colours and shapes on the long dri­ve there. Then dark piles of com­post appear, and behind them you can see the rotary irri­ga­tion sys­tems.

“Acquir­ing the rotary irri­ga­tion is expen­sive, espe­cial­ly since we want to run the pumps on solar ener­gy,” explains farm man­ag­er Hany Has­sanein. But it has major advan­tages over a drip irri­ga­tion sys­tem: There are no pipes in the soil to keep break­ing down for a start. It is true that more water is used, but in turn it gen­er­ates almost twice the yield, because the farm can plant more dense­ly com­pared to the drip irri­gia­tion sys­tem.

Peo­ple have always grown plants in the desert, in and around the oases. Even today there are self-sup­port­ing farms that grow wheat, veg­eta­bles, for­age crops, pome­gran­ates, oranges or dates on small areas, irri­gat­ed from 50-60 m deep wells that sev­er­al farm­ers use joint­ly. These desert farm­ers flood their fields, since there is not enough mon­ey for effi­cient sys­tems. When they invest, they invest in solar pan­els for run­ning the pumps in order to save diesel. They don’t main­tain a sys­tem­at­ic soil struc­ture either. Many of these farms become over­salt­ed or are giv­en up for oth­er rea­sons, such as a low wheat price.

New farm­land

Behind Mr Has­sanein, men are walk­ing through the field and press­ing seedlings of mint into the wet sand. The unde­mand­ing and robust plant is sup­posed to grow in the field for the first three years. “That’s then fol­lowed by legumes for a sea­son, until we can plant med­i­c­i­nal plants or even veg­eta­bles.”

And where is the com­post? Only a few dark balls in the yel­low sand show that the soil has been pre­pared. Despite that, its full effects are evi­dent. For instance, the com­post pro­tects the soil from becom­ing over­salt­ed, which is a risk when the irri­ga­tion is so inten­sive, because the microor­gan­isms break down salt.

The tra­di­tion­al farm­ing area in the Nile val­ley is over-used and over-crowd­ed.

Orig­i­nal­ly, farm­ing in Egypt was pre­dom­i­nant­ly prac­ticed on the allu­vial soil of the Nile. How­ev­er, today this land is increas­ing­ly spoiled by devel­op­ment and bur­dened by sewage flows in the riv­er as well as residue pes­ti­cides. A gigan­tic dam project in Ethiopia on the upper course of the Nile could also mean a water short­age.

The farmed area has already increased by 7 % over the past 10 years and the cur­rent mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment wants to fur­ther expand domes­tic agri­cul­ture. But the only place that can hap­pen is in the desert. That is why the ambi­tious 1.5 m fed­dan (630,000 ha) project has been ini­ti­at­ed – the fed­dan, a unit of area still com­mon­ly used in the region, is equal to slight­ly over an acre.

The Sekem farm locat­ed 60 km north-east of Cairo pro­duces 8,000 t of com­post per year.

The inten­tion is for 630,000 ha of farm­land to be devel­oped from the desert and irri­gat­ed from wells sunk up to 1,000 m deep into the Nubian Sand­stone Aquifer Sys­tem, one of the largest aquifers in the world.

In the al-Farafra depres­sion for exam­ple, large plots of many hun­dreds of acres are being award­ed to investors. They have to bear the high costs of the devel­op­ment them­selves.

Pota­toes from the desert

The dri­ve takes us along well built roads through the white desert with its enor­mous lime­stone sculp­tures. Art, formed from desert storms and the scorch­ing sun. Semi-trail­ers with black, 2 t sacks full of pota­toes strug­gle north­ward on the oppo­site lane. What was once the tran­quil oasis of Farafra has now grown into a bustling cen­tre. Rows of semi-trail­ers are parked along­side the roads, while com­bines and trucks full of sacks of dung are rolling along them. Har­vest work­ers, with the tra­di­tion­al kufiya around their heads, wait for work in the shade of the few trees.

Some desert soils offer good con­di­tions for large-scale pota­to grow­ing.

On the Unit­ed Farm’s land, the pota­to har­vest is in full swing. For three years the country’s largest pro­duc­er of pota­to chips has rent­ed 688 ha here to expand its pro­duc­tion amidst the desert sands. Machines and peo­ple work ear­ly in the morn­ing, so that the pota­toes are already on their way north on the trucks by the time it gets hot. Now a trac­tor is plough­ing the residue under the soil and pil­ing up the embank­ments for the next plant­i­ng sea­son.

The soil is ide­al, which is by no means the case every­where in the desert.

Ali El Said

“The soil is ide­al, which is by no means the case every­where in the desert.” Qual­i­ty man­ag­er Ali El Said lets the sand trick­le through his fin­gers. “The top 40 cm is sand, which quick­ly gives off its mois­ture to the pota­toes.” The pota­toes are ripe after just three to four months. What’s more, the lev­elled, light soil pro­vides good con­di­tions for run­ning the rotary irri­ga­tion: It slow­ly and lazi­ly makes cir­cles, cov­er­ing an area of 50 ha or more in just 24 hours. Nutri­ents are mixed into the water and crop pro­tec­tion is sprayed on if it is need­ed.

Sus­tain­able cultivation

View from out­er space: Fields with rotary irri­gia­tion in Egypt’s desert.

Pota­toes are also grown on the vast farm­land area near the Unit­ed Farm. “The costs here are very high,” explains farm man­ag­er Mohamed Gad. Despite this, Dal­tex, Egypt’s largest pota­to pro­duc­er with 400,000 t sold per year, wants to expand cultivation by almost 8,100 ha so as to pro­duce seeds and organ­ic prod­ucts, most­ly for export. Crops are also being grown for export on oth­er desert farms in the 1.5 m fed­dan project.

But oth­er pro­duc­ers are also grow­ing corn or wheat for the Egypt­ian mar­ket on their land, and the crops on Daltex’s pota­to fields are also meant for Egypt. So will the project expand food pro­duc­tion for the local mar­ket? Or will it just open up new sources of for­eign cur­ren­cy for big investors?

Use of the Nubian Sand­stone Aquifer Sys­tem is con­tro­ver­sial, since it is a non-renew­able water resource. But does Egypt have anoth­er choice besides using its deserts for farm­ing? The space is there, it just needs to be used sus­tain­ably. Ide­al­ly by build­ing up a liv­ing lay­er of humus. That helps to save water, stop the soil from becom­ing over­salt­ed, and absorbs green­house gas­es. Tais­sir Saqr from the Sekem farm has the com­post need­ed for that.

Sekem – Facts and Fig­ures

  • 1977 Dr Ibrahim Abouleish estab­lish­es the first Sekem farm 60 km east of Cairo on 70 ha of desert.
  • 200 ha – the size of the farm today.
  • 3,000 ha of con­tract farm­ing by cer­ti­fied com­pa­nies.
  • 900 ha – the new site in the west­ern desert where Sekem is tap­ping into unspoiled land.
  • 8,000 t of com­post is pro­duced on the orig­i­nal farm every year to keep the cur­rent­ly farmed land fer­tile and to tap into new acreage.
  • 40-50 t/ha of com­post is mixed with the desert sand once, fol­lowed by 10 t per sea­son.
  • Along­side farm­ing, the Sekem Hold­ing which was found­ed in the year 2000 process­es herbs, spices and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal plants. It also pro­duces tex­tiles using organ­ic cot­ton, exports fruit and veg­eta­bles and under­takes organ­ic food pro­duc­tion.
  • With 600-700 m tea bags pro­duced a year using herbs from its own fields, Sekem is the biggest tea pro­duc­er in Egypt.