Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Habiba Community – building sustainability and community resilience in South Sinai

by Alice Gray

Workshop for local farmers with technicians from the Ministry of Agriculture, November 2014. Photo by Habiba Community. 

Nestled between the rugged Sinai Mountains and the gently lapping waters of the Red Sea in Nuweiba, a small port town in southern Sinai, lies Habiba Community: a pioneering organic farm, a community agriculture initiative, a learning centre and a beach lodge.

The vision of Habiba is to support the Sinai community in creating a secure and abundant future for themselves, transitioning away from dependency on tourism and government handouts. Maged El Said and his wife Lorena started the project in 2007, motivated by their love for the community that had become their home over the past 20 years. 

Nuweiba village is in South Sinai, an area traditionally populated by Bedouin tribes, which saw rapid development as a tourist destination during the latter half of the 20th century, as the beguiling beauty of the Red Sea’s pristine coral reefs combined with the austere splendor of the Sinai peninsular’s granite and sandstone mountains was recognized.

Unfortunately, all too often, this development took no account of either the environment or the local communities, and much damage has been done to both. In Sharm el Sheikh, the most popular resort in the region, there is barely a single Bedouin owned business and the local community has been almost completely disenfranchised from the lucrative tourist industry that has sprung up. Hotels with swimming pools and lawns guzzle scarce water resources and pollute the environment with their wastes. Many tourists travel to Sharm el Sheikh on all-inclusive ‘package deals’, some barely leaving their hotels and many not venturing outside the town. Today, over 45% of Sinai’s Bedouin community live in poverty according to the Social Fund for Development’s 2013 Poverty Map (read report here: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/04/sinai-egypt-residents-anger-empty-government-promises.html). 

In Dahab and Nuweiba, on the south-eastern coast, the story was a little different, as development was more often done in cooperation with the Bedouin communities. The resorts that grew up had a very different feel to them, with sea-side beach lodges constructed of local materials, and sometimes with Bedouin owners, offering rustic accommodation and Bedouin guides offering safaris and camel treks into the interior. Maged (originally from Cairo) founded Habiba Beach Lodge in 1994, and for many years ran a successful business in cooperation with his neighbours. Today, however, tourism is in decline, due to growing political instability in the region, and cannot be exclusively relied on to provide livelihoods. Due to the heavy investment of Egyptian businessmen in Sharm el Sheikh, this area is protected inside a security cordon maintained by the Egyptian army, but this protection does not extend to resorts further north, like Nuweiba. 

Hence, Habiba Community was born, in an effort to diversify income and create food security through pioneering and promoting sustainable, organic agriculture. First, Maged bought land and set up Habiba Organic Farm, to pioneer successful techniques for desert farming and experiment with novel crops. 

Moringa oleifera trees at Habiba Farm, November 2014. Photo by Alice Gray.

The farm is a mixed orchard and vegetable production system, with poultry and other small livestock. Maged was the first farmer in Sinai to grow Moringa oleifera, sometimes known as the ‘miracle tree’ – a fast growing, nitrogen-fixing, drought tolerant tree with a multiplicity of uses. The leaves are edible and are a ‘superfood’ with enormous nutritional benefits: containing more Vitamin C than oranges and more iron than spinach (find out more here: http://miracletrees.org/). The seeds are high in nutritious oil and are also edible, or can be used as a flocculant for purifying water. Maged has had enormous success with this crop and is experimenting with inter-planting it with Date Palms – a signature crop of the Sinai.

Maged has worked hard to share his ideas and successes with others, inviting experts to give workshops for aspiring farmers free of charge, supporting several new farmers to start up their businesses, distributing seeds and equipment and building a network for marketing organic produce. Every week, he attends the Dahab Community Market, holding a stall all day to sell produce and raise awareness of Habiba and its work. 

Maged El Said managing his store at Dahab Community Market, February 2014. Photo by Alice Gray.

He also started the Sinai Date Palm Foundation as a way for community members to buy in without having to buy land or start their own farms. This innovative but simple strategy is to sell ‘shares’ in a date growing business, where high quality Medjool date palms are grown and maintained by the Habiba Farm team, and processed and sold by the Date Palm Foundation. By buying a share, a community member becomes the owner of one tree and receives 80% of the profit from the sale of the raw product (20% is taken to cover the costs of running the farm). The Foundation undertakes to buy all the dates from the farm and process and market them, providing jobs for local people. Profits are used to expand the business, and buy more equipment or more land (or you could say, surpluses are returned to the system). 

Never content to rest on their laurels, Habiba have recently started a brand new Learning Centre to help educate the children of Nuweiba and equip them with the skills they need to face an uncertain future. Education in the Sinai is generally poorly funded and somewhat ineffectual as the Sinai Bedouin remain one of the most marginalised sectors of Egyptian society. Lorena Al Said is leading an initiative to support the education of local children, teaching English, Arabic, Music, Art and of course, farming skills in an after school club, open 5 days per week. The Learning Centre has proved enormously popular and now has around 40 regular participants. 

Lorena Al Said working with Nuweiba children at Habiba Learning Centre. Photo by Habiba Community.

Indeed, the program is so popular that new facilities need to be built so that it can continue to grow and prosper. In cooperation with ECOntACT (www.econtact.be), an Italian group promoting all forms of reuse and exchange, Habiba Community will construct a strawbale building to serve as a classroom and laboratory. Funding is being generated through the participation of paying volunteers and through the sale of arts and crafts made by the children in the after school club, at Dahab community market. The build is set to take place from January 1-7 2015, and there is still time to sign up if you would like to support a worthwhile project while soaking up some winter sun (go to www.econtact.be to find out more)!

In the seven years it has been in operation, Habiba Community has gone from strength to strength. Although Maged is not a PDC holder, and did not set out to create a permaculture project per se, the principles of permaculture are evident in a lot of what he has done; and furthermore, his goal of achieving a sustainable and resilient community is the essence of what permaculture is about. The success of the farm speaks for itself, and the farm manager (Tha’er) is a superbly skilled technician, with a lot to teach about arid zones farming. They have a growing awareness of permaculture design as a strategy that could be of real benefit to the community and are eager to learn more, to apply design principles to existing projects, to innovate and experiment, and to host courses: building local capacity as well as gaining international attention and financial support for their work.

Habiba is open to receiving volunteers all year round, and it is a wonderful place to relax, let the sound of the sea fill your ears and the quiet, green growing energy of their desert farm transport you to a vision for a sustainable and abundant future. 

Maged Al Said (left) with farmer Abu Rami (2nd from right) at a desert farm that Habiba Community helped establish between Nuweiba and Dahab

Find out more and keep updated at www.habibaorganicfarm.com

Contact Maged on nuweiba@gmail.com

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