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.
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.
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).
Lorena Al Said working with Nuweiba children at Habiba Learning Centre. Photo by Habiba Community.
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
Contact Maged on email@example.com