When you ask Helmy Abouleish, director of the Egyptian company SEKEM, whether his organisation has the 17 goals that were adopted by the UN in 2015 as a priority, his answer is: “Not as such”.
But his restrained response is a rarity nowadays. Businesses, governments, and organisations all like to spell out and broadcast to everyone how seriously they are working with the Global Goals – a global objective that has been called “the world’s most important plan”.
Helmy Abouleish’s response is not because SEKEM ignores the challenges that the UN Global Goals are trying to overcome. It is simply that SEKEM, since its inception in 1977, has been in the process of working towards the objectives already.
“Since the foundation of SEKEM, we have been working holistically on sustainable development. For us, this means working with nature and not against it,” says Abouleish, whose father travelled from Austria back to his native country Egypt back in the 1970s, bought some land near the Nile, and started up an organic farm.
In our view, sustainable development can only be achieved if you not only work for the environment, but also for a fair economic system, for education, and for societal development.Helmy Abouleish
Now, 40 years later, the company has more than 1,500 employees.
“In our view, sustainable development can only be achieved if you not only work for the environment, but also for a fair economic system, for education, and for societal development,” says Helmy Abouleish.
This means that SEKEM has, over the years, evolved into something much greater than what we normally understand as a production company.
“We own our own factories that process our products, and our employees have decent working conditions. Our goal is not economic growth but to produce good and healthy products in a responsible manner. We have a comprehensive strategy on equality, and we include people with disabilities. Last but not least, we give our employees – and thousands of people from the surrounding villages – access to a medical clinic,” says Helmy Abouleish.
A good sustainable business
SEKEM did not need to change its methods as a result of the adoption of the Global Goals in 2015. But there are many other companies in Egypt that are in the process of finding out how they can make their businesses, jobs, and production sustainable.
“In Denmark, we have come a long way in terms of the Global Goals, but improvements can be made in all countries. This also applies to Egypt, where they have worked on CSR for many years. But the private sector needs to generally be better at integrating the Global Goals into its strategic business development,” says Jacob Kjeldsen, who is director of the international business advisory services in the Confederation of Danish Industries (DI).
The private sector needs to generally be better at integrating the Global Goals into its strategic business development.”Jacob Kjeldsen
Director, International Business Advisory Services, Confederation of Danish Industries (DI)
The Confederation of Danish Industries (DI) has worked for social dialogue, job creation, and sustainable businesses in Egypt since 2014. In January, the Confederation of Danish Industries partnered with the Federation of Egyptian Industries (FEI) to hold the conference SDGrowth in Cairo. Three hundred ministers, directors, and investors from the Middle East gathered to get inspiration on how Global Goal ambitions can be achieved while benefiting business at the same time.
“In DI, we see the Global Goals as a kind of megatrend that will have major implications for the business sector. This also applies to Egyptian companies. So, it was important for us in DI and FEI that this conference put the private sector on the agenda in relation to the Global Goals in an Egyptian context,” says Jacob Kjeldsen.
As the title of the conference SDGrowth indicates, part of the purpose was to show how the Global Goals do not have to be an obstacle to creating a profitable business.
“I am convinced that businesses and populations, sooner or later, will have to bear the high costs of, say, pollution.”Helmy Abouleish
When you ask Helmy Abouleish whether he as director of SEKEM has experienced any contradiction between operating a sustainable business and operating a profitable business, he replies:
“No, quite the contrary. I think that a business has to incorporate the Global Goals if it is to be profitable in the long term. The world is changing, and I am convinced that businesses and populations will sooner or later have to bear the high costs of, say, pollution.”
A huge challenge
The Egyptian government launched its Vision 2030 in 2017, which is a comprehensive plan to transform the country’s economy and society so that it is possible to achieve the Global Goals. The government was therefore also invited to the SDGrowth conference.
“The government was represented at the conference, together with ministers, advisers, and government department heads, and a part of the conference’s purpose was to inspire the government to think businesses into the grand visions and plans,” says Jacob Kjeldsen.
“To operate a sustainable business under these conditions is a huge challenge.”Helmy Abouleish
But despite the government’s visions, intentions, and plans, Helmy Abouleish experiences the challenges in operating a sustainable business in Egypt.
“Egypt is one of the countries most affected by climate change. We have a strong population growth, increasing environmental pollution, a poor educational system, and a challenging political situation. The list goes on and on. To operate a sustainable business under these conditions is a huge challenge,” he says.
The global challenges held in common
Climate change, poor education, and population growth are not things that have a particularly strong impact on Danish companies’ opportunities. So, how can knowledge sharing between Danish and Egyptian companies in connection with a conference like SDGrowth make sense for both parties?
“The Global Goals address the global challenges that we face, so all companies – both Danish and Egyptian – need to contribute to solve them. Companies can therefore inspire each other across countries, sectors, and sizes. Danish companies, for example, are good at resource efficiency, and Egyptian companies can therefore make their production more energy-efficient and resource-efficient by implementing Danish solutions and products,” says Jacob Kjeldsen.
Helmy Abouleish also considers the global exchange of experience to be valuable.
“SEKEM is driven by a strong network of like-minded people from all over the world who have the same vision of creating a better world. We can only create a sustainable future if more and more people and institutions act in concert – if they share experiences, inspire each other, and work together. SDGrowth was a fantastic platform to do just that,” he says.
Support from the Danish Ambassador
The Danish Ambassador to Egypt, Tomas Anker Christensen, supports activities like the SDGrowth conference and sees great potential in Egypt learning from Denmark when it comes to bringing different players together for a common purpose.
“The Danish government is committed to promoting a green transition and creating sustainable societies with growth, welfare, economic freedom, and jobs. SDGrowth is a template for how the Danish model in Egypt can bring together players from state, civil society, and businesses, across disciplines, to share knowledge, develop new initiatives, and promote the Danish business community and Danish solutions,” he says.