01 Nov 2018
Nuweiba, Egypt
Organic Food and Agriculture, Sustainable Tourism

Maged El Said knows as well as anyone that — for thousands of Egyptian households — strong tourism numbers and food security go hand-in-hand. In 1994, El Said and his wife Lorena Rancati opened Habiba Beach Lodge in Nuweiba — an idyllic, rustic beach town in the Sinai Peninsula. “The lodge did really well,” El Said recalled. “We were running three successful restaurants and tourists were coming from Sharm El Sheikh, Dahab and St Catherine.”

This prosperity took a huge hit in 2000, when the Second Intifada in nearby Palestine scared off many visitors from the Sinai. Local tourism suffered further with the onset of the global financial crisis (GFC), so El Said turned to a more sustainable way of supporting his family and friends: organic farming.

The community started growing its own fruit and vegetables, while trading locally caught fish for essentials like rice and oil. “The farm gave us food security during the drop in tourism,” he said. This agricultural project became today’s Habiba Organic Farm, a crucial element of Habiba Community’s tripartite, eco-friendly mission of farming, tourism and youth education.

Nuweiba is far from the only Egyptian community that needs to secure its long-term survival. The World Food Programme reports that Egypt’s poverty rate has climbed to 28 percent, while 16 percent of Egyptians have “poor” access to food. The Sinai area has long relied on beach and desert tourism to generate income. This industry suffered a shattering downturn in 2015, when terrorists blew up a Russian plane departing from regional hub Sharm El Sheikh. Russia and other countries imposed travel bans, as Egypt’s overall tourism revenue dropped by an alarming 44.3 percent within a year.

Russia will reportedly resume direct flights to Sharm El Sheikh in 2018, but this latest saga reiterated the need for Sinai communities to insulate themselves against Egypt’s volatile tourism market. Habiba Community, a collaborative association that El Said and Rancati facilitate, responded by diversifying Nuweiba’s appeal to outsiders. This involved supplementing traditional holiday accommodation at Habiba Beach Lodge with voluntourism, agritourism and edu-tourism.

“Habiba Community was alone at certain times in attracting tourists to Nuweiba,” El Said said. “This is why we share all of our information with the wider community.” Now Habiba Community is reinvesting profits in educating local children, ensuring that the next generation is equipped to carry the region into a sustainable future.

Farm as drawcard:

Habiba Community first established its fruit and vegetable farm in 2007, but it was not until two years later that the project became truly organic. “From 2009, volunteers started to open my eyes to organizations like World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), because young travellers liked working on these farms,” said El Said.

El Said brought himself up to speed on organic farming by learning from foreign tourists, as well as researching the topic on the internet. He implemented these ideas in creating Habiba Organic Farm, which he says was the first Egyptian entrant on the official WWOOF Independents list. The farm is also an official member of Egypt’s Center of Organic Agriculture, the industry’s national regulator.

Habiba Organic Farm produces a wide range of organic produce, depending on the season. Winter plays host to crops like beetroot, fava beans and onions, while the team grows okra, melons, pumpkins and more during the summer months.

The operation relies on volunteers to work on the farm for a minimum of three months, giving them time to learn and master basic agricultural skills. El Said would prefer that voluntourists remain for more than a year. “I believe in knowledge transfer, and that is not always easy to [establish] here,” he said, adding that Habiba Community’s tight budget usually precludes hiring long-term, qualified staff.

Habiba Organic Farm has other ways of drawing outsiders to stay in Nuweiba. In recent years, El Said has developed an “edu-tourism” business, where students can carry out research on topics like agriculture, botany and zoology in the farm’s unique, desert-coastal setting. He says that Habiba Community has strong links with major Egyptian universities, and plans to establish a new “campus and innovation center” in Nuweiba for student visitors.

Getting kids in classrooms:

Habiba Community has capitalized on the farm and lodge’s profitability by reinvesting funds in the local youth. Several years ago, it founded the Learning Center as an after-school program for Bedouin schoolchildren aged between 5 and 13 years. At first, the students learned specifically about farming, but lessons then branched out into Arabic, English and Mathematics.

The program quickly became oversubscribed, leading Habiba Community to build a bigger Learning Center with the help of volunteers. The school currently boasts a vibrant group of enthusiastic students, who learn valuable life skills in a fun setting.

As with all projects at Habiba Community, El Said has one eye firmly trained on the Learning Center’s future. “We needed to think about how to make the Learning Center sustainable, so that it will survive long after we are gone,” said El Said. One solution is the ambitious Sinai Palm Foundation, a pilot project aimed at providing a self-sustaining income stream for the Learning Center from cultivating date palms.

Habiba Community is proud to have breathed new life into Nuweiba, and El Said firmly believes that other areas can enjoy the same success. “Our agri-model can be replicated elsewhere with the appropriate management of resources,” he asserted. And of course — if any Egyptians do want to pursue this opportunity — they can come to Nuweiba and start asking questions.

 

Learn more about Habiba Community and Habiba Organic Farm through the website, Facebook and Instagram.

Photos courtesy of Habiba Community

Since getting his MA in Middle Eastern Studies last year, David has worked as a freelance journalist in Accra, Ghana and Cairo, Egypt.David Wood
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