Interview: Zakaria Ezz Labib
Zakaria Ezz Labib is the founder and president of the Green Dessert Association. Zakaria studied agric at the University of Minya. He leads the seven-headed board. In 2008, Green Dessert Farm began with the cultivation of several acres of land in the middle of the desert. Since 2009 they have permission from the government to do this. Meanwhile, the association has more than 10 real members. You don't become a member overnight, Zakaria chooses members of different faiths, backgrounds and ages, who have heart for the business, according to him. Many of the members are also on the board. However Zakaria is and remains ultimately responsible.
An interview with the founder of the Green Dessert Farm:
I. The project
a. Can you shortly describe the genesis / history of the Green Dessert Farm-project?
Once a student I started fighting for a better living in my village. Every year, I tried to get an upgrade for my people. I donated cattle, the banks of the Nile were strengthened and we introduced a ferry to get to the other side safely. We built a new school and a grid. But I kept on seeing collision between people of different backgrounds. Along time ago I lost a brother and an uncle in these collisions.
In 2008 I started here in the desert to achieving my dream. With the farm I did not just want to create a productive place where people can live off the land. I wanted the farm also to become a place where people live without religion or ethnicity playing a bad role. On the farm we live according to very simple core values. These values do not discriminate on the basis of that kind of business. Everyone is first and foremost a human for us, and then Christian or Muslim.
But first I had to get the business going, get the farm on track. I started in 2008 with cultivating a piece of desert land. Paving the main roads, hitting a ground water well, laying of irrigation canals, planting crops and later purchasing cattle. Slowly but surely the desert plain became greener. I could then also start thinking about things that are not directly related to agriculture, but with my dream. So we are really completely started from scratch here in the desert.
b. What has the impact of the project since then, on the target group and local community and surroundings?
Meanwhile, we provided a working space for 50 different people on the farm, both Islamic and Christian. Moreover, there occasionally come groups to learn about agriculture at the farm and about my dream. If we carry on as now, we will achieve something that I call 'safe life' . People can attend school, can live a pure life of the countryside and can live without conflict, all on my farm.
For now, however, I will be forced to look to the near future: how to keep the GDF running in the short term, without even thinking about the next step forward?
c. What has motivated you to start your development project?
For me the motivation was found in my youth. When I was 15 years old, my brother, brother in law and uncle were murdered by Islamic people. In my village, these two groups used to fight all the time. Just because they did not understand each other! I felt all those problems, and wanted to do something to bring people closer together, Islamic or Christian. Moreover, my village was very poor, there was nothing. The project start was also a hope for better times. I wanted to take care of those others in our village. Farmers in Egypt are simple people who want a simple, honest and pure life. That combined with the dream to do something for my community, led to the Green Dessert Farm project.
d. What is, according to you, the strongest point of the project?
The strong point of Green Dessert Farm at this time is that the members all really care about the business, real passion. These are all people who are there for each other, not for money, not for themselves. All these people all had to make a choice, but they are all here. They all have the goal to do something for each other and for the community. I think that makes the farm very strong.
e. What is, according to you, the biggest challenge / point of improvement for the project?
Money is always a challenge for us. I think we can say that have the plans and visions. The expertise in the field of agriculture is certainly present. Of course there are challenges such as unstable government and natural factors. But there are especially a lot of things (dreams) that can be truly realized just fine, only the means are not always there to do it. I have so many dreams, but everything needs to be done step by step. That is sometimes very difficult.
II. Development (aid) - north / south relations
a. What is your idea on development?
Overall I think there are very many good people and organizations worldwide, who all want to achieve something. I think leadership in all this is very important for a community. Every community, large or small needs a leader who is at the basis of development. Someone that people look up to, are inspired by, who is envied for all I care. Someone who always makes an initial spark. For example, I hope I can be that person for Green Dessert Farm and in my village. Someone that creates 'sparks'.
b. There is a lot of Western organizations starting development projects in Africa. What is your general vision on this development-aid?
Foreign support is absolutely useful, for GDF perhaps even indispensable. The problem in Egypt is that we have many people who take this foreign aid and put it into their own pockets, under the guise of some development project. Western organizations need to be much more on top of this, is my opinion. Giving money alone is not enough. They better find out where they put their money on, not just give! If all the money which is coming from abroad would be invested in people who spend it really well, then everything here would go a lot better. It is frustrating to see this go wrong, while Green Dessert Farm is sometimes financially so tight! That's a good tip to In2Afrika as well. Look at all the projects very cloesely and do not simply give.
c. What, according to you, are the main pitfalls / challenges for Western organizations That want to develop other / foreign communities?
It is much better when Western projects work together with locals, instead of completely self-started. This in the first place, for purely practical reasons. The non-African organizations often lack a network and local knowledge. People from outside would have many problems to start such a project here. The government will oppose this. It is difficult to get land, for example. The contact with the people here, is therefore also difficult.
So I am very much in favor of working with locals, primarily because of all the benefits. I also think that monitoring can be a trap. Even the Dutch organization that supports us (Stichting Teje) would actually have to come here more often. Not because I'm not to be trusted, but just to see with their own eyes what steps we take, where their support goes to. Of course, the distance makes it difficult, but this could be something in which more investments should be made.
d. What, according to you, are the main pitfalls / challenges for African's that want to develop their own communities?
These are mainly practical problems. In Egypt you are often dependent on a government, which at present is still very unstable. Since the revolution last government business very long. For example, it took years before I actually had this piece of land in my possession.
But beyond the practical problems, Plenty of people and organizations can be found in Egypt who want to advance their region, city or country.
e. The In2Afrika Foundation takes the civil society as main principles, in which small scale and local practice are the two most important factors. What is your opinion on this startingpoint?
I agree with you, especially as regards the small scale and local nature of projects. GDF also works via that way. We started from our own village, so local small scale. But that way you can also influence bigger groups, sometimes it's SO good that it gets bigger and bigger, and you join outside your own local core. So I certainly agree with the local principle, but you should not be afraid also to influence people beyond that. But that will come. See it as a plant, which has to grow. From desert to cultivated area!
III. Image of Africa
a. What is, accor ding to you, the current prevailing Western image of the African continent?
People in the West sometimes see Africa as another world. People often have the idea that the people in Africa are less intelligent people. GDF shows that it is possible to set up complex projects in Africa that are substantively very strong and profound. There are also very many people in Africa who are trying very hard to get ahead. People who try to help and try to make something of their lives. People from the West often do not see this at all. They do not see that these people are trying to move forward, only to see that these people are disadvantaged. With that, they see these people as not being full people.
b. What's your opinion on these images?
I think these are unjustified images. Egypt, for example, is not a poor country! We have the Nile and its fertile banks of 'black land'. The desert is also despite everything a very rich area. And we do not even have a government that supported us, like you. The West must change this image, because it doesn't do much good for Africa at all.
c. How should this image be changed?
I'm not saying we do not need help. There used to go a lot of money to Africa, which disappeared into the wrong pockets. And that is wrong. But it's also a bit of a affliction on yourself if you do not come to see how it really is here. Every Westerner must therefore come visit us! You can not talk or judge about a place you've never been. Let alone just send money! This is naive and you'll be disappointed afterwards in Africa, while it is your own fault.
d. What does the Green Dessert Farm project do to create an image of the project and of the African continent in general?
There is a lot of misery, but everyone has the strength to go! We do something very difficult. Do you know how hard it is to plant a seed in the desert. STRAIGHT FROM NOTHING! That's power. And see how things have changed here in the dessert, in 8 years! That is willpower, people can learn something from this.
Green Dessert is thereby a metaphor for life. If you choose to live only for yourself and with negative feelings towards others (other religions for example) you will live in the desert. When you are able to let go of this and live a simpler life where everyone is human and which helps others and your environment, you will make your dessert green again!