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Jehan Nour El Din, being brought up in a Cairean elite family, attended Lycee Bab El Louk, one of the most prestigious international language schools at that time. With a strong will and determination, she managed to persuade her parents to transfer her to Orman School, an Egyptian governmental school, to be with her friends during her high school years. “I was like a black sheep among my family. I liked Egyptian music more than the classical European. I preferred belly dancing”, says Jehan. She always had the feeling that she should do something for her country. Even her teenage dreams were of patriotic nature. “I always dreamed of community projects, for example breaking down the slums and turning them into vertical houses with gardens and good schools”, she explains. After finishing high school, Nour El Din managed to maintain her scholarship at AUC for four consecutive years. However, she could not finish her MA since her children were too young and kept her busy. Nour El Din worked at CAC as a teacher of Egyptian Culture for 15 years. At CAC she learned a lot about team work, delegation, organization and how to apply everything learned to real life.
The idea of the organic food project evolved from a hobby that Jehan took on 13 years ago. She did not like the way her garden in Dahshour looked like. As her husband got her books on gardening, she began reading a lot about the subject. Her first attempt was a failure, as she spent $300 and lost all seeds. Hence she consulted specialists and read more, and the more she read, the more she got fascinated with how gardening teaches patience, understanding, love and above all belief in God. “I started getting seeds from here and abroad, planting huge amounts of flowers in trays until they grew into little seedlings, and then I would transfer them one by one into the soil. It is really amazing how different seeds are. Some even got wings”, explains Jehan, her eyes wide-open with fascination and passion. Her garden is like paradise on earth full of colors and beautiful scents. “I come here and forget all my problems”, Jehan reminisces. Currently, Nour El Din is a member of the Royal Horticultural Society in Britain.
Two and a half years ago, Jehan bought vegetable seeds with the intention of establishing an organic food project based on the thought that “It is extremely important that our children would eat clean food”. She mentioned that a study was done in the US on school children, where children ate normally grown fruits and vegetables for three days. A urine analysis conducted revealed strong traces of toxics. The children then were given organic food for ten days. The urine analysis did not contain any toxicity. Again, the children ate regular food for five days and toxics returned with the same percentages. Unlike our case here in Egypt, farmers in the US have to abide by strict environmental standards regarding the kind of pesticides and insecticides to be used, quantities, timing and the time of harvesting the crops. Nevertheless, the children in the study who were fed with regular food showed toxics in their urine. One should wonder what the effect would be on our children here in Egypt, where those rules of “correct” food growing are not even followed to that extent. In addition to her profound reliance on books, Jehan referred to the Egyptian Center for Organic Agriculture (ECOA) for consultation. The ECOA certifies organic food and recommends specialists that provide guidance. “Now I’ve cultivated eight feddans and I’ve built four green houses”, Jehan proudly states, “It is not great, but we’re improving”. Jehan started by distributing her vegetables to family members and acquaintances on a weekly basis for a certain fee per month. She began with only five families and then the number increased to 30.
The monthly fee collected from the families barely covered 60-65% of the expenses. The high cost associated with cultivating organic crops is a major challenge. Palm trees, for example, require L.E 15,000 per month to be fertilized and weeded organically. To Jehan, this is not considered a waste, “because nothing can substitute good health”.
The lack of good, reliable caliber to work with constitutes another problem. This issue cannot be easily solved due to scarcity on the one hand and on the other hand due to the fact that the project is still not breaking even. Furthermore, there is no professional, organized entity that one can refer to for information acquisition and doing research. Even the huge library of the Ministry of Agriculture is not easily accessible. Jehan was furious that the librarian there did not allow her to go check the books herself. Instead, he insisted that she would tell him the subject of research so that he could get the book and photocopy it for her. Furthermore, specialists on a professional basis are rare to find. When she wanted to grow artichokes, she got the help of a specialist and paid for the seeds, however, only 20% of the crop survived. After doing her own research, she discovered that artichokes need lots of drainage; the fact that caused the crop to rotten was the soil’s clay nature under the sand. Agriculture needs patience and “if you don’t love it, you would find it unbearable”, Jehan points out. In addition to thefts, pumping up water to her cultivated desert land using engines is also another challenge.
Jehan Nour El Din does not want to stop at that point. She intends to expand her successful project to include organic fruits, chicken, eggs and milk, hoping that current and future generations would be offered a more diversified variety of clean food. In the course of her work, Jehan gathered a huge amount of information, which she hopes to put in a book that would provide a good reference to those who would like to cultivate organically. Jehan suggests the formation of an Egyptian Horticultural Society to teach people about gardening and cultivation. She thinks that it should provide classes with different grade levels even for people who want to do their lawn or grow indoor plants.