Yemen’s ancient crop for the modern world

Mokhtar Alkhanshali hangs up the phone. He seems pleased: “It was an emergency call from Yemen. We’re sending some samples out for our new harvest, and it’s really difficult to get coffee airlifted into the United States. Most airlines or delivery companies won’t do anything from Yemen because of the war that’s raging. It’s [one of] the only regions in the world that outsiders are too afraid to source coffee from.” Alkhanshali is one of maybe a dozen entrepreneurs pursuing Yemen’s coveted but inaccessible natural Arabica coffees. He’s one of even fewer who can actually get coffee out of the country right now. This logistical challenge, largely due to the country’s civil war that has been going on officially for the past three years – and unofficially for many more – is only one of many that he and other players in the Yemen coffee industry are up against. The laundry list of challenges, however, is not enough to deter these enterprising individuals who know the long history of coffee in Yemen. They have seen the quality the region can produce and the prices it can command in the global market. A history of coffee
Yemen’s history with coffee dates back nearly 600 years – in fact, to the beginning of coffee as consumers know it. While some industry experts debate the true origin of the coffee plant, most will agree that Yemen is responsible for coffee as a commodity and culture. “The coffee plant actually originated somewhere in Ethiopia where it grew wildly. [Some would] consume the coffee cherry, but the first cup of coffee was brewed and poured in Yemen,” explains Alkhanshali. Sufi monks were the first to consume coffee as a beverage. They believed God had created coffee to help them stay awake during nightly devotions. As such, it was highly worshipped among this Islamic sect. But once coffee’s commercial potential was uncovered, it was produced, distributed, and consumed on a greater scale. Eventually coffee consumption spread outside of Yemen, but in an attempt to control its monopoly, Yemen outlawed selling green seedlings. “If you were caught selling seedlings to a foreigner, you would be executed by authorities,” Alkhanshali says. All seeds that left the country were heated so that the embryo in the seed would die, and the coffee couldn’t be propagated. In the 1600s, however, seven seedlings strapped to the undergarments of an Indian pilgrim made their way to southern India, where the coffee trees flourished. Similarly, a seedling made it’s way to France, where Louis XIV erected Europe’s first greenhouse for what became known as the Noble Tree. Three hundred years later, most of the world’s coffee production can trace its root back to that one tree, explains Alkhanshali. From there, “coffee made its way to Central and South America, [where] Brazil now produces one-third of the world’s coffee from this one tree from Yemen”. Despite expanding global production, Yemen remained a leading producer and exporter of coffee in the 17th and 18th centuries. Major port city Al-Mokha was at the centre of the booming industry and its expanding trade networks, inspiring the moniker for a popular high-altitude varietal with chocolate notes. Moreover, coffee drinkers began adding cocoa to their coffee to replicate the taste and, thus, emerged the mocha. At its height, Yemen was exporting more than 907,000 60-kilogram bags of dry-processed coffee, but that aforementioned list of challenges has since decimated production and exports. During the past 10 years, exports have averaged about 50,000 60-kilogram bags, according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), with the majority sold as low grade to nearby Saudi Arabia. Exports to the United States hit an all-time low in 2012, according to the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Coffee is one of Yemen’s most important agricultural commodities, but only about three per cent of the arid landscape is considered farmable, with most coffee grown in narrow valleys and steep mountain terraces up to 2500 metres, according to USAID. Due to the country’s constant water shortages, Yemen remains one of few coffee-producing countries that never switched to wet processing. Production has averaged about 178,000 60-kilogram bags per year during the past 10 years, according to ICO, on the back of several banner seasons from 2004 to 2009. During those stronger years, though meagre compared to its heyday, Yemen and its coffee industry were getting a lot of attention from foreign aid programs. The Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) began work in Yemen in 2006 with various projects over the years led largely by current Executive Director David Roche. With help from USAID, the team created a working group, hosted two naturals conferences, conducted valuable genetics research with the University of Sana’a and World Coffee Research, and much more. Through early 2015, the various projects helped make incremental improvements in the local coffee industry. “The industry got more organised, the university got involved and was very instrumental, on-the-ground projects were started and some exporters saw increased consistency,” Roche says. Additionally, Yemen joined the ICO in 2008 and the World Trade Organization in 2014. Roche says CQI’s work in Yemen also helped renew some interest from global coffee buyers, but growing conflict in the country only exacerbated the already complex logistics. It got so bad, in fact, that a five-year, US$25 million USAID project with Land O’Lakes was suspended before completion and foreign workers were forced to leave the country.

War on all fronts
The war has been a significant challenge of late for Yemen’s coffee industry. In addition to the logistical challenges, the conflict between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government has decimated villages, displaced millions, restricted access to food and water, and led to a cholera outbreak. As of March 2018, more than 10,000 have been killed by conflict and more than 5 million children are at risk of starvation, according to nonprofit Save the Children. “It’s no surprise then that the coffee sector there has been struggling,” says Willem Boot, a coffee consultant and roaster who worked with Alkhanshali and Roche on various projects in Yemen. When he was there to lead a cupping caravan with CQI, farmers and exporters would ask him: “What are you guys doing here from the US? You’re bombing our villages on a daily basis and at the same time you’re giving us money to put the country and the coffee sector back together. What sense does that make?” Meanwhile, the coffee industry is waging its own war, one against a popular crop that doesn’t have to be exported and earns significantly greater profit. Khat is a flowering plant containing an addictive stimulant. As demand for coffee stagnated while demand for khat expanded, farmers have been enticed by the steadier income, replacing coffee plantings with khat. “For every one coffee farm, there are seven khat farms,” Alkhanshali says. “They’re ashamed about growing khat and would rather grow coffee, but it’s just the current reality.” As an incentive to switch back to coffee – and to ensure his strict quality standards – Alkhanshali pays farmers significantly more than market prices. Since launching in 2015, Port of Mokha has helped replace 200,000 khat plants with coffee trees. Shabbir Ezzi, an Indian entrepreneur with ancestral roots in Yemen, has been taking a similar approach since he entered the Yemen coffee business in 2006. During a visit with his family, he saw the rampant, destructive proliferation of khat farming alongside a diminishing coffee industry that had so much potential. “Yemeni farmers were rapidly replacing their coffee plantations with khat farms, without realising the certain devastation that would be caused by this trend,” explains Ezzi. “Being a businessman at heart, I formulated a plan that would trigger the reversal of this trend, while being profitable for all concerned in order to ensure its sustainability.” Similar to the model behind fair trade prices, Al-Ezzi Industries guarantees a fixed minimum price for coffee. If market prices fall, farmers are protected. In the opposite direction, there is no cap on prices and farmers have the potential to earn higher prices and credits toward new coffee plants and machinery, for example, if they deliver higher volumes. Strength in specialty
Even though Al-Ezzi is working to lessen the gap between prices at each end of the value chain, Yemeni coffee farmers are actually some of the highest paid in the industry. Because Yemen produces small volumes of some of the highest-quality and rarest coffees in the world, and because the coffee is so hard to procure, it can command hefty prices on the consumer side. In fact, Blue Bottle sold its Port of Mokha coffee, the company’s first-ever shipment, for an unprecedented US$16 per cup. While Yemen farmers still only see a minuscule share of that $16, higher prices are achieved at each stage of the value chain. “Yemen is one of the most expensive coffee markets in the world and its coffee is the most expensive to produce per pound,” Alkhanshali says. Although he expects costs, and thus prices, to come down slightly after the conflict eases, he and others acknowledge Yemen’s uniqueness in that its coffee industry is insulated from changes in global coffee prices due to its coveted, albeit inaccessible, small volumes. These are factors that foreign aid programs and coffee industry associations plan to capitalise on in an eventual rebuilding of the Yemen coffee sector. Given that only 15 to 20 per cent of total annual production is specialty grade, there is a lot of room for growth. In fact, Roche estimates at least 40 per cent of Yemen’s coffee could be sold as specialty. Increasing its presence in the specialty coffee market, which means premiums for farmers, is currently the focus for creating a sustainable coffee industry in Yemen that can compete at the global level. Coffee is “the only sector that has any chance of bringing in foreign currency”, Boot says. “So [future] strategy has to be focused on rebuilding the coffee sector specifically in order to help establish a better and stronger economy for the country.” While Yemen has a comparative advantage in the specialty market, low volumes and inconsistency are what turned off major buyers over a decade ago. Yemen lacks the sophistication to deal with the globalisation of the specialty coffee market in an effective and efficient manner, according to CQI’s 2006 report by Roche and co-author Steve McCarthy, so adopting a quality-based focus with a niche market approach is paramount. As such, experts and program proposals emphasise the importance of strengthening the local industry’s quality infrastructure. Roche claims he is a Yemen optimist but isn’t confident that the country can bounce back without outside help, such as previous support like USAID and CQI. Similarly, Boot encourages the Specialty Coffee Association to take a more proactive role and also sees significant value in a cupping lab for necessary quality assessment, education, and standards. Other key steps include creating a governing industry body, best agricultural practices, more structure and transparency in the value chain, and dedicated marketing and promotional efforts. While experts have prioritised different action items, they all agree that Yemen’s coffee industry has great potential despite its many challenges. They also agree that the potential is rooted largely in coffee’s historical roots in Yemen and farmers’ love and passion for the ancient crop. “The Yemeni coffee sector is well on the path of revival to recover its glorious past and rich heritage, but there are still hurdles to overcome,” Ezzi admits. “Nevertheless, together the uniqueness and high quality of Yemeni coffee, the centuries old experience of local farmers and the growing appetite for specialty coffee will pave the way for the permanent establishment of a strong coffee industry in Yemen.”

Leave a Reply

Send this to a friend