From Yemeni coffee fields to a Texan lab: the struggle to resurrect a traditional Arabic sector

Coffee was first commercially traded in Yemen nearly 600 years ago. The country’s trade has hardly progressed since and international ambitions have been quashed by a bloody civil war. While the industry is now under threat, it has attracted high-profile supporters who plan to return Yemeni coffee to its previous prominence
From Yemeni coffee fields to a Texan lab: the struggle to resurrect a traditional Arabic sector
By Shane McGinley
Fri 11 Dec 2015 03:37 AM

Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American coffee trader, was walking along the street in the southern city of Aden when he was attacked, bound, blindfolded and thrown in the back of a pickup truck. While he managed to escape, he overheard his attackers talking about a sea link between the Yemeni port city of Mokha and the African state of Djibouti.

The information came in handy a week later when he was packing to prepare to fly back to the US to attend an annual industry conference staged by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).

His plans were thrown into disarray when the airport in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, was bombed shortly before he was due to leave. Determined to attend the SCAA event and showcase the country’s struggling coffee industry, Alkhanshali and Andrew Nicholson, a Texan coffee trader now living in Yemen, set out on a dramatic journey to make it to the Seattle conference on time.

Alkhanshali and Nicholson took a seven-hour drive to the port of Mokha. From there, they persuaded a local fishing boat captain to take them on the five-hour journey across the Red Sea to Africa. Following a flight to Kenya and onwards to the US, the two men eventually made it to Seattle in time. Alkhanshali recounted the duo’s dramatic journey in interviews to several media outlets, such as the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera, and he soon began to be referred to as “The Indiana Jones of Coffee”.

The tale certainly helped create media buzz at the SCAA event. Large crowds were drawn to a breakfast-tasting showcase fronted by Alkhanshali, who owns the export company Mocha Mill, based in Oakland, California, and to Nicholson’s booth for his Yemen-based mill and export company, Rayyan Mill.

Many entrepreneurs claim to have poured their blood, sweat and tears into developing their businesses but for those involved in the Yemeni coffee industry this is literally the case and many, like Alkhanshali and Nicholson, have put their lives on the line several times to help advance this ancient trade.

Although Ethiopia is renowned as the birthplace of coffee, Yemen is where the beans were first commercially traded, more specifically at the port city of Mokha, since 1450. While oil and gas account for a quarter of Yemen’s GDP, agriculture is the backbone of the economy. Coffee is produced in 17 out of the 21 Yemeni governorates, with around 600,000 people involved in growing the beans.

Mokha is located in the southern part of Yemen taken over by the Houthis during their military offensive in March 2015 and the coffee industry has been all but decimated as a result of the bloody conflict. However, even before this, statistics show that since 2007 production was almost stagnant at approximately 300,000 bags per year.

The value of the sector had also dropped from $17,584,341 in 2005 to $10,381,619 in 2012. Overall, the volume of coffee grown in Yemen before the conflict had already declined by about 50 percent from what it was during the 1950s, according to a report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

While production has begun to restart in some areas, those in the industry are optimistic it can get back on its feet, especially after the large crowds and interest it received at the SCAA event in April.

“It depends on your definition of ‘on its feet’. Will it return to its glory days of ancient times when it was the centre of the world’s production? With climate change and political instability, probably not,” says Andrew Hetzel, a Hawaii-based quality and trade specialist for the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), which helped organise the SCAA tasting event in Seattle this year. “The people of Yemen, however, are resourceful and the coffee of Yemen is a rare genetic gem that has survived for centuries. I wouldn’t count them out just because of this latest news in millennia of conflict.”

So what makes Yemeni coffee so appealing? A 2013 report by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) outlined four elements which make it so unique: firstly, the existence of unique heirloom varieties have resulted in the ability of the Yemeni coffee trees to yield unparalleled flavour profiles. Other reasons are high altitudes of more than 2,000 metres, the centuries-old traditions used in the cultivation and processing of the beans and, lastly, the challenging growing conditions, resulting in stressed coffee beans. (Pictured below is the coffee hills of Yemen)

The popularity of the coffee and the low level of supply means Yemeni coffee is also one of the most expensive in the world. “Yemen coffee has low production volumes, is difficult to farm due to limited resources and export due to infrastructure and political challenges,” Hetzel says of the high cost. “There is also a lack of low-cost farm labour and financing at reasonable interest rates to carry farmers through the annual crop cycle. The combination of these factors makes coffee farming an expensive and risky venture in Yemen. The other factor relates to the market for this coffee. Yemeni coffee is very popular in Saudi Arabia, whose patrons will pay large premiums for the coffee regardless of quality.”

Garfield Kerr, a former private equity Wall Street broker who left the finance rat race to pursue his love of Yemeni coffee six years ago and earlier this year opened the Mokha 1450 specialty coffee shop at the Aswaaq Shopping Centre along Dubai’s Al Wasl Road (pictured above), says the average price for a good international coffee bean is about $10 per kilo. “Yemeni coffee can run around $30 per kilo so it is about three times as much,” he says. “This is misleading, however, with respect to the high price as most farmers from other regions are selling at greater volumes than Yemeni farmers so the Yemeni farmers are selling much less at a greater price but not really better positioned than other farmers financially.”

In a bid to boost the beleaguered industry, the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) last year started a five-year project, funded by the USAID, which was dubbed Competitive Agriculture Systems for High-Value Crops (CASH). During its first year, the not-for-profit programme began training Yemeni growers on the best agricultural practices and developing the specialty market sector for Yemeni growers in the US and abroad. However, the conflict earlier this year forced CQI to suspend its work and  USAID has shifted its efforts toward humanitarian aid.

Another major threat to the industry is the increasing production of qat, a flowering plant that contains cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant, which is consumed by users for recreational use. Farmers prefer qat because it is easier to grow and generates higher yields.

However, the IFAD reported that, in 2014, qat production covers 22 percent of irrigated agricultural area but accounted for 60 percent of water use. Lack of water is already an issue in the arid country, with average annual rainfall in Yemen amounting to only 167 millimetres, compared to 848mm in Ethiopia, according to data from the World Bank. Therefore, as well as threatening the coffee farming tradition, qat is placing demands on the already scarce supply of water.

“Lacking financing options and with quick access to local markets, qat is replacing coffee as a preferable cash crop,” Hetzel laments. “You essentially can pull a grown bush out of the ground and take it to the local market and get cash that day rather than wait a whole year for payment.”

There is one controversial move taking place to develop the Yemeni coffee sector, but this time the setting is a laboratory instead of a farm. World Coffee Research, based at Texas A&M’s Borlaug Institute, is attempting to genetically fingerprint Yemeni coffee varieties. Heading up this project is Dr Amin Al Hakimi, professor of plant breeding at Sana’a University and a visiting researcher at Texas A&M University.

“The preliminary results of DNA sequencing of Yemeni landraces indicated that Yemeni collection contains novel genetic diversity not present in the old collection,” Dr Al Hakimi says.

As well as studying the DNA sequences, the second part of the research was focused on looking for physiological traits related to drought tolerance in Yemeni coffee. This meant about 30 farms were evaluated under greenhouse conditions for more than one year.

While the first stage, acquiring about 176 coffee grains samples from Yemen, was completed, the political conflict has dented progress. “The first phase of this project is completed, but the recent conflict in Yemen has not permitted us to start the second part of this research and transferring these data and technics to Sana’a University and establishing a laboratory,” says Dr Al Hakimi, adding that he hopes to return to Yemen this month to evaluate the effect of the civil war has had on production.

Hetzel, who is also involved in the Texas project, outlines the motivation behind it: “We are in a situation where the global production of coffee is at risk to disease, pests and global warming. Genetic material found in Yemen can help to expand the genetic lines of Arabic coffee, as well as find new positive characteristics that can impact productivity and flavour. The project was designed to identify the unique coffee of Yemen but more importantly, preserve the future of all coffee.”

However, the move has not been popular with everyone in the industry. “I don’t understand what they are trying to do,” says Kerr, who would like to preserve the industry’s traditional heritage. “Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the entire world and it has been coming from the developing world for millennia. There are a lot of large companies and, if they could, they would produce coffee in more stable regions in other parts of the world. What makes specialty coffee special is where it is grown. You can’t replicate the environment or the altitude. It is like saying ‘I will take your grandmother’s cooking, and the way she does something, and take it and do it the same way in Texas’. I don’t think so. I think they are trying to attract the price you get for Yemeni coffee, but without the headache.”

Regardless of the direction the industry takes, Yemeni coffee has already attracted some influential fans. One of the industry figures who was present at the SCAA event in Seattle was Jim Cleaves, coffee excellence manager for Dunkin’ Brands, which has 10,858 Dunkin’ Donuts stores around the world and generates around half of its $7bn revenue from coffee sales.

“Yemeni coffee holds a unique place in the world of coffee. Although most historians tell us that coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia, Yemen was the first to commercialise it about 1,000 years ago. Cultivation methods today in Yemen remain much as they have been for hundreds of years. These ancient practices, combined with the wide genetic diversity Yemeni coffee and Yemen’s distinctive terroir, produces a spectacularly varied and flavourful coffee, noted for its flavours of chocolate and dried fruit,” Cleaves says.

“The world has not heard much good news from Yemen lately. So it’s all the more special that great work is being done there by USAID and others to work with Yemeni coffee producers. They brought together some of the latest growing, harvesting, and processing techniques with the best of Yemen’s traditional practices. The results that hundreds of us cupped at the 2015 SCAA show included some of the most spectacular coffees I have ever tasted. Yemeni coffee has always occupied a special place among the world’s greatest. Now it appears poised to rise to new heights,” he adds.

Hetzel points out that this is significant as Cleaves is one of the industry’s most-respected coffee professionals and long-time supporter of Yemen. “The coffee absolutely has mass-market potential. At one point in history, it was the only coffee serving the world. In modern times, it was the foundation of one of the world’s most popular combinations of coffee, the Mokha / Java [Indonesia] blend. If Yemen could produce and deliver a consistent and clean crop, it could return to mass markets again without question,” he believes.

The sector is certainly attracting a following as earlier this year the Yemeni Embassy in Washington DC hosted an event in the American capital to showcase Yemeni coffee to influential US lawmakers. If those present also become fans of Yemeni coffee maybe they can use their political influence to develop a solution to the civil war crisis and Yemeni coffee can finally reclaim its the glory days.

“The industry will get back to where it was very quickly. The problem is that where it is currently is very far from where it should, and could be, as far as providing better volume of traceable authentic high-quality Yemeni coffee on a consistent basis,” Kerr says.

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