Yemen’s coffee farmers try to win over baristas for their heirloom coffee beans | Global Development

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The beans that have grown in the harsh mountainous landscapes of Yemen for over 600 years have been largely ignored by modern coffee connoisseurs.

But last month a group of farmers in full dress, full of daggers on their belts, visited a coffee roasting company in London, determined to restore Yemen’s status as the birthplace of good coffee.

The farmers brought 28 samples to taste and, within days, sold their beans to buyers in Europe, Australia, the Middle East and East Asia.

Yemen’s first national coffee auction in London was designed to connect producers in Yemen’s western highlands directly to traders, rather than selling through a network of exporters who carve out profits.

“The auction was really good. It was the first for Yemen and a great opportunity for farmers,” says Ahmed al-Murri, whose coffee sold for $42 (£37) a pound. “Customers have really tasted our coffee and bridged the gap between us and them.”

A former travel agent who returned to Haraaz when war broke out in 2014, Murri enthusiastically took over his father’s coffee plants and started a business.

Producers are bringing samples of their coffee to Yemen’s national coffee auction, held in London last month. Photography: Jeremy Stern/Mokha Institute

“I returned to the village and saw that the coffee was something my father and grandfather had made, but it had been forgotten. We decided to start processing specialty coffee,” he says. “Coffee from Yemen was not well known in the world, it didn’t have a good reputation, but we hope this new market will improve that.”

Modern coffee cultivation is said to have begun in Yemen around the 15th century, with trade passing through the port of Moka. But in 2020, it ranked 61st in coffee exports, selling $21 million worth of beans compared to Brazil’s $5 billion.

Traders on a beach with camels and sacks of coffee beans
A coffee market in the port town of Mocha, circa 1910-1920.
Photography: Aliyah

Yemeni-American coffee entrepreneur, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, who has worked in the coffee industry for years, organized the London auction. He was buying directly from growers and selling through his company, Port of Mocha, but decided that helping farmers get to market themselves would have a more lasting impact on the war-torn country’s economy. between a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by Iran. Houthi rebels that left millions in need of aid.

“Due to the language barrier and the political situation in Yemen, it is difficult to get there by direct trade. Although I have an American passport and speak English, most people in Yemen can’t do that,” he says.

Inspired by the Best of Panama auction, a response by Panamanian producers to a 1989 crisis that saw prices plummet, Alkhanshali believed a similar auction would introduce coffee from Yemen to the market.

“It’s the most exciting thing I’ve done and it’s not for me, it’s for these farmers. After that they are installed, they can do it themselves. You are a farmer in Yemen, you participated in this auction and from a small village you now have a buyer in Tokyo or San Francisco and they can buy from you all year round.

He organized a competition and about 1,200 farmers from almost all coffee-growing regions of Yemen participated. The samples have been reduced to 28.

Farmer in western dress reaches out to pick coffee tree
A coffee farmer in Yemen checks his harvest. Photography: Jeremy Stern/Mokha Institute

“We couldn’t believe it, they came from villages so far away in the mountains. They heard about us through WhatsApp or Facebook groups, farmers who literally ran into donkeys,” says Alkhanshali.

Nicholas Watson of the International Trade Centre, which organized the auction, said the technology has allowed farmers to become more involved in selling their produce.

Daniel Vergnano, of coffee merchants List+Beisler, who bid on behalf of Australian coffee company D’Angelo, said Alkhanshali’s vision for economic development in Yemen prompted the purchase.

“We believe that supporting Yemeni coffee, one of the most unique and amazing flavors in the coffee world, will bring Yemen back into the global coffee industry and at the same time provide economic security for coffee farmers,” said Vergnano.

Red coffee beans are spread out.  The hand reaches across the top of the image to grab a handful of beans.
Fresh coffee beans during a festival in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Photography: Yahya Arhab/EPA

Jalal Yahya al-Emadi, another Haraaz coffee farmer, says coffee production is having a social and economic impact in Yemen, as it has enabled farmers to stop growing khat – a narcotic that had replaced coffee as commercial culture.

“Due to the economic and political conditions, the life of the farmers is difficult. The climate is harsh but the coffee grows well,” says Emadi, who keeps photos of beans drying on land where khat had previously been grown on her phone.

“This [khat] was the main crop for the farmers, but we managed to switch to growing coffee. Khat requires a lot more water to grow, it requires chemicals, it causes conflict between farmers – it has a huge impact on our society,” he says, “A lot of people will sit there all day, alone, chewing it.

“My dream now is for my coffee to reach the world.”

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