Yemen’s coffee industry smells a market share

While coffee is a major business for Yemen, it still has many hurdles to conquer in its quest to gain a portion in this $16 billion industry.

Yemem Coffee 311 (photo credit: The Media Line)
Yemem Coffee 311
(photo credit: The Media Line)
(Sana’a, Yemen) They came from as far away as the United States and New Zealand to attend the Second International Conference on Arabica Naturals: the diplomats; the cuppers; the distributors, consultants and farmers. All in Sana’a to smell the rich aromatic Yemeni coffee and to seek the internationalization of standards for natural coffees.
Underwritten by the Small Micro Enterprise Promotion Service (SMEPS), a subsidiary of the Social Fund for Development and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Arabica Naturals Conference was the first to be held in Yemen, with a strong emphasis on showcasing the sweeter side of a country that to westerners, is primarily branded a terrorist haven.
SMEPS Executive Director Wesam Qaid, the moving force behind and chairman of the conference, said the meeting - drawing from groups representing the world’s premier coffee producing nations including Ethiopia, Mexico, Indonesia and New Zealand --put Yemen back on the coffee map. “Yemen coffee is rich and is 100% taken care of by hand, no machines,” Qaid told The Media Line, explaining what differentiates Yemen’s coffee from other coffee grown elsewhere.
The two-day confab, held at Sana’a’s beautiful but heavily-fortified Movenpick Hotel, included workshops on cupping, roasting and espresso, along with professional and trade presentations and coffee exhibitions.
Kicking-off the first day of events, Yemen’s Prime Minister Dr. Ali Muhammad Mujawir praised the coffee farmers, asserting “that there is no better coffee than those of Yemen’s mountains; and we thank the farmers who raise the name of Yemen high in the world…[making] coffee an original, national symbol.”  Addressing the fact that Yemen’s coffee industry lacks international standing in large part because it does not adhere to a system of grading recognized by coffee producers world-wide, the prime minister raised the industry’s concerns, admonishing that, “We must conform to the international standards of producing coffee. This requires cooperation among governments; and among international and expert officials.”
Deputy Prime Minister Abdulkarim Al-Arhabi, who is the managing director of the Social Fund for Development, told participants representing 26 countries including the US, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Eritrea and Lebanon, that, “$1.2 billion has been mobilized in a program to micro-finance enterprise industry in Yemen: 90% of which is coming from foreign sources.”
Yemen, with its rich history and century-old techniques, is unique in that it consumes two-thirds of the coffee it produces. The United States has committed to contribute millions of dollars to boost Yemen’s economy, which is one of the poorest countries in the world and supports a population of 24,000,000 people.
US Ambassador Gerald Feierstein is one of those who sees the focus on coffee as a welcome diversion from the typical blood-and-mayhem coverage Yemen typically receives. He told The Media Line that most Americans don’t know that Yemen is so closely associated with coffee and “I think if the American people have an opportunity to try it, they’ll also have a great experience with it. It’s a way of showing Yemen in a more positive light.”
The earliest written evidence of coffee drinking appears in the mid-15th Century, from the Sufi Yemeni monasteries in southern Arabia. But 21st-Century Yemen today faces several challenging obstacles in its quest to attain a significant global market share.
Coffee here is grown in remote areas, on steep mountain sides reaching thousands of meters in height, restricting farmers’ access and making it physically difficult to reach the growing fields with heavy manure – the natural fertilizer of preference. Qaid explained that chemicals are too difficult to carry into these remote areas.
A large percentage of the farms are located on mountains – on open patches of land scattered across mountains and terraces, some shaded by larger trees, and some by clouds according to Nadia Al-Sakkaf, editor-in-chief of The Yemen Times. Speaking to The Media Line, Al-Sakkaf painted a visual image describing “men and women jumping rocks in risky areas.”  “Yet,” she said, “they still feel at home.”
Rural areas are home to 70% of Yemen’s population. Of rural dwellers, more than 80% are women because the men - and particularly the younger men - have gone to the cities in search of a better life leaving the women to tend the farms, according to Al-Sakkaf.  Qaid explained the link between the nation’s agricultural and demographic concerns, saying that, “If we can improve life in rural Yemen, we can limit migration to urban areas. We need to promote economic development.”
In the conference exhibition hall, Fatma - all covered in black - manned a table sponsored by the Talouq Womens Association, an organization comprised of 164 female farmers. Fatma expounded on the problems her group is addressing, telling The Media Line that, “We lack the staff to train women on the machinery and a budget for training.”
Coffee used to be a source of income for many but because of the drought (coffee-growing requires a great deal of water); and the lack of marketing strategy, most farmers have given up on traditional farming techniques (trimming trees and shading) and many have left farming altogether. According to Al-Sakkaf, the women, who are increasingly central to the nation’s coffee farming industry, need the support of the international community to open Yemen’s access to the international market. Qaid charged that, “the Yemeni coffee private sector is marketing coffee the same as they marketed coffee 300 and 400 years ago. However, markets have changed.”
Dressed in a colorfully appliquéd hejab headcovering and jelbab, the traditional black gown, Amira Al-Hemyari tells The Media Line that as a distributor her company, El Ezzi Industries, cares about the farmers’ needs as well as its bottom line. She says it has alleviated the water shortage by supplying farmers with water storage tanks and has helped their farmers to rid their farms of the harmful Qat plant which soaks the coffee plant dry. Amira says that the narcotic-like plant, which is farmed as a separate crop - and a lucrative one at that - “takes a lot of water and gives good profit but kills the land.”
But Abd Al-Rahman Mohamed of Musallam Trading disagrees. The water shortage is a natural occurrence, he says. “We need dams for water because of the drought.”
Qat farmers outnumber coffee farmers by a margin of 680,000 to 110,000. The majority of farms have women tending trees, pruning and picking cherries. It’s common among small farmers to pick their coffee beans and store them for years, saving them for a rainy day when they are in need of immediate cash. They all work through middlemen and several key distributors who then sell the coffee beans to the local and world markets.
The Al-Hamdani and Al-Kbous companies are the two oldest and largest exporters, both of which have been around for more than 100 years.
Al-Kbous has one of the largest factories in the Middle East. Hamida Hamden Al-Safi told The Media Line that the firm currently supplies Japan, the US, Canada and the Gulf States through their forty distributors who deal directly with the farmers. The company’s mocha coffee is a source of both corporate and national pride. Al-Safi told The Media Line, “We are trying to keep the Mocha brand for our company. It belongs to Yemen and we don’t want someone stealing it.”

Mario Fernandez is an expert “cupper” who comes from a line of Mexican coffee- growers dating back to the 1830s. Fernandez came to Yemen to contribute to two indispensable elements necessary in order for the nation’s coffee trade to prosper: his ancient art and to consult on an international grading system for natural coffees. “Cupping” is a sensory analysis of coffee utilizing the tongue and mouth to identify whether a cup of coffee is good or bad. His presence was timely: “The public needs to be educated about how to prepare coffee,” Fernandez said. “Until last week no one in Yemen knew how to cup.” The cuppers are typically buyers or suppliers of coffee.
David Roche, the technical director for the Coffee Quality Institute based in Long Beach, California, explained further: “It’s a slurping technique,” he said. “You vaporize the flavors in your mouth and have an instant reaction. You take note of that specific technique for evaluating coffee. Any country can claim they have the best coffee; there is good and bad in all countries.”
The conference was Roche’s second trip to Yemen. Previously, he visited the coffee farms for a first-hand look when he came to the country to teach cupping. He told The Media Line that, “Yemen coffee is unique and has always been high priced. Yemen’s biggest problem is quantity. They fell to almost one-third of their production level of 15 years ago in part because of the better price of other crops such as Qat; the price of coffee on the world market; and the shortage of healthy trees in fields. [In Yemen] the farmers grow it on roof tops and sometimes store it in caves for years. They also need to understand what the consumer wants. Our role is in standardizing the coffee.”
The reference to “naturals” means the whole coffee bean is picked and dried with the skin on it. The opposite is “washed,” which one coffee producer described as “the difference between red wine and white wine.”
Yet, there is currently no world-wide system for grading naturals. The “Q System,” implemented by the Coffee Association of America and The Coffee Quality Institute, is geared for top quality coffees and specialty coffees; and not applicable beyond the top ten per cent of the world’s coffees. 
Of the 18,000 tons of coffee it produces annually, Yemen only exports 4,000 – 6,000 tons, the rest being consumed by Yemenis. That figure is growing, with coffee houses springing up seemingly everywhere,  but remains small when compared to Columbia or Brazil, each exporting hundreds of thousands of tons annually.  The largest importers of Yemen’s coffee are Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, along with the United States. Europe and Japan follow. 
In the United States, roughly half the population – an estimated 150 million Americans -- consumes some type of coffee. World-wide, coffee is a $16 billion industry – the second-most traded commodity after petroleum. In 2011, about 135 million 60 kilogram (132 pound) bags of coffee will be produced – some 1.7 billion pounds of coffee.
A stop at The Coffee Trader revealed a mix of societies melding around coffee. Dressed in Western-style clothing but wearing a jelbab covering, Susan Coleman, the Wisconsin expatriate who is co-owns the Sana’a café and coffee store stayed busy serving customers. Featuring US-style service and decked-out with Christmas ornaments, the café’s ambiance is distinctly American – until you notice that some of the men are dressed in traditional Yemeni clothing and some of the young women working on their laptops are garbed in floor-length jelbabs, sipping their coffee through a narrow slit in the veil. 
Meanwhile, at the conference, the coffee competition was the final event.  Q-certified cuppers from around the world tasted and rated fruity, spicy and chocolaty coffees.  Yemen’s own coffee – featuring a tinge of chocolate and raisin -- took second place to Tanzania’s blueberry and fresh fruit flavors. Ethiopia came in third place.
Qaid told The Media Line that one of the conference’s successes is that  SMEPS has been commissioned to prepare a report with recommendations for developing Yemen’s coffee sector -- including plans for a coffee fund with buy-ins from farmer groups --  that will be presented to the government in March 2011, with Yemen poised to enter the International Coffee Organization. Also coming from the conference is newfound hope that the coffee market will become more balanced as sun dried coffees continue to gain international exposure and new cupping procedures for them have now been introduced.
David Roche shared the optimism for his Yemeni hosts. “Change in Yemen will take a decade,” he told The Media Line. “But sophisticated drinkers who buy whole bean coffee will buy Yemini coffee and they’ll pay more for it. It’s boutique,” he said.
Qaid agreed. “Yemini coffee is experiencing a renaissance. New coffee shops are popping up all over the place. Young Yeminis are learning the skills of coffee,” he said. 
Asked which his own favorite coffee is, he replied “ancient Typica from Haraz.” In Yemen, of course.