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There has been a boom in the specialty coffee industry in the Gulf Arab states. From competitions like the UAE National Brewers Cup Championship to fairs and exhibitions, such as the International Coffee and Chocolate Exhibition in Riyadh, the Gulf coffee market is becoming increasingly dynamic. Locally owned roasters and coffee shops are popping up across the region, producing a new khaleeji coffee culture. Demand for high-quality coffee is growing, and the market is quickly maturing.
Qahwa, the Arabic name and origin of the word coffee, is an integral part of the region’s culture and history. The beverage’s historical roots in the Arabian Peninsula, specifically Yemen, go back to the 1300s and 1400s. Debates on the origin of coffee continue to this day. But it is commonly believed that Sufi monk Abul Hasan Ali ibn Umar discovered coffee cherries in Ethiopia as an edible fruit consumed with ghee and began cultivating the plant and boiling it into a beverage when he returned to Yemen. Drinking coffee has a long-standing history in the Sufi tradition with religious symbolic meanings, used for night prayers and worship rituals.
The newly discovered euphoric drink was exported from Yemen’s port city of Mokha, considered the world’s first coffee trading center, to other regions of the Arabian Peninsula, such as Mecca. Exports spread across the Islamic world in the early 1500s, reaching Europe in the 1700s. A cluster of coffeehouses appeared in the Middle East and North Africa, where writers, philosophers, and politicians indulged in Yemeni coffee. Coffee has been a recurring theme in Arabic literature and poetry for centuries.
Yemeni coffee has only in the past few years received recognition by the international coffee community for its high quality and unique flavor complexity. Its late inclusion in the global market is primarily due to political and economic instability in the country. However, young entrepreneurs with Yemeni origins are looking to Yemeni coffee’s ancient heritage and pushing for its revival, tapping into the industry’s production side to offer coffee enthusiasts high-quality coffee beans.
AGSIW spoke to two founders of Yemeni coffee startup companies to gain insight into their journeys: Mokhtar Alkhanshali, born to Yemeni immigrant parents living in the United States, is the founder of Port of Mokha and the nonprofit organization the Mokha Institute. Abdulrahman Saeed is a United Arab Emirates national, who was born in Toronto, and the founder of Sabcomeed.
Both Mokhtar and Abdulrahman turned their passions into a career, deciding to leave their educational and professional aspirations behind to support the agricultural sector of their country of origin. Mokhtar told AGSIW, “As a child living in the United States, the portrayal of Arab communities was very negative, particularly in the media and especially after 9/11. I was always trying to find things in our past, in our history, that made me proud. I was really into Islamic history and Arabic poetry. In 2012, I discovered specialty coffee, and it was this new emerging market in the United States. Then I found out that coffee has roots in Yemen. I thought that it was kind of cool that we gave this wonderful beverage to the world that helps people get up every morning.”
Abdulrahman also expressed attachment to his country of origin, saying, “Ever since I can remember, I always wanted to do something for Yemen. When I was 18 years old, I went to Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts to study political science. I initially wanted to take the political route, but I quit school after three and a half years to pursue working in Yemen’s honey and coffee industry. In 2003, I started working with honey, but that didn’t work out. So, in 2017, while I was in the UAE’s military service, I started Sabcomeed.” Abdulrahman added, “What hurt me the most is the hijack of the word ‘mokha’ or ‘mocha’ by Western coffee shops and companies to sell and market chocolate. Linguistically and historically, the word Mokha belongs to a geographic location, a port in Yemen. Being originally from Yemen, seeing how companies profited from this triggered me. You cannot call a beverage Champagne if it does not come from the Champagne Valley. It is the same with Feta cheese or Parmigiano-Reggiano or a million other products. This could have been an economic window for Yemen, and this was something I wanted to fight for.”
Mokhtar and Abdulrahman openly explained the challenges they faced in transforming their visions into reality. Mokhtar recalled saying, “I walked into a cafe one day, and I had this incredible cup of coffee, so I asked the barista ‘What did you put in this coffee?’ because it tasted like blueberries, and it was very sweet. I was used to bitter dark coffee – you had to add a lot of cream and sugar for it to be drinkable. The barista told me that the coffee was from an area in the south of Ethiopia called Yirgacheffe, and that they had a direct relationship with the community and the farmers. I just thought that it was an amazing way of doing business.” Mokhtar continued saying, “The Yemeni coffee that was available in the market was not real Yemeni coffee, and it had many defects. I said to myself, well, maybe I can try to start a side project and find a way to get Yemeni coffee into these cafes. Initially, I planned to buy Yemeni coffee from a roaster or import the coffee into the United States. But no one had any idea where the coffee came from, and there were many questions around the origin of the coffee. When I looked around the value chain, I found a lot of problems. Farmers were getting the least amount of money and they are the ones taken advantage of the most. I decided to commit to this project fully. It was very lonely in the beginning. I didn’t have anyone to ask for advice or talk to, and I had to educate myself because I didn’t know anything about farming at that time.”
Abdulrahman also experienced similar hurdles when starting his company and told AGSIW, “Basically, I had to set up a team over the phone, let’s put it that way. We went into coffee without knowing anything, and we had to learn everything from scratch. We immediately started looking at the agricultural side of things, which is the hardest part of the supply chain. Usually, people either open a coffee shop or a roastery. But we realized that specialty coffee was the best way to promote and impact Yemen, both in market access and supporting the farmers. We created a graduation mechanism for the farmers to establish a tangible form of hope. Farmers who produce large quantities can become classified as a single farmer; we market and promote them alone. We also decided we needed to be involved in the entire process. We document every microstep starting from picking the cherries. Documentation is very important for us because it helps scale Yemeni coffee and justify our prices.”
Both stressed risk factors in working in Yemen. Mokhtar said, “You know, in 2014, when I first moved to Yemen, the political situation was really unstable. I lived through the beginning of the war, and I am in Yemen now, and there are still airstrikes. The country is in poverty, ravaged by political instability. So, it’s not for the faint of heart, and it is not something you do just for financial gain. You can do other things where you can earn much more money, and you don’t have to risk your life. My family risked their lives and went to America to find the American dream. And I was doing the reverse – going back to Yemen to become a farmer and not a lawyer. But I was also very inspired to see what specialty coffee did for Rwanda after the genocide. I think it is important for us to find meaningful paths in life.”
Abdulrahman explained accessibility challenges saying, “Logistics is the biggest challenge. There are no roads in these villages, barely any roads in Yemen actually. In terms of water accessibility, that’s both a physical issue logistically and a water scarcity problem. People in Yemen depend on rainfall; that is the only source of water they can rely on.” He then added, “Let me also tell you about checkpoints; you can easily face 30 checkpoints from the villages to Sanaa, and the distance is between 80 to 100 kilometers. Then, from Sanaa to Aden, where we ship our products, another 60 checkpoints. When I say checkpoint, it could be Houthis, Ansar al-Sharia, robbers, you never know.”
On the coffee market in the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Abdulrahman mentioned, “I only started selling in the GCC last year, building partnerships with companies like Archers in the UAE, who completely understand what we are doing. In the beginning, it was not easy to tap into the GCC market because we suffer from the white man syndrome. We somehow glorify anything that comes from abroad. So, we have decided to gain international credibility first.”
On the same topic, Mokhtar commented saying, “In 2017, we were rated the number one coffee in the world by Coffee Review, and it meant a lot that our coffee was being showcased that way. I don’t think Yemen will be able to compete in quantity with some of these big producers like Brazil and Colombia, but in quality, we can. I truly believe that the fastest-growing market globally is the GCC, and I say this as someone who sells coffee to Asia, the United States, and Europe. What is happening in the Gulf is very interesting because many roasters are people who used to work in the government or had corporate jobs. You have great examples of amazing people like Ibrahim Al Mallouhi from Espresso Lab, who I think is one of the pioneers of specialty coffee in the GCC and a truly passionate coffee innovator.”
Mokhtar concluded on the opportunities of investing in Yemeni agricultural production outside of coffee, saying: “I remember I was in my hotel in Dubai a few weeks ago, and I ate an apple. I took a few bites of it, and I put it back in the fridge and forgot about it. Days later, I went back and remembered the apple. I thought it would be rotten by now, but it wasn’t. I remember thinking, ‘God knows what kind of added special chemical sprays and preservatives were on this apple. We have sweeter apples in Yemen!’ It made me think of how easy it would be to import fresh and high-quality produce from Yemen to the GCC. Investing in Yemeni agriculture can allow the GCC to tackle larger issues, such as food security, and it would benefit the entire region. I like to call it the Arab-Arab supply chain, produced by Arabs, consumed by Arabs.”
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