Reviving Yemen’s Ancient Coffee Legacy: An Opportunity to Facilitate Conflict Transformation and the Empowerment of Traditionally Marginalized Groups

MIDDLE EAST & NORTH AFRICA, 8 Jul 2019

Cameron Casenhiser | Cordoba Foundation of Geneva – TRANSCEND Media Service

Yemeni coffee landscape

30 Jun 2019 – At present, sources providing positive rhetoric surrounding Yemen are scarce. However, recently, the specialty coffee industry has brought to light farming communities in mountainous regions of Yemen that are working to maintain an ancient legacy in the country’s history: coffee. After coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia, Yemen’s Mokha region quickly became the world’s exclusive coffee supplier by the 16th century. Yet, memories of the once glorious Yemeni coffee industry have been predominantly confined to the few thousand Yemeni coffee farmers still operating generationally owned plots. These remote coffee producing communities have displayed incredible resilience despite impending threats of famine, a cholera epidemic, and a national economic catastrophe which has continued since the onset of war in 2015.

The recent global rise of the specialty coffee industry has inspired coffee sourcers to venture to the ends of the earth, including Yemen, in search of rare, micro-lot coffees with unique flavor profiles. Yemeni-American Mokhtar Alkhanshali is a perfect exemplar of this phenomenon. Mokhtar, a coffee entrepreneur from San Francisco, has gone to great lengths to re-introduce Yemeni coffees to the world. After becoming a certified coffee quality grader from the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) in 2014, he began working directly with small agricultural communities in Yemen to help improve coffee farming practices and quality control. By 2015, he was ready to unveil the specialty-grade coffees he acquired from working with these farming communities but was unable to leave due to the outbreak of the war. Nonetheless, he managed to travel by fishing boat to the coast of Djibouti, where he was then able to return to the United States with two suitcases full of Yemeni coffee[1].

Upon his return, Mokhtar’s company, Port of Mokha, and London-based Qima Coffee have served as the primary mouthpieces for re-introducing Yemeni coffees to the world of specialty coffee. Similarly to Port of Mokha, Qima, together with the French NGO ACTED, partners with farmers from all across Yemen, in both Hadi government and Houthi Rebel-controlled regions, in efforts to help farming communities meet specialty standards[2]. Since 2017, the coffees produced in partnership with Port of Mokha and Qima have consistently received an abundance of international praise and Yemeni coffees have reemerged as some of the best available in the specialty market. Thus, the country appears to be well on its way to re-establishing itself as one of the most prestigious origin sites in the world for specialty coffee.

Port of Mokha and Qima desire to play a role in helping Yemen rebuild by assisting the development of sustainable incomes for these remote coffee farming communities, in hopes of improving individual lives and making positive contributions to the national economy. Towards this end, founder and CEO of Qima Coffee, Faris Sheibani, writes, “The revival of the coffee industry is a glimmering light that can pave the path to the country’s gradual recovery[3]”.

However, if the revival of the coffee industry is going to be successful, it will require local and international support. While bolstering support for collaboration regarding a bright future for coffee may be challenging, doing so allows for the benefits of reviving the coffee industry to gain scope beyond economic contributions. In July 2018, Ala Qasem, co-founder of DeepRoot consulting, argued at a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) roundtable that “in addition to traditional methods of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, improving Yemen’s economic situation would also assist in strengthening the security environment[4]”. Further, encouraging collaboration between Yemeni civilians, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and international players in assisting the rebirth of Yemen’s coffee industry could help facilitate an environment for discussions and efforts that promote peace and empowerment.

Unfortunately, those currently attempting to transport coffee throughout Yemen are putting their lives at great risk. Often, coffee must be moved between Hadi government and Houthi-rebel controlled zones in order to reach borders or the few ports that remain open for export. The imminent threat of air-strikes and ever-changing safety status of transportation routes makes passing between these two zones extremely dangerous, especially with cargo in tow. Qasem notes that the weak security environment hampers the progress of development projects and that “complex negotiations, stringent security requirements, and significant detours are required to complete a task as basic as transporting goods across the country[5]”. Thus, the great precaution needed for attempting transport means that the coffees currently moving throughout Yemen are doing so at a discouragingly slow pace.

Ideally, there would be political support for the specialty coffee industry, such as ensuring transportation routes remain safe and opening more ports. However, civilians have a more immediate opportunity to begin working toward the common goal of rebuilding Yemen’s economy. Forming localized networks could help expand, support, and protect the transportation routes already being utilized to transport Yemeni coffee throughout various regions. Localized efforts would also allow more than just those within coffee farming communities to play a role in the revival of Yemen’s ancient legacy and would further promote peaceful interactions between groups that are currently disconnected. In addition, civilians ought to be made aware and extremely proud of the quality and international praise for specialty coffees being produced in Yemen. Increased awareness of the success of farmers on an international stage, despite the national state of crisis, could function as a beacon of positivity that stimulates a spirit of hope in Yemen’s population. Thus, vital collaborations amongst local groups to support and protect the specialty coffee industry can be understood as a platform for peacefully restoring hope, dignity, and national pride amongst Yemeni civilians.

Further, supporting the growth of this industry has the opportunity to empower three traditionally marginalized groups in the region. First, agricultural communities, especially when living in remote regions such as the mountains where coffee grows, tend to live detached from urban life. While distance from internal conflict may be viewed as having worked in the favor of Yemeni agricultural communities, disconnected agricultural communities at large have also proven particularly vulnerable to being targeted and influenced by extremist groups. In fact, one of al-Qaeda’s most effective branches is a Yemen-based grouped, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), that tends to operate from the patchily-governed deserts and mountains[6]. However, if coffee were to reemerge as an integral player in the country’s economy, and the aforementioned localized networks began to form, farming communities would likely become better connected with urban life and hopefully less susceptible to extremist influences.

It also appears that as Yemeni coffee quality improves, farming communities will continue to experience greater recognition for their craft, more opportunities for consistent revenue, and higher market prices for their products. Qima’s recent partnership with the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE) is evidence of the fact that Yemen’s specialty coffee industry has a bright future. Through a program called “Cup of Excellence”, ACE partners with coffee-producing nations to “discover and reward their top coffee farmers and help develop long-term marketplace relationships critical to economic development[7]”. The Cup of Excellence program then sells top coffees from the origin country through an online auction and helps introduce farmers to specialty markets that generate substantial increases in revenue and more sustainable sources of income. Farmers working with Qima have already begun increasing their profits up to twentyfold, and with the Cup of Excellence program expanding to Yemen in 2019[8], this trend will likely increase all the more.

The success of the specialty coffee industry in Yemen also has the opportunity to be of interest to Yemeni youth. Due to the crisis at hand, Yemeni youth, particularly young boys, often view taking up arms as one of their only viable options for generating income, a sense of purpose, and bringing about change. Similarly to agricultural communities, youth also tend to be targeted by and vulnerable to the influence of extremist groups. However, becoming involved in the process of growing, processing, transporting, or exporting coffee could serve as a peaceful, sustainable alternative for them to begin generating an income and cultivating a sense of purpose and change.

Yet, perhaps the most compelling opportunity for empowerment has to do with the role of women. As of 2016, Yemen ranks last in the Global Gender Gap Index produced by the World Economic Forum, and the continued state of political and economic crisis is not improving the gender disparity[9]. Currently, there are several ethical imperatives present in the specialty coffee industry dedicated to raising awareness about the vital role women play in growing coffee. While there is much work to be done in this area, the specialty coffee industry appears to be encouraging support for gender equity and increasing consumer awareness of the dependence global coffee production has on hard working women. For example, Qima, ACTED, and the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) have all contributed to the development of the world’s first 100% female owned and operated women’s coffee co-op, the Talok Women’s Coffee Association (TWCA). The TWCA is currently operating out of Taiz, Yemen.

The Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) is one of many organizations launching projects which work toward improving the socio-economic status of women in the Arab world. While promoting an agricultural profession may not initially be understood as an effective means for progress in this regard, the dependence coffee farming has on women[10] can be viewed as an internal resource for empowerment. Working to create awareness of the integral role women play in coffee production throughout Yemen (i.e. advertising, documentaries, etc.) is a good place to start, but not enough. Partnering with initiatives such as the TWCA and IWCA, which are paving the way for expanding women’s roles in coffee production, could allow Yemen the opportunity to become a model for how ethical imperatives regarding the socio-economic status of women already present in the specialty coffee industry can be diffused into a broader context of growing interest amongst humanitarian organizations to empower women in the Arab world. If successful, the specialty coffee industry could contribute to efforts to move Yemen out of last place in the Global Gender Gap Index when the nation begins to rebuild.

As of 2018, the GCC has pledged 7.7 billion USD to fund reconstruction efforts in Yemen[11]. Regarding the role of the GCC, Qasem further advocates for GCC countries and other international donors to consider an alternative to the “traditional sequential framework for reconstruction, which tackles humanitarian relief first, then reconstruction, and finally economic reforms” and to instead view “reestablishing government legitimacy, strengthening the security environment, and building state effectiveness as interrelated areas on which reconstruction efforts should focus concurrently[12]”. With the rise of the specialty coffee industry having also expanded to neighboring countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, there is opportunity for the GCC to view coffee in Yemen as a “new collaborative economic initiative[13]”. Allocating pledged reconstruction funds to support growth of the industry could be a way for the GCC to embrace Qasem’s suggested alternatives and to endorse a long-term, mutually beneficial reconstruction project that further promotes peace and empowerment.

Many avenues for supporting the growth of the specialty coffee industry in Yemen also exist internationally. Prior to the outbreak of war, CQI was very active with numerous projects in Yemen, such as managing the coffee portion of a large USAID grant aimed at improving the agricultural sector[14]. Unfortunately, in 2015, all international embassies were forced to leave, and this ended the project. Within the specialty coffee industry, Port of Mokhtar, Qima, and ACE have inspired prominent coffee buyers to begin serving Yemeni coffees in cafes across the globe. Doing so not only introduces consumers to uniquely beautiful coffees but sharing stories of resilience and success regarding coffee farming communities can begin challenging people to recognize avenues for empowering civilians in their recovery process as opposed to viewing them as fully dependent on foreign aid. Additionally, those who are interested in empowering marginalized groups and/or promoting conflict transformation in the region can recognize the growth of the specialty coffee industry in Yemen as an opportunity to gain a foothold in establishing peace. ACTED’s partnership with Qima provides a good example of how this can be accomplished.

Finally, it has been the aim of this article to convince readers that the gap between the specialty coffee industry and organizations like the CFG may be closer than one may initially think. If organizations dedicated to promoting peace in conflicted areas, such as Yemen, were to partner with organizations such as ACE, Qima, and Port of Mokhtar, the resilient coffee farming communities may be discovered as not only containing voices of hope, but also as internal resources for developing local peace actors. Thus, supporting these communities can be understood as an opportunity to begin generating dialogue for the prevention of violence, for peaceful conflict transformation, and empowerment. When considering finding ways to become involved in the revival of the Yemeni coffee industry, perhaps simply becoming an informed consumer may be a good place to start.

NOTES:

[1] “The Port of Mokha Story”, Port of Mokha.

[2] Specialty coffees are those that receive scores of 80 points or higher on the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) 100 point quality scale.

[3] Faris Sheibani, Qima Coffee, https://qimacoffee.com.

[4] Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Yemen’s Challenges and Prospects for Reconstruction”, 23 July, 2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Adam Baron, “Mapping the Yemen Conflict”, European Council on Foreign Relations.

[7] Alliance for Coffee Excellence, “About Us”.

[8] Nick Brown, “ACE Launching Private Collection Auction Program Beginning with Yemen”, Roast Magazine, 13 March, 2019.

[9] World Economic Forum, “The Global Gender Gap Report 2016”.

[10] On average, women contribute to 70% of harvesting and labor throughout all coffee producing regions around the world, including Yemen.

[11] Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Yemen’s Challenges and Prospects for Reconstruction”.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid.

[14] Coffee Quality Institute, “Yemen Overview”.

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Cameron Casenhiser, a student of philosophy with a specialization in religion, combines his academic knowledge with his previous experience in the coffee industry.

 

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