'From tree to cup': A Yemeni entrepreneur's coffee dream is brewing
Hussein Ahmed has been CEO of Mocha Hunters in war-ravaged Yemen for over a year. His goal is to make high-quality Yemeni coffee and export it to overseas markets. This sounds like an impossible task considering the Saudi-led coalition's blockade, but Ahmed has already started to sow the seeds of his endeavours.
“I don’t find my passion unusual. Yemeni coffee is Yemen’s national treasure and that should be any Yemeni’s concern: to pursue fostering this plant no matter what it takes.”
Yemeni beans are regaining popularity as some of the best in the world. The earliest cultivation of coffee was in Yemen, where it was given the Arabic name qahwa, from which the English words coffee and cafe both derive.
In the 1400s, the first coffee shipments began from Mocha port on Yemen’s Red sea coast, which was named after the tasty variety of coffee bean. The port became the centre of the world’s coffee trade. Coffee was especially favoured by the Sufis in Yemen who drank it to help them concentrate and stay alert, even during their rituals. According to Ahmed, the chocolatey bean includes four varieties - udaini, burai, tofahi and dawairi - which grow at a high altitude in a dry climate, tended to by farmers with vast experience who have been cultivating the beans for centuries.
Yemeni coffee is Yemen’s national treasure
- Hussein Ahmed, CEO, Mocha Hunters
The 37-year-old's journey in developing Yemeni coffee stems from having been immersed in coffee farming since childhood. Ahmed, who was born and brought up in Sanaa, had many relatives and family friends who owned coffee farms around the capital. As a child, his father would usually take him to visit them and that’s when he started to fall in love with coffee.
In September, Ahmed succeeded in shipping the first season's harvest through Aden airport to Saudi Arabia, and then to the US. At the time, the blockade was partially imposed on entry points in Yemen, while Aden airport was open.
In the first shipment, Mocha Hunters sent about two tonnes of coffee to Oakland, California, with one kilo costing about $150. It is unclear if the blockade on Yemen will still be in place when the next shipment is due in March 2018.
In the meantime, Ahmed is busy taking care of this season's planting, while preparing for the opening of his first cafe in Sanaa. He has not set a fixed date yet but is hoping things will soon calm down in the city.
On 4 December, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed in a roadside gunfight in the capital Sanaa, after switching sides in the civil war. Ahmed says that this has not affected his business. He explains that the state of war and not the death of one political leader is what is affecting most Yemenis, including him.
Earlier last month, the Saudi-led coalition completely blocked ports and airports after Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile fired from Yemen towards its capital Riyadh. The blockade was eased after three weeks, but this had little affect as Yemenis continue to suffer from food, fuel and medicine shortages amid a cholera outbreak, in a country which depends mostly on imports. A de facto blockade has been imposed around Yemeni waters since 2015 by forces belonging to the Saudi led-coalition.
“The blockade did not only make it difficult for us to ship our products abroad, but it has also made production expenses extremely costly,” Ahmed tells Middle East Eye. “With extreme shortages, the fuel we need for farming, watering and transporting is very costly, but we are determined to forge on.”
As a result of the naval blockade, the country is still struggling with fuel shortages, causing prices to almost double.
"The main hurdle we faced was the aerial and naval blockade imposed on Yemen which leads to having high costs to run the farms, and extremely difficult and costly ways to export our products abroad,” Ahmed explains.
A 2016 report from Yemen’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation shows that the war has led to the closure of 95 percent of private companies across Yemen because of a loss of clients, lack of fuel, state insecurity, destruction and increasingly high costs.
Yet Mocha Hunters was still determined to work closely with about 20 farmers, planting, processing, harvesting, and roasting coffee, or as Ahmed describes it, “from tree to cup”. "It was important for me to have the names of each farmer we worked with printed on the packets of the sold coffee goods."
In 1997, Ahmed went to the UK as a foreign exchange high school student. He attended English language courses and a vocational training school where he learned software development. While there, Ahmed's interest in coffee grew.
“In the UK, my friends and I used to have our favourite cafe which we never called a cafe but rather 'our temple'," he recalls, laughing. "The cafe [was] our daily meeting point, having Yemeni, Brazilian and other types of coffee every day. We didn’t let any day go by without coffee.”
In 2001, Ahmed met his now ex-wife who is of Japanese descent in the UK. She encouraged him to visit Japan and opened his eyes to how the country was one of the world’s top importers of green coffee. This inspired him to act as a bridge between Japan and Yemen.
While living between Japan and Yemen, he began meeting Yemeni coffee farmers regularly and learning all about pure Yemeni coffee. In 2009, he became an independent coffee wholesaler and opened a coffee shop in Yemen, eyeing Japan as his main market.
Ahmed attributes the success of his cafe to the appreciation that the Japanese have for quality and the personal touch.
“I worked hard in bringing quality coffee from Yemen to my cafe and it was important for me to have the names of each farmer we worked with printed on the packets of the sold coffee goods or even mentioned in the menu. For example, one could get ‘Ismaili coffee’ or an ‘Alghayoul coffee'."
While his business was booming, his marriage ended in divorce. In 2012, he left the Japanese cafe behind and went back to Yemen to pursue his dream of establishing a coffee business.
Our national history shows us how conflicts in Yemen come and go, and people in Yemen stand resilient, no matter what
- Hussein Ahmed, Mocha Hunters CEO
When he arrived back in Yemen, the country was in the midst of political upheaval. Ahmed was not worried, however, because the coffee trade had survived past conflicts and economic hardships.
Despite the deteriorating economy and an unemployment rate of around 60 percent among youth, Ahmed was determined to pursue his dream.
“I knew for sure that while Yemen’s economy was crumbling, Yemeni coffee was [the country's] hidden oil,” he says.
In 2014, Ahmed went to Washington to attend an annual coffee conference run by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. As he was about to return to Yemen, the civil war broke out and airports were shut down. With no place to go, Ahmed stayed in the US.
Yemeni coffee was [the country's] hidden oil
- Hussein Ahmed, Mocha Hunters CEO
Expecting the war to end soon, Ahmed did odd jobs to pay the bills like working as an Uber driver and selling mobile phones in a shop.
“I had a rough experience living in the US over two years, and all that time I couldn’t get coffee out of my mind,” recalls Ahmed.
In 2016, he decided to return to Yemen in the heat of the civil war.
“People I know in the US thought I was crazy to leave the US and go back to a war, but I was absolutely not afraid to go back to Yemen during the war. I had faith in Yemeni coffee’s durability [in] midst of crises. Our national history shows us how conflicts in Yemen come and go, and people in Yemen stand resilient, no matter what,” says Ahmed.
He succeeded in securing a seed fund of $150,000 from a Silicon Valley programme and officially registered Mocha Hunters in the US, before returning to Yemen, where he faced a bleak economic reality.
The hashtag #YemenCoffeeBreak circulated through a social media campaign in 2015 led by the Small and Micro Enterprise Promotion Service, a national body. Wesam Qaid, its executive director, was impressed by Ahmed and his work.
“He has given farmers reasons to be optimistic,” says Qaid. “Ahmed didn’t only introduce farmers to speciality markets which have made their incomes double, but he has also taught them new skills such as cupping - a method to measure the quality of the coffee - and coffee grading.”
“It was important for me to work closely with the farmers and enhance their practices,” Ahmed says, “because I wanted them to pay more attention to producing quality over quantity. I introduced more traditional techniques, using dry bed methods at night and utilising ‘moisture-level measurement’ machines which I brought from the US to measure the level or sugar and moist[ure] in the beans.”
“Despite the misery around us, I believe coffee is a source of happiness for many,” concludes Ahmed. “This plant has survived for centuries and it will survive this conflict.”