The Peculiar Challenge of Yemeni Coffee: An Interview with Yemeni Coffee Exporter, Rasheed Shagea

It's often debated where the coffee plant originated but we know it's either Yemen or Ethiopia. Yemenis tend to say Yemen, Ethiopians tend to say Ethiopia. I believe that the coffee plant originated somewhere in the land which, in our age, is designated as Ethiopia. But, that said, the reality is that the plant originates in neither Yemen or Ethiopia. Nature doesn't recognize borders, and plants don’t grow along lines created by men, especially when those lines are as changing as the seasons. The point I'm making is that we often apply our own familiar principles to things which they simply have no bearing upon. And such is the case with Yemeni coffee exporters. Unlike many other parts of the world—where direct trade is not only possible but often preferable to the long line of unnecessary middlemen we find in our industry—Yemen is a special case with a special history, to say the least.

Most of the world's coffee growing countries and coffee industries are born out of European colonial rule. To make a very long story short, what essentially happened is, colonial business men/agriculturalists would land in a place after having taken, by force, massive swaths of fertile land. They would enslave the free indigenous population while simultaneously kidnapping and trafficking other peoples into these lands to work on them. Those enslaved people would then be tasked with cutting down the land and planting, cultivating, harvesting, and processing massive amounts of coffee. This practice of industrial scale monoculture and free labor massively drove down the cost of coffee. Adjusted for inflation, in the 1750s coffee cost around $13/lb in the Amsterdam coffee exchange, by the 1850s it was driven down to $5/lb. From then until now, with mechanized mega farms in countries like Brazil and Colombia, the cost has reached at times less than a dollar a pound. This was where, along with dozens of other agricultural industries, the modern industrialized coffee business was born.


The colonial legacy is very much alive in the coffee industry. If we are to understand Yemen's peculiarity as a coffee growing nation, it is essential that we first understand and acknowledge this.


Yemen, unlike the vast majority of coffee growing nations, has very little history of being colonized by European powers. And Yemen's coffee growing regions have literally zero experience of European colonialism. The agricultural portion of Yemen's coffee sector—rather than consisting of gargantuan coffee plantations handed down from colonist captains of industry—is made up of tens of thousands of smallholder farms. Each of these farms handed down within families through generations sometimes extending back over 500 years. Most coffee farms in Yemen actually have less than 100 coffee trees. For any laymen who may be reading this, one coffee tree = one pound of coffee and coffee trees bear fruit once per year.


Yemen, for most of its history and still even today to a large extent is cut off from the rest of the coffee industry. This is due largely to its disconnection from the colonial project and this is the root cause of nearly all of Yemen’s peculiarities as a coffee origin. That said, in many ways it is also its strength which we’ll go into in another blogpost in the future.


For now, with all of that as very much needed context. We'll now move to my discussion with my dear friend, colleague and Yemeni specialty coffee pioneer in his own right, Mr. Rasheed Shagea. We discussed, among other things, the unique challenges Yemeni coffee exporters face, passport privilege and the importance of the National Yemen Coffee Auction.

 

Welcome Rasheed, thank you for taking the time to sit down today and talk. I really believe it’s important for our audience to understand the important role that Yemen’s coffee exporters play in the Yemeni coffee industry. I really hope this conversation can illuminate that and also give people a window into how we do things here and the unique challenges we face. So, to begin, how did you get started in coffee?

Rasheed Shagea, Sana'a, 2022

I'm from a coffee growing village in Haraz called Bani Ismael. Coffee there is the most important crop. Most of the crops grown there are coffee and the entire agricultural, even rural life revolves around coffee. So, even from an early age I had an interest in it. Not so much from the commercial side but just as someone growing up around it I naturally was attached to the culture of coffee, to the land, to the farmers and to my village. After completing my degree I was interested in working in agricultur. Coffee, to me, seemed the most appealing option. I finished a business degree in Malaysia, returned to Yemen and went straight into coffee.


How was it for you when you started?


My idea was to begin buying coffee and exporting it. With my education in business I hoped to be able to bring the administrative side of the Yemeni export business up to modern standards. I also hoped that others could follow my example and that it would benefit the whole coffee sector in Yemen. Much of the coffee industry here still operates on very outdated models of both business and business administration.


So, when I started I was really excited, and felt that I was on a mission. I bought some good coffee, rented a factory and almost immediately after, tragically, the war started. It brought everything to a halt. The economy collapsed, planes overhead were launching rockets all around us so my thought process at that point just became risk management. Is coffee more important than food? Obviously not. So my coffee project would have to wait.


After a year long break I picked it back up and since then have been working mostly in coffee.

Rasheed speaking on panel, Sana'a, 2022

As you see it and have witnessed, what are the biggest challenges that Yemeni exporters face, specifically with specialty coffee?


There are a lot, without a doubt. The first major challenge is making sure farmers are trained well and know how to take care of their crop in a way that ensures specialty coffee standards are met. From there, the processing of the coffee is a challenge as we have to set up drying centers and hire QC personnel to manage them. It's then our responsibility to mill and sort the coffee. Finally we store it, sell it and export it. And there are dozens of smaller challenges throughout this process.


Most exporters working in other countries own big farms where they handle everything then sell to importers or direct to roasters. That sort of thing isn't really possible in Yemen. A single coffee growing area that maybe grows one ton of coffee could have more than 100 farmers who all own different coffee trees on that land. And then most farmers in Yemen have very small farms. Sometimes 150 to 200 trees, sometimes a bit more and sometimes a lot less. Actually, in my experience most farmers own less than 100 trees. These farms aren't even the size of a nano-lot. So, in keeping with specialty standards and traceability, how do we handle these farmers?


People may find this funny, but we often run into a challenge where, because these farms are inherited through generations and split between many siblings a certain farmer might own lets say 50 coffee trees on a plot of land near his home. But then also five kilometers from his home, on a different plot of land with different elevation, growing a different cultivar, in the middle of another farmers plot, he owns another 50 trees. Typically it’s an inheritance issue but sometimes maybe a farmer’s grandfather owed the other farmer’s grandfather some money and paid him back by giving him a plot of coffee trees in his own farm. For commodity coffee this isn't a problem, you can just mix it all together and it won't make a difference. But for specialty coffee you can't just mix these together. So what do you do about that?


These are just two examples. We run into challenges like these everyday working in Yemen. And who bears the responsibility to devise solutions? Most of the time it's us, the exporters.


But honestly none of those are the biggest problem. This is our land, these are our people and we can work through whatever gets in our way. The biggest problem is that after all of this, after working through all of these challenges, and after paying these farmers two and sometimes three or four times what they'd get paid on the commodity market, after all of that I can't even get a visa to visit a trade show.


If I want to ship out samples it might take one to three months for the buyer to receive them. If it takes three months for them to get samples, when will the contract be signed?


People in the specialty coffee industry need to know this, when you go to your trade shows and conferences it isn't a coincidence that all of the representatives from Yemen can speak English in your accents. They're able to attend because they're all born in western countries. They’re dual citizens and hold western as well as Yemeni passports. These things make it very difficult to work in specialty coffee and very difficult for this sector in Yemen to grow. We work and work on the production side, but what can we do about marketing? And what does it matter that we produce great coffee if we can’t market it? This is by far the biggest challenge.


It's definitely a huge obstacle for the Yemeni coffee industry. And honestly we can't do it alone, there are only a few of us dual citizens who are doing this work and if we're really going to take Yemen to the next level there's going to need to be dozens of us.


I wanted to move on now to the Yemeni Coffee Exporters Association, can you tell me a little bit about how that came about, what it is and what its purpose is?


When I entered the coffee business I noticed that the people working in it were very scattered. There was very little communication or coordination, infrastructure was very weak, and there were really no alliances or entities that existed to organize our sector and protect our interests. I had some experience with working with the chamber of commerce where I had set up 'the Entrepreneurship Center' so, two years ago, I approached them with the idea to make a special committee for coffee exporters that would serve both exporters and merchants. There was a great response, so we issued an invitation to all merchants and exporters and within a short amount of time we had elected an administrative body and gotten to work.


The goal really, as I said, is to gather all stakeholders on the export and retail side of the coffee industry. Then, we can address challenges as they arise, improve infrastructure, share best practices, and work together to protect our interests. Lastly, it's important that we're united so if we ever need to, we’re empowered to speak in a single voice against anything that might threaten us as a whole.


We're all grateful and very excited that this association exists and look forward to all the good work to come.


Let's move on finally now and talk about the auction. What does the National Yemen Coffee Auction mean to the Yemen coffee industry, to exporters and lastly to you?


As we've spoken about, the biggest obstacle to growth for exporters and the Yemen coffee sector is marketing. We work so much on production but if there's no marketing we have nothing. Exporters and producers who have been trying to move Yemen into specialty coffee have felt really hopeless at times. Whether it's the visa issue, communication, or shipping. We've felt stuck and we've felt hopeless. The auction's motto really does a great job of summing up what the National Yemen Coffee Auction means for exporters, for the industry and for me. It's literally a 'window of hope'. And it's a window of hope for all the workers in this sector. We'll finally have some access to this market in a way that we only dreamed about before. It was an incredible amount of work to get here, the initial planning, the contracts, the various agreements, the academic symposium, the coffee festival, the tasting lab, the warehouse, it all was a massive undertaking, but we did it. We made this dream a reality. It really means so much to us.


What is your message to the specialty coffee industry?


To all who are interested in Yemeni coffee whether you’re a roaster or importer, this an historic opportunity to taste the best coffee Yemen has to offer. From all of our sources. From our exporters, producers, farmers, the full map of Yemen with its diverse culture, is now available through the first national coffee auction. We believe it will be an incredible and unique experience for anyone taking part. And we believe it will show that the best coffee in the world is produced within Yemen. And I wish you luck in this auction. To all roasters and importers, I wish you the best of luck and thank you for participating.


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