Karen Dabrowska

The New Arab

Originally published: 6th July 2022

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One cup to unify forces: Why it’s time to make Yemen the centre of coffee trade once again

Yemen is known around the world for its rich history of coffee cultivation. Amid continued political turmoil, the drink has become an increasingly important symbol for the nation, with brewers leading the way to export the country's finest product.
Yemen is known around the world for its rich history of coffee cultivation. Amid continued political turmoil, the drink has become an increasingly important symbol for the nation, with brewers leading the way to export the country’s finest product.

Coffee could be a unifying force in Yemen and act as an important mediation tool which brings people from separate parts of the political divide together, a leading Yemeni coffee exporter believes.

Faris Sheibani the CEO of London-based Qima Coffee pointed out that everyone in Yemen from Sadaa in the north to Yafa in the south celebrates their coffee culture.

“Coffee grows throughout the landscape of Yemen and can act as a unifying force,” Faris told The New Arab.

“The flip side of that coin is that as you operate from different areas in Yemen you sometimes face pressure from the different groups controlling those areas to serve their interests or pay homage to their political ideologies. And that, for me, is what makes it very difficult to operate in Yemen.”

“Until the early 1700s, Yemen was the world’s sole producer and exporter of coffee. Said to have first been consumed in 1450 by the country’s mystical Sufis – who drank it to stay awake for all-night meditations – Yemenis spread the country’s coffee culture to the rest of the world”

Faris is adamant that a business entity should not have any political affiliation. “A business should serve business interests,” he insists. “The only political position that I have is that Yemen should be run by Yemenis because, in principle, as they are the ones who are living on this land, only they would have the best interests of the country at heart. Whether Yemen should be separated (into north and south) united or a federal state should be left for Yemenis to decide.”

Until the early 1700s, Yemen was the world’s sole producer and exporter of coffee. Said to have first been consumed in 1450 by the country’s mystical Sufis – who drank it to stay awake for all-night meditations – Yemenis spread the country’s coffee culture to the rest of the world.

Faris Sheibani: Coffee grows throughout the landscape of Yemen and can act as a unifying force. [Photo credit: Qima]
Faris Sheibani: “Coffee grows throughout the landscape of Yemen and can act as a unifying force.” [Photo credit: Qima]

The industrial revolution in Europe prompted the planting of smuggled Yemeni coffee seeds in Sri Lanka, Java and Reunion. Peasants and slaves in these countries were forced to grow and sell coffee at exploitative prices to the Dutch and French East India Companies.

By 1800, Yemen was producing 6% of the world’s coffee but its market share continued to decline with the drop in global coffee prices.

Yemeni farmers turned over more and more land to the more profitable production of the narcotic plant qat and today Yemeni coffee, despite its quality and flavour, accounts for less than 0.1% of the world’s total coffee.

“By 1800, Yemen was producing 6% of the world’s coffee”

But Qima is determined to reverse this trend. The company works in partnership with around 2,500 small farmers and offers them the highest prices in the history of the Yemeni coffee trade.

Faris has also started working with coffee growers in Colombia and Ecuador and has established local teams in both countries. “We are looking at our experience in Yemen and we can see a very beautiful narrative in scaling our operations,” he explains.

“Yemen was where the coffee trade began and hundreds of years ago, the world looked towards Yemen to see how coffee should be traded,” Faris continues.

“Three hundred years later we have successfully implemented one of the world’s most progressive and equitable coffee business models in Yemen, and are now looking to implement that very same business model in other countries. It is a scalable, equitable, transparent model in which farmers are treated as actual partners, as opposed to sources of raw material. So we see this circulatory to Yemen’s coffee journey and an opportunity for Yemen to be celebrated as a centre of excellence for the coffee trade once again.”

Yemen’s war has devastated the country, destroying agricultural land, infrastructure, and livelihoods and claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. Perhaps less considered is the impact it has had on mental health, especially of the youth - The New Arab (@The_NewArab) June 3, 2022

At the age of 13, Faris Sheibani’s grandfather started selling coffee and tea out of a small shack. This humble endeavour grew into a business which eventually became one of Yemen’s largest and most recognised industrial groups, known as much for its charity work as its business success.

His grandfather, and later his father, attributed the success of the business to a single driving principle which represents the company ethos: we are not makers of trade, we are makers of lives.

Qima is also working with the world’s leading coffee research institutes to carry out research into the genetics of Yemeni coffee.

In 2020, their research efforts led to the discovery of a new and unique genetic strain of coffee in Yemen, commercially known as Yemenia.

The taste and quality of this new genetic group were assessed by an independent jury of expert coffee tasters and found to be among the highest quality coffee in the world, scoring above 90 points on the speciality coffee grading system (a score achieved by the top 1-2% of the world’s coffee).

Qima Coffee from Yemen [photo credit: Bex Walton]
Qima Coffee from Yemen [photo credit: Bex Walton]

What is perhaps more intriguing is that trees that hold these genetics were found to be extremely resilient to climate stress, growing in temperature and rainfall conditions that are well outside of the typical range for coffee growing.

Considering that recent scientific research has concluded that 60% of the wild Arabica coffee species may be extinct in the coming decades due to climate change, the fact that Yemeni coffee trees appear to display extreme climatic resilience may make Yemen a country of great interest for the global coffee community.

Qima’s business has been expanding steadily and great progress has been made in the Chinese, Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese markets.

“We are seeing consumer behaviour in China change,” Faris said. “You see people are moving from drinking high-quality tea which their parents drank, to high-quality coffee and we are in the right place at the right time to capture that.”

Yemen’s coffee trees [photo credit: Qima]
Yemen’s coffee trees [photo credit: Qima]

Approximately 30% of Qima’s highest quality offerings go to China and Faris believes that in the next decade it will be one of the leading coffee-consuming countries.

During the last 15 years, Europe’s market grew by just over 1% per year while the Chinese market grew by 10% annually.

Qima has also developed a strong brand reputation in South Korea where it has recently set up an office.

“When I enter a speciality coffee shop in South Korea and introduce ourselves as Qima, nine times out of ten they will have heard of us prior to that – and that’s a very positive indicator of our progress.”

In Yemen, Faris is very concerned about natural resources, such as coffee, being used to fund political conflicts. He sees this phenomenon as the greatest risk facing Yemen’s coffee industry today.

“The various conflicting groups in Yemen need to appreciate that people will stop buying Yemeni coffee if they think they are funding the conflict in doing so.

“The last thing we need is for coffee to be dragged into the conflict and for it to be yet another victim of Yemen’s war”

“For the last five years, we have been working very hard to establish coffee as a vehicle for peace in Yemen’s conflict-ridden climate. It is one of the only things coming out of Yemen that has managed to steer clear of conflict and politics. And it’s a vehicle for humans around the world to connect with the humans and humanity of Yemen,” Faris tells The New Arab.

“Someone sitting in New York, London or Beijing, can connect with a farmer in Yemen through this drink and that makes it a very powerful vehicle to present alternative narratives and change perceptions. The last thing we need is for coffee to be dragged into the conflict and for it to be yet another victim of Yemen’s war.”

However, Faris does not deny that the future for Yemen’s coffee industry will be challenging, but he remains defiantly hopeful about what lies ahead.

“We always knew Yemen would be a difficult country to navigate; being in the throes of a very complex conflict, with new groups and political narratives appearing almost every week – all this while facing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Yet coffee can be an unassuming, underestimated, globally relevant unifying force that at least gathers everyone around the table,” Faris concludes.