Karen Dabrowska

Originally published in Faris Sheibani’s Qima Coffee blog

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• Taiz: Shining the light on need through the lens of coffee

Taiz: Shining the light on need through the lens of coffee

Faris Sheibani
Faris Sheibani

I can’t lie. The situation is dire. On the frontline was a boy – 11 or 12 years old. He was a child soldier with a AK47. “Why do you want to kill people,” I asked. “My father was killed by a sniper. I am a soldier,” he replied laughing. “Why are you laughing?” “My father told me you have to laugh.

How do you untangle something like that? He was traumatized by his father being killed and he was somehow covering all this pain through laughing because that is the only thing he remembers of his father. He was on the verge of a breakdown. How do you repair the damage?

Taiz is physically divided into two by the warring factions. The main road that connects Taiz to Saana is blockaded by the Houthis with snipers. So it takes eight hours instead of five minutes to cross the city. It used to take six hours to reach Taiz from Aden. Now it takes 20 hours. This socio-economic blockade has crippled the city. The international community is putting pressure on the Houthis to open the road so trade can flow.

Taiz is the most populous governorate and the third largest city. It was the city of culture where my holidays were spent while growing up in the UK. My memories are all very positive. When I got married my friends came to Yemen and toured the country. They all said Taiz was the best place they saw.

A few weeks ago Taiz felt like a village. It was crippled, dead. Five or six years ago it was alive. At 8pm everyone was at home. Before that’s when they started to go out to enjoy themselves. The city is now largely free from Al Qaeida and ISIS but a few years ago they would cut off the head of anyone carrying weapons and take them.

Before they retreated they laid mines in the houses, in every room. Neighbourhoods are completely destroyed in the heart of the city. It was an effort to remove these mines and there were many fatalities. But the people have started moving back.

Al Kamb an area on the frontline is completely destroyed. The community leaders told me no one was helping them: no aid, no medicine, sewage in the streets, people living in houses with enormous holes in the walls.

I promised to try and raise awareness about what is happening in Al Kamb and other devastated areas through the language of coffee and the projects we are doing. Their stories will be told and hopefully NGOs will come and help.

Qima and Lavazza Coffee Company implemented a very successful project in Dammar in the north with $400,000. It involved a large processing site where farmers were shown how to improve the quality of their coffee, large water reservoirs, the first coffee nursery which produced 150,000 small trees a year and setting up female lead farmer groups which dealt directly with buyers. The impact for the farmers was an incredible $1.1 million every year.

Giuseppe Lavazza, the Vice President of Lavazza and Chairman of the Lavazza Foundation, heard about our proposed Mocha Revival Project. Mocha, the first port from which coffee was exported internationally is in Taiz governorate. The project would help farmers generate sustainable livelihoods through coffee growing and we could change the narrative from a city of death and destruction - a city dubbed the city of snipers - to a city of hope.

Inspired by the unprecedented success of the Dammar project Giuseppe was keen. Qima will donate one third of the $1.7m, Lavazza a third and we are now looking for partners, maybe the German, British or American government. $1.7 million is not a lot for a foreign sponsored project. If you look at UN projects in Yemen they have spent $200 million - where has it gone? There is a serious problem with massive levels of corruption and people proposing projects insist on getting a 30 percent share.

There were meetings with the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Tourism and Media, the Ministry of Industry and the Governor of Taiz. They were all very excited about the Mocha Revival Project and said they would facilitate it. The Ministry of Agriculture was thinking of dubbing 2023 the Year of Coffee and Honey so we were certainly there at the right time.

I also met with farming communities in the Bani Hammad area. They started growing coffee 400 – 500 years ago and coffee was first exported from the Port of Mocha. But our discussions revealed they are not growing more coffee as they do not have a market, nobody buys from them and even those who buy exploit them. We have issues with diseases which affect the coffee trees and we don’t have diesel or solar pumps to pump the underground water, the farmers said.

The problems were quite basic - like donkeys eating the trees - which means that with a little bit of work we could deliver a lot. If someone has water and all they need is a pump - it is easy. In the north they don’t have ground water and have to capture it from the sky.

There was enthusiasm from farmers - basic issues could be overcome. The coffee industry that was once prevalent in the region could be revived. But Taiz had been socio-economically ostracised. Many farmers left farming but the war forced them to return to their villages and coffee growing was their only source of income.

The Mocha Revival Project is diverse. Like all our projects in Yemen we are trying to use coffee as a vehicle to transform people and generate sustainable livelihoods. We are going to improve coffee production for farmers, increase coffee consumption locally and involve youth and women in our activities.

We are going to build reservoirs, establish nurseries, improve farming practices and distribute hole drilling machines to young people. A farmer needs a day to make one hole for planting a tree. The machine can drill 80 holes in a day. Young people can go to the farms with the machine, get paid for drilling the holes, save the farmers time and money and increase production.

We are looking at setting up coffee roasters in Aden and Taiz and providing roasted coffee bags to the locals and starting to promote a coffee drinking culture locally, introducing high quality coffee seeing the difference between Taizi coffee and Sanaani coffee.

A coffee and pastry academy in Aden is also part of the project. We want to bring in young people, teach them how to make coffee, teach them how to brew and then get them jobs in cafes or help them to open their own cafes and bakeries. We can’t set it up in Taiz because so many people have left and it is socio-economically restricted. These are examples of how we are going beyond the farming community and creating employment and economic opportunities. Hopefully we end up with a model which the international community will support.

In the north the Houthis are very suspicious of development projects which they attribute to the intelligence services. That is why most NGOs no longer work there. But if they see the success of what we are doing they may put their suspicions aside and replicate our model.

Coffee brings hope. It is going to help Yemen get through difficult times. There are no alternative sources of income during the war so people move back to the villages and they find coffee to help them stay on their feet. In a country like Yemen people need something positive in their lives they can attach themselves to and say I am involved in that. We see coffee as a factor beyond the livelihoods and incomes of farmers. It is acting as a force for good that can promote a culture of co-operation and peace.