“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” Sun Tzu

This week Michael Maxey shares his thoughts on coffee production in Yemen as a means for social development in the country. (This article and associated images have been reposted with permission from Michael via his blog Sleepless in Baghdad).

The ancient philosophy of Sun Tzu (The Art of War) focuses on potential – on the power of perception translating into reality where weakness is made into strength and many parts into a resilient whole.  

Yemen is an example of where this philosophy could be applied with coffee production used to bring people together and improve their lives.  Commercial coffee  was first produced in Yemen as early as the 6th century C.E.  The bulk of modern coffee production is still made up of Coffea arabica L. (the scientific name of coffee comes from Yemen’s ancient name – Arabia Felix).[1] Research indicates that the genetic origin of specialty coffee varieties is Yemen.  Today, the country’s 90,000 small scale coffee farmers are producing unique genotypes of Arabica coffee in the country’s highly diverse micro-climates.  This production  spans ethnicities, tribal groups and  sectarian divisions. One of these groups, the Ismailia Community in the Haraz mountains west of Sana’a seeks to use coffee to promote peace, economic development, and a better future.[2]

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Coffee Production Areas of Yemen are in the higher elevations running north to south across different sectarian and tribal groups

As a matter of faith, the Ismaili Community believes that the cultivation and consumption of any narcotics should not be permitted. This includes qat, a stimulant popular in the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula. In Yemen, the high demand and price for qat is changing agriculture production patterns while placing farmers and the natural environment in a destructive cycle of dependency.  An estimated 40% of the country’s water supply goes towards irrigating it.  Given that the profitability of qat is significant; finding a substitute crop will depend on finding commodities that bring in similar or higher net profits.  Specialty coffee targeting a premium niche market is one of the crops that can compete with qat in terms of profit potential.

If successful, the efforts of the Ismaili Community in Yemen could be a model for expanding efforts to produce, process and market high quality coffee to the international specialty.

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Shabbir al-Ezzi of the Al-Ezzi Company and Juan Valdez at the Speciality Coffee Association of America meeting in Boston, MA – 2013

At this stage the building blocks are being set by the community.  Vision is required to bring these coffee farmers together to build a united force for creating economic value and greater rural family income. That vision is nowhere better demonstrated than by Shabbir al-Ezzi, owner of  the Al-Ezzi Coffee Company, in Sana’a, Yemen.  He moved to Yemen from Mumbai, India, fourteen years ago and began operating in the coffee sector to provide support for members of the Ismaili community in Haraz. The business model he developed provides a guide for significantly increasing the quality of Yemeni coffee, garnering an exceptionally high price for green coffee exports, and demonstrating the potential for increasing the impact of the coffee sector to reduce qat production, provide greater family income in high poverty areas, and improve stability.

The Al-Ezzi model is based on developing a personal, long-term relationship with farmers and paying them a premium for high quality coffee delivered in bulk.  Farmers receive identification cards and are paid a higher price for combining efforts and delivering a greater quantity of high quality coffee.  As this method of green coffee procurement expands in Yemen, there is a greater opportunity to ensure a higher price for unprocessed coffee and increase farmer earnings.  While current efforts are focused in the Harza mountains west of Sana’a, the models being created by Al-Ezzi Coffee Company could be replicated to support coffee farmers in the North, Central and South of Yemen.  The Ismailia community seeks to build a strong national force for greater market access and higher prices for the country’s Arabica coffee and, in doing so, give the country hope for a better future.

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Coffee in the Haraz Mountains of Yemen

The U.S. specialty coffee sector has taken note of the potential of Yemen’s Arabica coffee production and is supporting expanded coffee production and improved quality through a US$24.5 million United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded program with the Coffee Quality Institute and Land O Lakes (a U.S.-based agricultural cooperative group).  The program will be able to demonstrate how to increase productivity, access high value markets, and create enterprise models to demonstrate the potential returns to farmers in premium, niche markets.    

[1] Arabia Felix was the Latin name previously used by geographers to describe the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen.

[2]The Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, generally known as the Ismailis, belong to the Shia branch of Islam.  His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims.

Michael Maxey is an Economic Development Advisor with over thirty years of experience in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East. To find out more about Michael please visit his LinkedIn page. For his latest analysis on Central American immigration issues, check out his website.

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