Yemen is seeking to revive natural Arabic coffee production and bring back its old glory. However, it faces tough competition from other coffee producers, such as Brazil, Colombia and Ethiopia. With the rise of qat plant cultivation, the surface of the planted area of coffee has also remarkably dwindled.
Yemen is the original country for Arabic coffee and home of Mocha coffee, named after the Mokha Port on the coast of the Red Sea. Yemen is considered the only country in the world where coffee trees are planted under environmental and climatic conditions different than the “convenient” agricultural conditions in other regions of the world.
History testifies that the Portuguese, who first discovered the western coast of Yemen in the 16th century, were the first Europeans ever to taste Yemeni coffee. As the story goes, the sheikh of Mokha welcomed them and invited them for a warm black drink that “refreshes the body and appeases the mind.”
Studies indicate that the first coffee trade was concluded in Mokha Port, when the Dutch bought coffee in 1628. They kept buying coffee and moving it to their centers in northwest India, Persia and the Netherlands, where the first sale of Yemeni coffee started in 1661.
Yemeni coffee trade found great success because of its high and unique quality, which distinguished it from all other coffee types in the world. Demand for Yemeni coffee rose, and so did the competition between French, British and Dutch companies throughout the 1650s. The competition went on until the 18th century. In 1720, coffee production reached its peak after the Dutch established a coffee factory in Mokha in 1708 and started exporting coffee.
The French established another factory in Mokha in 1709. During that era, coffee trade flourished in the ports of Mokha, Hodeida and Luhayyah.
After three centuries of prosperity, the Yemeni coffee trade suffered some unfortunate negative events. Trade started to decrease gradually, and in the 19th century, Yemen lost many global coffee markets. The main reason is that the growing of coffee trees was moved to other regions of the world that competed with Yemen at the time. There were also negative local factors that influenced Yemeni coffee export and production. Their effects persist to this day.
The prevalence of Qat
Estimates for 2012 showed that the planted area of coffee in Yemen reached around 34,900 hectares, as opposed to 162,500 hectares for planting qat. Coffee production amounted to 19,800 tons, as compared to 190,800 tons of qat.
Arwa Ahmed Abdullah al-Khoutabi, a Yemeni researcher in agricultural affairs, indicated that qat trees invaded agricultural lands that had been earmarked for coffee cultivation. Meanwhile, coffee acreage is subsiding day after day. As a result, Yemen has been deprived of a significant source of income that could have been as important as other global commercial goods such as wheat and cotton.
Despite all the obstacles surrounding Yemeni coffee production, coffee in Yemen can still be considered the main good exported by Yemen, next to oil. Yemeni coffee cultivation is spread throughout most regions of the country. The most famous types of coffee are Mattari, Yafei, Haimi, Hirazi, Ismaili, Ahjuri, Mahweet, Buraai, Hammadi, Raimi, Wasabi, Anisi, Odaini, Sabri and Saadi. Coffee is grown in valleys, where the climate is warm and wet, and on mountain terraces at altitudes ranging between 700 [0.4 miles] and 2,400 meters [1.5 miles]. Around one million Yemenis work in coffee production. While still adopting the same primitive ancestral methods and despite water scarcity, Yemen produces the best coffee in the world, known as Coffea Arabica.
Exportation to the Gulf
Ahmad Ali Hamdani, general manager of the Al-Hamdani Yemen Mokha Coffee Company, told Al-Hayat that his company exported coffee to Arab Gulf states and to European countries, in addition to the domestic market. Hamdani explained that his company provided high-quality Yemeni coffee seeds to keep up with Yemeni coffee’s reputation, known to be the best and the finest in the world, given its unique flavor and refined taste. He revealed that he provided annual financial loans for coffee farmers to use for coffee processing.
The Yemeni Coffee Association was founded in early 2007. Its main goal is to promote and support coffee farmers in Yemen and preserve the quality and reputation of Yemeni coffee, since foreign companies are exploiting the name Mokha to market their non-Yemeni coffee products.
Coffee experts stress the need to develop a marketing strategy for Yemeni coffee and actively participate in international conferences and exhibitions to promote coffee cultivation. This strategy should be based on adopting the best international practices, which already exist in countries that have succeeded in this field. It is also important, according to experts, to encourage farmers to grow coffee; create a body for the development of the coffee sector; manage water conservation and distribution of good coffee seedlings to farmers; support the formation of competent and qualified technical staff; and promote Yemeni coffee.
Coffee harvesting in Yemen is characterized by the prevalence of traditional methods. Farmers often harvest coffee crops in stages. Coffee beans are harvested whenever they are ripe enough to maintain their quality and ensure competitiveness. Farmers make sure to collect all the beans harvested and separate them from the ones harvested subsequently, to ensure the best quality and flavor of the product. They also make sure to separate the beans falling off trees, so as not to affect the quality of the coffee.
After the harvest, farmers place the crop to dry in sunlight for one to two weeks. The coffee fruit hulling process is the last stage before marketing the crop. The outer shell of the coffee fruit is mechanically separated from the green seeds. Lastly, the remaining residues are manually removed to obtain a pure product.