Conference Promotes Yemen’s Forlorn Coffee Sector

Sponsors Bravely Optimistic as International Attendees Hint Doubts

Yemeni officials, farmers, international diplomats, and experts from all over the coffee-producing and –consuming world descended on the Movenpick hotel Monday and Tuesday for the 2nd Arabica Naturals international coffee conference.  The hopes invested in the conference were manifold.

First and foremost, there was a desire to promote the beleaguered national economy with a promising commodity craved in the rich West.  Second was a plan, subtle but repeatedly conveyed throughout the conference, to undercut the unchecked rise of qat as Yemen’s cash crop, whose social and economic threat to Yemen is well-documented.

Also, there was a sincere wish to lure attention away from Yemen’s many security  woes, and project a more optimistic vision of the country to foreign guests and audiences.  Organizers proactively booked journalists’ attendance at the event, and implored those in attendance to write a positive view.

“You can write your other stories, but please make a good report on this event, which represents the good, real side of our country,” a press coordinator was heard saying to a foreign journalist.

So the pageant commenced, with attendees milling around stands set up by al-Kabous coffee, Mokha Bunn café, Hamdani Distributors, and others, receiving enthusiastic product pitches and complementary bags of coffee.

A salutatory video boomed in the main conference hall showing starry vistas, terraced farms, and wrinkled fists clutching native coffee beans.  Proud old farmers were interviewed describing their daily routines:  waking up, followed by al-Fajr prayers, then hard work among the coffee trees, during which attentive family members would bring daily meals.

The screen dimmed and the lights flared, revealing the satisfied looks on the faces of about two dozen or so actual coffee farmers in attendance, distinct for their ma’wazs and headscarves among the dapper business-casual crowd.

The USAID-funded event brought with it an introductory speech of perpetually-smiling and up-beat US ambassador Gerald Feierstein, who just recently filled the post.

His address began instructively, “Yemen’s an ideal venue for growers and distributors of Coffee:  it is home to rare and unique phenotypes of the plant.”

“I’m extremely pleased,” he went on, “to see international and local attendees at this conference, and I believe it truly represents the spirit and power of the international coffee industry.  I encourage you to build long-term relationships for the sake of Yemeni coffee.”

Beaming, he and his entourage were later welcomed by those manning the nearby coffee stands, including a little girl in traditional dress with a flower in her hair, as news cameras closed in and floodlit the scene.

With great fanfare and a large retinue, Yemeni Prime Minister Dr. Ali Muhammad Mujawir entered the event and delivered a speech proudly trumpeting the virtues of Yemen’s prized crop.

“There is no better coffee than those of Yemen’s mountains, and we thank the farmers, who raise the name of Yemen high in the world through their efforts.  For us, coffee is an original, national symbol,” he declared.

The Prime Minister continued, more soberly, “Our greatest concern is to face the environmental and humanitarian challenges which stand in the way of developing this sector.  In order to build on the Yemeni expertise in cultivating this tree, we must conform to international standards of producing coffee – this requires cooperation among government, international, and expert officials.”

“Our thanks goes to the international development sector,” he concluded, “for your assistance in these initiatives.”

Later presentations sketched the hazy outlines of coffee’s original history, which quickly became a football of competing national biases.  A presentation by a local expert, citing the work of Arab historians, confidently refuted the widespread belief that the coffee plant crossed the Red Sea from Ethiopia.

“The beans were conveyed from Yemen to the court of King Louis of France, and to Africa, and to South East Asia, the Caribbean, and beyond,” the massive power point presentation stated, matter-of-factly.

Marcino Petracco of Italian-based coffee giant Illy, politely disagreed in his presentation on the same subject.  “Coffee must have begun when ancient men sniffed the tempting smell from coffee trees struck by lightning.  I must disagree with the previous presenter and say that, while cultivation of the coffee tree probably did begin here in Yemen, the origin of the plant, according to clear scientific evidence, lies somewhere in Central Africa.”

Other flamboyant statements delighted the audience: “the coffee tree takes nine months to flower, just like the woman,” and, “we each have our specialized link in this production and distribution process, and we must all love our link, or lose our love!”

A section of the presentation focused on the negative descriptors, such as “sour, burnt, rancid” which tend to characterize certain natural coffees, and make them unacceptable on the global market.  Upbeat and humorous in his presentation, Mr. Petracco quietly confided on the sidelines of the conference that poor quality control of Yemeni product made the occurrence of “stinker” beans too prevalent, and essentially barred Yemeni coffee from effectively entering the global market.

Judith Ganes, a coffee consultant from the United States, launched into a description of the global coffee market notable for the obvious absence of Yemen.  In a bar graph of global production, a massive tower of Brazilian discussion dwarfed the output of competitors Vietnam, Indonesia, and Kenya – Yemen’s output was so tiny, it was not even included.

The farmers in attendance tuned out and removed their simultaneous translation sets, as Yemen’s ferocious competition in the global market was presented at length.  Visiting Kenyan, Ehtiopian, and Indonesian delegations were seen to be fiercely scribbling notes.

While Brazil’s dominance was clear, rising prosperity in the country meant local consumption might soon meet production, giving competitors like Yemen a better chance to compete.  Still, Yemen currently consumes the vast majority of its coffee supply.

But international consultants were not alone in expressing their frustration with the desperate condition of Yemen’s crop.  “We receive almost no help from the government for our crop, whether in terms of money, irrigation, or expertise,” complained Abdul Rahman al-Zakati and his colleagues, growers from Amran, during a lunch break.

“Yes, qat requires more water, and renders the land dry, but it yields three consistent harvests a year, and provides a good return,” he continued.  “We have stores of water and means of irrigation, but they are not modern; if at the time of flowering the conditions are dry, the coffee withers immediately, and nine months of cultivation are wasted.”

“We need assistance from the government, modern forms of irrigation, and an exchange of current knowledge on cultivation techniques if the sector is to develop,” he implored.

The disagreement continued some points from the presenters in the history of coffee as well the un-satisfactory results of the cupping comment. The Yemeni exhibitors and participants has rejects the results on their cupping to the Yemen coffee.

The discussions of the conference were complemented by visits to the coffee shops of Sanaa’s old city, followed by a field trip to the historic “Dar al-Hajar” the following day.  Foreign visitors were treated to a field trip of several days to coffee-cultivating regions east of the capital.

Coffee-Tasting Ranks Infuriate Yemeni Coffee Traders

A coffee-tasting or “cupping” competition at the end of the two-day conference saw Yemeni coffees ranked poorly against international competitors, as Ethiopian and Indonesian blends came out on top.  The results, the product of an alleged mix-up of coffee samples by the sponsoring organization, left Yemeni businessmen aghast.

Mr. Ibrahim al-Kabous protested, “we are the oldest coffee firm in Yemen and our volume of the local market share is 70%, and 50% of the Yemeni export market to the United States, Japan, Europe, and the Gulf.

“The cupping results was disappointing and we will not stay quiet while Yemeni coffee is given a bad reputation,” said al-Kabous.  We will address the chairman of the conference and the international coffee association with our lawyers.”

Ramzi al-Khayat of Yemen Coffee Processing Co. said that the coffee conference and the exhibition were of little use for Yemeni producers at the sector’s current state of development.

“Supporting farmers, modify- ing crops, developing the coffee tree, and educating farmers on the harvest process should be the priorities of Yemen, not a confer- ence.” Said al-Khayat.

“The conference should rather promote Yemen’s coffee by investing in improving infrastructure like roads and irrigation, as well as addressing farmers’ problems and needs,” he continued. “The conference would be much better if it were postponed another two years and all this money was used to build a modern water network; the expenses were a waste.”

Mohammed Seyoid, a business man and a member of the coffee association, said that said that the coordination was not well organized and the cupping period was not enough to have samples before a few hours that is never meet with the international standards .

Mohammed al-Hamdani, general manager of al-Hamdani Coffee, one of the main participants at the exhibition expressed his disappointment at being ranked 7th by the tasting competition judges.

“The cupping  committee mixed up the samples, and I have participated with the same samples in Denmark and Holland, where we received a 99% favorable rating.  We are well know, to the market and they should reconsider the results, otherwise we will sue them,” al-Hamdani protested.

“We have rejected the result and will send our samples to world-renowned coffee expert David Kindy in the United States. The conference was no good and the results were disappointing.”

“The results will negatively affect in the Yemeni coffee industry, but the conference was supposedly convened to promote Yemeni coffee!  The cost of Yemeni Coffee is $15 to $17 per kilo, while Ethiopian goes at $2.5; does this mean that American companies do not know the value and cost of the Yemeni Coffee?!”

The microfinance fund responsible for conducting the tasting admitted that there were a mistake in results after they announced them.  Seyoid continued, “This a national product, but this conference works against the national interest of Yemen. “Be sure that the the Ethiopian will market these results for their own purposes!

“The Yemeni Coffee used to be called the Green gold in Europe. In the future we will boycott the micro-finance fund and any upcoming conference because they are working for such NGOs.”

The lack of cupping experts has mixed up the results . The good market for Yemeni Coffee are Japan, United State and Europe. The coffee prices has been increased in the past two years and these encourage the farmers to work more . Supporting farmers and agriculture are the key sector to compete with the quality and to increase cash crop production . the conference was good for promotion but there were many farmers to invite framers from all areas of Yemen. Said Seyoid.