With Yemen’s Houthi rebels making international news with their attacks on ships in the Red Sea, the country is back in the spotlight as the years-long conflict in the country grinds on.
When we spoke to John Cupitt, director of Sheba Coffee, at last year’s Arab-British Chambers of Commerce meeting, however, we heard a different story about Yemen. While it may export its share of troubling headlines, it also exports something else: high-grade coffee.
It is claimed by some that Yemen is where coffee was first cultivated, by Sufi mystics who used what they called qahwa for spiritual purposes. Others argue that it started across the Red Sea in Ethiopia, but regardless of who got there first, Yemen’s export certainly left its mark on the history of coffee. Mocha is named after the Yemeni port of Mokha, where Europeans converged from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries to purchase the region’s coveted coffee beans.
Asked about Sheba’s business as a Yemeni coffee exporter, Cupitt explained that it is designed specifically to “improve the lot of artisanal farmers in Yemen’s highlands”. It also works in Ethiopia, he noted:
“Sheba is a disputed queen in the Red Sea between Ethiopia and Yemen, but one thing the two countries do have in common is a very long heritage in producing fine-grade coffees for the export market. It’s the cradle of commercial coffee cultivation.”
Bean of Sheba
Cupitt explained that Sheba works across the two nations in small villages to improve irrigation, plant management and coffee processing. It also has bases in the UK, Dubai and China, and it helps Yemeni farmers to export globally.
It is difficult for the small, subsistence-level growers in Yemen to receive a hard currency payment for their produce. Sheba aims to help these croppers by selling their coffee and helping them to move away from growing khat, a plant and stimulant also produced by Yemeni croppers, which has little value on the export market but takes much of the precious water supply that could be used for growing coffee.
With a focus on ethical and sustainable practices, Cupitt added, Sheba purchases coffee from smallholders at “more than 300% above the price traditional traders would pay as standard”.
On the work being done to help Yemen’s coffee business develop, Cupitt said:
“We’re putting in small irrigation channels and cisterns. We’re improving the roads for access into these [coffee-producing] villages.
“Sister companies within our organisation are also helping with female literacy programmes. But our specific business is to give the ‘brand’ of Yemeni coffee a much higher profile.”
One project Sheba is working on has seen them collaborate with a New Zealand-based company to adapt forensic pathology techniques to identify the source of specific beans and the best biodiversity practice for their cultivation. This also helps in providing commercial dispute mitigation, he explained, and to develop a “coffee map of Yemen”.
“We want to ensure that when people buy Yemeni coffee it really is Yemeni coffee, and not something that’s lost its identity in the grey market.
“Coffee is in Yemen’s DNA, and it is very good quality coffee. More can be made of it: it can serve as a bridge between Yemen and the outside world commercially. It would allow Yemen to be associated with something that they are genuinely world-class at. That’s very important for a country that’s on its knees.”
The UK has traditionally been seen as a “good actor in terms of Yemen’s commercial interests”, Cupitt suggested. Sheba brings its coffee to the UK first as “no one will accept Yemeni certificates of origin or phytosanitary hygiene certificates, so it has to bounce off a place of transshipment”.
This adds to cost, he noted, and takes money away from the place of origin. Allowing Yemen’s coffee market to flourish without outside support, he said finally, was a core aim:
“What we’re really about, in fact, is destroying ourselves by making it easier for Yemen to export its own coffee.”