BY KAREN DABROWSKA
Yemeni coffee has long been highly prized by growers – and consumers – from Brazil to Ethiopia and, despite the political upheaval being suffered by Yemenis, the industry continues to survive. Following his visit to Hotelex Shanghai, an international trade fair for the hospitality industry, the founder and CEO of London-based Qima Coffee, Faris Sheibani, was able to confirm that interest in the Yemeni product are at ‘absolutely astounding’ levels and, he noted, the highest ever price for traditional Yemeni coffee was recently achieved by sales to China.
Sheibani, whose family are from Yemen , first visited China in May 2018, as guest speaker at a coffee innovation forum in Nanjing. “That trip opened my eyes to the huge potential China holds as a coffee consuming nation,” Sheibani said.
Qima’s first sales and marketing activities took place just four months later, in September, at a coffee show in Beijing. Today Qima Coffee is available throughout China via the Taobao store and a sales office based in Qingdao.
Yemeni coffee comes from a unique genetic variety of trees which are stressed by the country’s arid climate. The stress is good for the coffee quality and makes for a very complex cup profile. It has been grown in the country for at least 700 years and many areas have multi-generational experience with coffee farming and treat the coffee tree as a family member.
Until the early 1700s, Yemen was the world’s sole producer and exporter of coffee. Said to have first been consumed in 1450 by the country’s mystical Sufis – who drank it to stay awake for all-night meditations – Yemenis spread the country’s coffee culture to the rest of the world.
The industrial revolution in Europe prompted the planting of smuggled Yemeni coffee seeds in Sri Lanka, Java and Reunion. Peasants and slaves in these countries were forced to grow and sell coffee at exploitative prices to the Dutch and French East India Companies.
By 1800, Yemen was producing six percent of the world’s coffee but its market share continued to decline with the drop in global coffee prices. was turned
Yemeni farmers turned over more and more land to the more profitable production of the narcotic plant qat and today Yemeni coffee, despite its quality and flavour, accounts for less than 0.1 percent of the world’s total coffee. Qima is determined to reverse this trend. The company works in partnership with around 2500 small farmers and offers them the highest prices in the history of the Yemeni coffee trade. “We face many problems including the threat of air strikes, being caught in the crossfire between the conflicting parties in the sectarian civil war and transporting our goods through the countless checkpoints around the country from farms to processing facilities and from the facilities to the port,” Sheibani said.
The coffee is expensive because processing it correctly is no mean feat. In London the press focused on the fact that it was selling for £15 a cup in Le Café Alain Ducasse. Sheibani discovered that the key differentiator between the Chinese and European market is that in China, as long as a company can deliver quality and exclusivity, pricing becomes a secondary issue.
“Chinese consumers are used to paying for rare and quality agricultural products- namely of course, tea!,” Sheibani said. “It is not uncommon for people to spend tens of thousands of dollars annually on rare and exquisite teas – typically to give away as gifts on special occasions. So in a strange way, China being a huge tea drinking country, where significant premiums are paid for quality and rarity, bodes well for the country’s potential as a high end coffee consuming market.”
In relative terms the Chinese market for coffee is small as China’s coffee consumption represents 10 percent of Europe’s and the average Chinese coffee drinker consumes four percent of his European counterpart. But over the last four years Europe’s market grew by four percent while the Chinese market grew by 100 percent.
Sheibani is convinced that the growth of China’s coffee market in general and its specific dynamics make it well suited as a consumer of high end coffees. “There is a strong indication that China has significant potential – especially for more expensive, quality coffees like those coming from Yemen. By function of the sheer size and growth of the market it is hard to ignore the country’s potential to take centre stage in the global scene. It is not without its issues and barriers but if you are willing to put in the work and do large amounts of homework the results will be worthwhile. Interestingly last month a Chinese contestant ,Jia Ning Du, won the prestigious World’s Brewer Cup competition – a grand affair in the coffee world.”
Qima is currently developing marketing and distribution plans for Japan and South Korea which Sheibani described as equally interesting yet completely different markets to China.
Having completed a Masters in Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London and a further Masters in Engineering and Management at Cambridge University Sheibani planned to establish his first business project to develop Yemen’s energy infrastructure. “But the war changed everything for Yemen, and that changed everything for me. I had to help the country and saw coffee as a potential path forward. Today, Yemen is going through one of its most dire and desperate times in history. With an increasingly sectarian civil war raging, the worst hunger crisis in the world, rapidly declining water supplies, and the collapse of basic health and sanitation services, the country is on the brink of total failure. The revival of the coffee industry is a glimmering light that can pave the path to the country’s gradual recovery.”
FARIS SHEIBANI Founder and CEO of Qima COFFEE comments:
“Just as coffee plays an integral part in Yemen’s history, it also plays a key role in my family’s past. At age 13, my grandfather started selling coffee and tea out of a small shack. This humble endeavour grew into a business, and the business eventually became one of Yemen’s largest and most recognised industrial groups, known as much for its charity work as it is for its business success. My grandfather, and later my father, attribute the success of the business to a single driving principle that represents the company ethos: ‘we are not makers of trade, we are makers of lives’. Whilst I decided not to join the family business group, and instead traverse a more independent path, I have always aspired to live my life by that very same principle.
“Though born and raised in the United Kingdom, I frequently visited Yemen and developed a strong familial connection to the country. Seeing the massive economic and social challenges Yemen faced, it was important to me that my work involve improving the lives of Yemeni people.
“Having completed a Masters in Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London and a further Masters in Engineering and Management at Cambridge University in the UK, I planned to establish my first business project to develop Yemen’s energy infrastructure, offering basic power services to a country in desperate need of them. But in 2015, whilst working for an international energy firm in London to acquire the experience I needed for this future project, war broke out in Yemen.
“The war changed everything for Yemen, and that changed everything for me. With the country pushed into total collapse, it was clear I could no longer pursue my energy plans in the foreseeable future. But I also knew Yemen was at its moment of greatest need, and that if I intended to help the country, it was needed now more than ever before.
“It was then that I saw coffee—such an integral element of my family’s lineage—as a potential path forward. I began researching the coffee trade, which led me to expert educator Willem Boot, owner of California’s Boot Coffee Consulting as well as several quality-focused coffee farms in Panama. Under Willem’s careful tutelage in Amsterdam and at his farms in Panama, I learned the many detail-oriented steps needed to grow specialty coffee. I also embarked on earning my Specialty Coffee Association of Europe Diploma, which I will complete in the coming months to further solidify my coffee education.
“On 31st October 2016, I visualised my dream to develop Yemen’s largest specialty coffee project. Less than one year later, I am sitting in Yemen, watching that vision manifest in front of my eyes. Though starting this business in the current circumstances was an extremely difficult proposition, I am unwaveringly committed to finding a way to succeed. As people were leaving Yemen to escape the war, I was going in. I, and more importantly my team, have overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges to reach where we are today, including intimidation, threats to life and limb, illegal detention and frequent air strikes. It is commitment that has led me this far, and it is commitment that will ensure Qima Coffee achieves the success I dream for it.”