What does the future hold for Yemen's coffee industry? What does the future hold for Yemen's coffee industry?

Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American coffee trader, was walking along the street in the southern city of Aden when he was attacked, bound, blindfolded and thrown in the back of a pickup truck. 

While he managed to escape, he overheard his attackers talking about a sea link between the Yemeni port city of Mokha and the African state of Djibouti. The information came in handy a week later when he was packing to prepare to fly back to the US to attend an annual industry conference staged by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).

His plans were thrown into disarray when the airport in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, was bombed shortly before he was due to leave. Determined to attend the SCAA event and showcase the country’s struggling coffee industry, Alkhanshali and Andrew Nicholson, a Texan coffee trader now living in Yemen, set out on a dramatic journey to make it to the Seattle conference on time.

Alkhanshali and Nicholson took a seven-hour drive to the port of Mokha. From there, they persuaded a local fishing boat captain to take them on the five-hour journey across the Red Sea to Africa. Following a flight to Kenya and onwards to the US, the two men eventually made it to Seattle in time. Alkhanshali recounted the duo’s dramatic journey in interviews to several media outlets, such as the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera, and he soon began to be referred to as “The Indiana Jones of Coffee”.

The tale certainly helped create media buzz at the SCAA event. Large crowds were drawn to a breakfast-tasting showcase fronted by Alkhanshali, who owns the export company Mocha Mill, based in Oakland, California, and to Nicholson’s booth for his Yemen-based mill and export company, Rayyan Mill.

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Many entrepreneurs claim to have poured their blood, sweat and tears into developing their businesses but for those involved in the Yemeni coffee industry this is literally the case and many, like Alkhanshali and Nicholson, have put their lives on the line several times to help advance this ancient trade.

Although Ethiopia is renowned as the birthplace of coffee, Yemen is where the beans were first commercially traded, more specifically at the port city of Mokha, since 1450. While oil and gas account for a quarter of Yemen’s GDP, agriculture is the backbone of the economy. Coffee is produced in 17 out of the 21 Yemeni governorates, with around 600,000 people involved in growing the beans.

Mokha is located in the southern part of Yemen taken over by the Houthis during their military offensive in March 2015 and the coffee industry has been all but decimated as a result of the bloody conflict. However, even before this, statistics show that since 2007 production was almost stagnant at approximately 300,000 bags per year.

The value of the sector had also dropped from $17,584,341 in 2005 to $10,381,619 in 2012. Overall, the volume of coffee grown in Yemen before the conflict had already declined by about 50 percent from what it was during the 1950s, according to a report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

While production has begun to restart in some areas, those in the industry are optimistic it can get back on its feet, especially after the large crowds and interest it received at the SCAA event in April.

“It depends on your definition of ‘on its feet’. Will it return to its glory days of ancient times when it was the centre of the world’s production? With climate change and political instability, probably not,” says Andrew Hetzel, a Hawaii-based quality and trade specialist for the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), which helped organise the SCAA tasting event in Seattle this year. “The people of Yemen, however, are resourceful and the coffee of Yemen is a rare genetic gem that has survived for centuries. I wouldn’t count them out just because of this latest news in millennia of conflict.”