Entrepreneur tries to get Yemenis buzzing about coffee, not qat

Yemen's best known crop is the narcotic leaf qat, but it was once coffee. A businessman seeks to revive the country's past reputation as a leading coffee producer. 

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    A worker sorts coffee beans at the Timor Coffee Cooperative in East Timor September 6. In Yemen, one businessman is trying to reignite the country's coffee trade.
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Yemen's best-known crop may be qat, the omnipresent narcotic leaf chewed daily by many Yemenis, but this impoverished country was once one of the world's great coffee producers. Now one enterprising businessman is seeking to reclaim that historical status.

Indian businessman Shabbir Ezzi, a member of a Shiite sect with roots in Yemen, hopes to persuade farmers to give up growing qat –  "a Class-A drug," according to him – and give coffee a try instead.

"The whole country is completely gripped by [this] drug habit," he says.

Recommended: Sunni and Shiite Islam: Do you know the difference? Take our quiz.

A half-dozen years ago, Mr. Ezzi relocated to Yemen and Al-Ezzi Industries, his family company, invested $1 million in an enterprise buying coffee from producers and exporting it abroad.

But rather than preach to qat growers that qat is harmful, Ezzi created a competitive pricing standard and startup resources and worked to convince farmers that they could make more money by planting coffee. He says he's now breaking even and recently bought large coffee processors to speed up production.

Farmer Mohammad al-Azzi, one of Ezzi's clients, quit growing qat six years ago. Standing amid terraced fields carved along a horseshoe-shaped valley in the Haraz Mountains, a couple hours from the capital of Sanaa, he points to the red bean coffee plants that he now cultivates.

"For us, coffee is like gold," says Mr. Azzi, explaining that coffee has been more successful than qat, proving to be a "great income" for his family. 

Ezzi's company brings the coffee plants from a nursery and, after a few years in the ground, they begin bearing beans. Azzi says it's worth the wait because unlike qat, coffee doesn't have to be sold immediately. It also allows him to plant vegetables alongside coffee when before he was limited to qat, which required significant cultivation and resources.

Ezzi was managing his family's paper business in Mumbai when leaders of his religious community, the Dawoodi Bohra branch of Ismaili Shiite Islam, asked him to study the potential of coffee production in Yemen. They wanted to see if there was a way to make a dent in qat consumption, which they consider religiously prohibited. They also see it as a catalyst for low productivity and economic strain. 

Indian Bohras maintain ties to their shrines here and often run social service programs among the villages of Yemeni Bohras. 

Historians say coffee harvesting in Yemen dates back at least to the 15th century. But with qat consumed daily by both men and women, many have opted to grow qat trees instead. Some critics of the drug production say it is soaking up Yemen's withering water supply.

Ezzi's son Huzaifa has traded the metropolis of Mumbai for a home overlooking the terraces of Zahra, a Yemeni Bohra village. He's been on the front line of convincing farmers like Azzi of coffee's merits. For one, it has a longer shelf-life – coffee can be stored for 10 years, while qat leaves must be plucked and sold right away.

“We are not here to change their fields. We are here to show them the value for the coffee which they already have,” Huzaifa Ezzi says. “It's something which is lost to them.”

Besides Sudan, Yemen is the only Arab country that produces coffee. Mick Wheeler, a London-based coffee industry expert, says Yemeni coffee has a good global reputation. One of its biggest buyers is coffee behemoth Starbucks.

But Yemen's coffee exports are in decline, he says. Last year, the country exported about 2,500 tons – a fraction of the world coffee market and down from more than 5,000 tons in 2009.

An embargo on air cargo shipments from Yemen to the United States and Europe has cut into Shabbir Ezzi's reach in bigger markets. Still, he says he's exporting his gourmet, speciality coffee across the Middle East, as well as South Asia, Japan, and China.

Mr. Wheeler, who is working with international trade organizations to help the Yemeni government streamline coffee productivity, has tried Ezzi's coffee, finding it "fairly encouraging" and with "a good flavor."

"What I think they're trying to do is have a more integrated approach to the coffee trade … actually trying to build a relationship with the coffee growers," he says.

That requires considerable investment, but the payoff could be a committed network of producers and higher quality coffee, according to Wheeler.

“From everywhere, people have said everything short of, 'you're crazy,' ” for starting a business in Yemen, Ezzi says. “You have to have a vision for this; it's not on the surface.”

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