Londoners’ cup of coffee helping farmers in war-ravaged Yemen
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Karen Dabrowska for Arab Weekly

The farmer who supplies Le Cafe Alain Ducasse is from Al Hayma, a village in Sana’a governorate.

LONDON - Londoners who buy a cup of coffee for $20 from Le Cafe Alain Ducasse in an up-market shopping complex near Kings Cross station are helping small farmers in war-ravaged Yemen.

The Coal Drops Yard development, site of the cafe, was a former dumping ground for coal from north-eastern England, which arrived by train into Kings Cross station before the second world war.

The area of derelict Victorian warehouses, dingy night clubs, prostitutes and drug-dealing in the 1990s is now home to cool fashion boutiques, neon art installations and the unique cafe opened by Alain Ducasse, a celebrated French chef.

Walls in the cafe are lined with shelves displaying the world’s coffees, including brands from Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Brazil, Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Panama and Yemen, the most expensive selling for $78 per 100 grams.

Making the $20 cup of coffee is an art in itself. Barista Jacob Klucznik measures 6.5 grams of beans and grinds them in front of the customers. He tips the grinds into a fancy Chemex vessel — an hourglass-shaped flask used to filter the coffee — and puts the kettle on. The coffee is served in a small pot with a free small buttery cake.

Just as the cafe and posh boutiques have given Coal Drops Yard a new lease on life, Qima, the company that supplies the Yemeni coffee, has extended a life line to impoverished Yemeni farmers.

War-torn Yemen has witnessed a devastating hunger crisis, rapidly declining water supplies and the collapse of basic health and sanitation services that have the country on the brink of failure. Qima founder Faris Sheibani said the revival of the coffee industry is a glimmering light that helps the country’s gradual recovery.

“Yemeni farmers have been growing coffee for at least 700 years. It is the birthplace of the coffee drink,” Sheibani said, explaining why Yemeni coffee is unique and very expensive. “Many of the areas we work in have multigenerational experience with coffee farming and the coffee tree is treated as a family member.

“The genetic variety of the trees found in Yemen is unique. The arid climate and harsh environment stresses the trees. This stress is actually good for coffee quality and makes for a very complex cup profile. You cannot find the Yemeni varieties anywhere else and you will struggle to find coffee trees that have grown in astoundingly high altitudes as you do in Yemen. This is what makes Yemeni coffee different. It has received some of the highest awards for quality.”

He said that the coffee is expensive because processing it correctly is difficult.

“There’s a lot of demand for high-quality Yemeni coffee yet there’s very little supply because most farmers prefer to grow the narcotic plant khat, which is very profitable. If we are to encourage farmers to grow coffee instead, the income they receive from coffee must surpass that of khat. We offer our farmers the highest prices in the history of Yemen’s coffee trade,” Sheibani added.

The farmer who supplies Le Cafe Alain Ducasse is from Al Hayma, a village in Sana’a governorate. Qima has been working with the farmer for more than two years and he is looking to increase coffee production three-fold within three years.

“We met the Ducasse representative at the 2018 World of Coffee Show in Amsterdam. The relationship developed from there,” Sheibani said. “We have been working together since then and our coffee was part of their opening in December 2018.”

Qima started its partnership with 30 farmers when it was established in 2016. Last season, the company was working with approximately 1,000 farmers and for next season it has around 2,500 farmers signed up.

“We face many problems including the threat of air strikes, being caught in the crossfire between the conflicting parties and transporting our goods through the countless checkpoints around the country from farms to processing facilities and from there to the port,” Sheibani said.

“Most important we are 100% apolitical and we find that most people from all sides of the divide are happy to support us.”

Qima is selling sizeable volumes of coffee to China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. It has started marketing efforts in Europe and the Middle East and aims to target the United States in the coming year.

Having completed a master’s degree in chemical engineering at Imperial College London and another master’s in engineering and management at Cambridge University, Sheibani said he had 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 immediately and saw coffee as a potential path forward,” he said.

Faris Sheibani