The Revival of Yemeni Coffee

We had the special opportunity to talk with Faris Sheibani, CEO and founder of Qima Coffee, based in London. My chat with Faris was meant to be a casual investigation on Yemeni coffee – but what unraveled instead was an inspiring story-telling session – rich with namesake, history, perseverance, and innovation.

In 2016, Faris established Qima Coffee with the aim of generating sustainable livelihoods for Yemen’s smallholder coffee producers through reestablishing Yemen as a renowned specialty coffee origin. Faris speaks of Yemen as an extremely unique origin from a geographic-microclimatic perspective. “It’s the driest coffee growing region in the world. As an origin, it’s different in all aspects and it’s a shame that [most] people can’t see it.”

Qima has spent the last 2 years working on Yemeni coffee genetics. Coffee was discovered almost three thousand years ago in Ethiopia, and it traveled to Yemen shortly thereafter. While coffee is wild grown in Ethiopia, it needs active cultivation in Yemen. Faris explained how 98% of coffees can fall into 2 categories: they either came through Yemen at some point, or were cultivated in Yemen. “We wanted to see if there were any coffees that went into Yemen and never left. We were looking for a single variety, but what we found was an ocean [of varieties].” 

The genus Arabica has a few main groups: typica, bourbon, and the SL groups. Until last year, the world thought that these were the only groups within Arabica. “What we found is that there is an entirely new group and thus population of varieties in Yemen.” This is the Yemenia genetic group. The latest group was discovered in the early 1900’s, so this is the largest genetic discovery in the last 100 years.

The Qima team began to dig into the genetic makeup of Yemeni coffee to find which genetic aspects of Yemeni coffee trees are responsible for climatic resistance, and what allows them to survive in such a dry climate. “If we can take these genetic aspects and breed them to other coffees, then we can help millions of farmers who have coffee trees that are being threatened with climatic extinction.”

When I asked Faris how he entered the coffee business, he delved into his grandfather’s history (who was the first person in his family to work with coffee). “My grandfather was a shepherd and a farmer. It was normal to do the shepherding for the local community in addition to your farm to earn extra income.” Faris’s grandfather grew up in Central South Yemen. At the age of 11, he left the village seeking a better life, and set up a tea and coffee shack in South Yemen. Over the years, he opened more and more shacks. The part of the business that he so dearly loved was becoming more involved in his community and giving folks steady jobs. “My grandfather is very philanthropic. A big part of his business was to reinvest back into the community, and support lives and livelihoods.” When Faris’s father grew up, he moved to the UK (where Faris was born) to expand the family business.

After completing an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London and a Masters in Engineering and Management at the University of Cambridge, Faris kicked off his career in oil and gas, which he worked in for 6 years. He had originally planned to use his experience to develop Yemen’s energy infrastructure and offer basic power services to the country, but when the country’s civil war began in 2015, he was forced to quit his job and find an alternative way to support Yemen. So, he entered the world of coffee. He gave three reasons for this decision: to honor the work that his grandfather and father had done in coffee, to return to his geographical roots, and to discover a meaningful vehicle for macroeconomic growth in Yemen.

“With coffee,” Faris says, “you can ensure that income goes directly to the primary providers, in this case being the farmers. If we are just looking at commercial risk and reward, this business wouldn’t make sense and I probably wouldn’t continue.”

Qima sources as little as 15kg from farmers, which sounds small but is actually the yield of a “sizeable coffee farmer” in Yemen. He says that if you produce this much coffee, “you’re already in the mid-tier leagues in Yemen”. One household in Yemen will usually have roughly 1/3 of a hectare to cultivate on. One household is normally 10 or so people.

Faris exclaimed how his biggest consumer demand resides in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Middle East. Europe shows decent demand, but in the United States, not so much.

I quickly moved to a somewhat loaded question for Faris – How do you want to grow Qima over the next 5 years? His answer was perfect. “I went into Yemen with a background in oil and gas. Within 3-5 years, we went from sourcing from 30 farmers to 2,600 farmers… and from working with 1 village to 55 villages. We’re in the midst of a terrible war. We’ve been able to develop a fundamentally unique and sustainable structure. How we’re still standing today is beyond me. In the last 5 years, we have proven the model of integrating with farmers. We figure out how the farmer can look at their farm as a business and upgrade their farm with profitability in mind.” He spoke about working with farmers to improve their soil nutrition, helping them manage yield productivity, and boost their marketing strategy. His next move is expanding his sourcing operations and working with farmers outside of Yemen. He also spoke of choosing the method of value adding over value sharing. “People look at how we can divide the value chain, but for me, it’s how can we increase the value within the value chain so that everyone can make more money.”

We are so excited to see where Qima goes next. Please reach out to us if you are interested in samples or learning more about Yemeni coffee. We assure that you won’t be let down!

On April 9th you can catch Faris speaking at Amal Yemen, an event and movement “designed to illuminate Yemeni coffee history, culture and arts while raising funds for humanitarian relief efforts.” All funds raised will be donated to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)  & Mercy Corps.

*All photos courtesy of Qima Coffee