Every evening after the sun sets over Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, 37-year-old Hussein Ahmed turns on the TV and anxiously watches the latest updates on President Donald Trump’s travel ban. Ahmed, the CEO of six-month old startup Mocha Hunters, was due to travel to California in the spring to promote his coffee. Now, question marks surround his travel plans and the rollout of his product.
“When this decision was announced I thought ‘Wow, that’s it, I can’t go,’” says Ahmed, after Trump issued his executive order on January 27. It temporarily barred Yemenis, as well as citizens of six other predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. “It’s very unfortunate,” says Adham Aljahmi, Ahmed’s U.S.-based partner, who had arranged meetings for him with potential customers and investors.
Angel investor Dave Goldblatt, a product specialist at Facebook, didn’t shy away from investing $150,000 in Mocha Hunters, even before the presidential ban. “I think there’s a possibility that Yemeni coffee becomes a pretty big thing in America and in other Westernized countries,” he says—not a surprising statement for a person living in the Bay Area, where coffee drinkers demand to know the origin of their brew.
For hundreds of years, Yemeni farmers have cultivated their legendary Arabica coffee beans in high-elevation terraced farms, and shipped them throughout the world from the port city of Al-Mokha. But even before the outbreak of the war in 2015, the impoverished country never managed to capitalize on its famous crop. It exported an average of 55,000 sixty-kilogram bags (the standard industry measure) of coffee beans annually between 2000 and 2014—a minuscule number compared to, say, Brazil, which exported an average of about 28 million bags of coffee per year during the same period. Since 2015, Yemen’s exports have ground to a halt, dropping to just 8,000 bags of coffee last year, according to the International Coffee Organization.
Ahmed has no intention of letting the travel ban or the war stand in the way of exporting coffee. “The farmers in Yemen, they are the base of our company,” he says.
While the American courts debate the legality of the ban and Trump threatens to issue a new executive order on immigration, Ahmed continues to crisscross his war-torn country in search of high-grade coffee beans and logistics solutions to ship them to the U.S.
He currently has a network of 25 farmers in the mountainous districts of Bani Matar and Anis. Every week, he drives from Sanaa to visit them, and has already procured more than one ton of dried coffee cherries. To warehouse them, Ahmed gutted a room in his family house, covering the windows to keep the light low and the temperature stable. To prevent any scents from tainting the beans, he posted a list of rules for family and guests: No cooking pungent food and burning incense.
A one-time foreign exchange high school student, who lived in the U.K. for 10 years, Ahmed developed an interest in coffee after moving back to Sanaa in 2007 with his Japanese bride. At the time, he ran an e-commerce operation listing real estate and cars. On the weekends, he and his wife toured the Yemeni countryside, visiting remote coffee-producing villages nestled high in the mountains. He heard the legends of a Sufi monk bringing coffee plants to Yemen from Africa centuries ago.
“I started questioning the local people—why they grow [coffee] at this elevation and what varieties,” Ahmed recalls. Before long, his curiosity evolved into an obsession and the weekly trips became coffee research missions.
The majority of Yemeni coffee farms are family operations producing less than 200 kilos of raw coffee cherries per year. The steep, terraced farms do not lend themselves easily to machinery. Women are often responsible for handpicking coffee cherries from trees—the principal laborers in an annual harvest that has changed little since the advent of the mocha trade in the 17th century.
Most Yemeni farmers bring their product to the local market, where wholesale traders buy it. They mix beans of varying qualities, and often sell the commodified mélange to Saudi Arabia. There, the coffee is roasted with spices—primarily ginger and cardamom, which Ahmed says overwhelm the subtle aromatics of the Yemeni beans. Unadulterated Yemeni coffee is difficult to find.
After visiting Tokyo and learning about the Japanese appreciation for high quality brew, Ahmed glimpsed a market opportunity. It was a bold proposition: it meant creating a reliable supply network from the smattering of rural farmers he’d met, to sell small batches of Yemeni coffee beans.
In 2009, Ahmed and his wife moved to Tokyo, and he worked as an independent coffee wholesaler selling pure Arabica coffee. He returned periodically to Yemen to visit his suppliers.
The trips were arduous. “Yemeni coffee is hard to get…It’s not just going to a market and buying [beans] or going to a village,” Ahmed says. “We have to cross tribes and talk to sheikhs.”
To earn the trust of village leaders and farmers, Ahmed would call them to ask if he could bring them anything from Sanaa. “Sometimes they ask for medicine, sometimes they ask for phone cards or batteries,” says Ahmed, who kept in touch with everyone regardless of whether he bought their coffee.
When someone in Japan called him a Mocha Hunter, the name stuck. In 2011, he decided to open a small café, called Mocha Coffee, in Tokyo. “I had never touched a coffee machine,” he laughs. Ahmed learned how to process and roast coffee beans by hand, determined to be a master of each step, from tree to cup. He took pride in being able to tell clients exactly which Yemeni farmer grew the beans that went into their cup of coffee.
While his shop generated buzz in the Japanese press, Ahmed’s personal life proved more problematic. After his marriage ended in divorce, he returned to Yemen in 2012, leaving the café behind. Back home, Ahmed began researching the U.S. market. “The average American drinks average coffee, but increasing numbers of people like to try good coffee,” he says.
Nearly half of the coffee consumed in the U.S. is considered speciality, accounting for a retail market value of $26 billion. According to the National Coffee Association, consumption of gourmet coffee spiked as small-scale roasters and shops catered to urban millennial professionals. They’re willing to pay a premium for quality, and to support independent coffee farmers. Specialty roasters who included the grower’s name on their lots were able to charge $9.95 higher per pound in 2015, according to Transparent Trade Coffee.
Yemeni coffee could emerge as a star in this niche market. Blue Bottle Coffee, a San Francisco-based specialty roaster and retail chain, recently sold Yemeni coffee for a whopping $16 a cup before running out completely. The seller was Port of Mokha, which belongs to Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American also determined to revive the country’s trade. In a blog post last year, Blue Bottle CEO James Freeman praised the beans. “This is what angels singing tastes like,” he gushed.
In 2014, when a U.S. diplomat in Yemen suggested that Ahmed attend a specialty coffee conference in Seattle, Washington, he jumped at the opportunity. As he prepared to return home after his trip, Houthi militias took control of Sanaa and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia in early 2015. “The airport was closed and with the war everything collapsed in Yemen,” says Ahmed.
He was granted a special visa to remain in the U.S. for 18 months, and applied for jobs with specialty coffee roasters. “No one accepted me,” says Ahmed, who eventually worked in a mobile phone store “to pay the bills.” A friend introduced him to Aljahmi, 26.
Originally from Yemen, Aljahmi grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and currently does contract work for Facebook. “Adham noticed my craziness about coffee. We kept talking about how we could build a coffee brand and the idea evolved,” says Ahmed.
They registered Mocha Hunters in Delaware in 2016, and Ahmed returned to Yemen this past October, where he immediately started visiting farms in Bani Matar and Anis to buy beans. While Ahmed says that Anis is relatively secure, he can sometimes hear Saudi jets roar overhead in Bani Matar, known to produce some of the finest coffee cherries in Yemen.
One farmer, who had installed a tarp to protect thousands of saplings from the harsh sun, worried it would attract attention from military pilots. He removed the cover, but his trees shriveled. “Its almost like people dying,” says Ahmed. “It’s a kind of life.”
To maintain control over his goods, he doesn’t buy the cherries from a market or a wholesaler. He works directly with farmers to select the best cherries during harvest, and to preserve their quality during the drying process.
While Ahmed forged ties with farmers, Aljahmi set out to raise money. He approached five potential investors: three turned him down and one failed to respond. Goldblatt, a Facebook colleague, was impressed by Ahmed’s “very specific domain knowledge and his connections in Yemen.” Says Goldblatt: “I thought this is a fantastic opportunity.”
He is keenly aware of the challenges Mocha Hunters faces. Aside from the uncertainty of Ahmed’s travel status, shipping logistics are dicey. Ahmed estimates that his stock could have a retail value of $200,000. While companies are willing to insure products shipped from Yemen’s ports, they are not willing to insure the stock sitting in his room. “We are in a war zone, there’s no insurance,” he says.
In February, he shipped 30 kilograms destined for quality control labs and expert cuppers in the U.S. Because international air freight agencies ceased operations in Yemen, he was forced to load the samples onto a passenger bus bound for Jeddah. He packed them in special airtight bags from the U.S., but prolonged exposure to temperatures over 30 degrees could spoil them. As of press time, Ahmed received word that his package arrived intact in Jeddah, where a friend mailed it to the U.S.
If all works out according to plan, Mocha Hunters will ship between 300 and 400 kilos of coffee this spring to Counter Culture Coffee, a specialty wholesale and retail roaster in Durham, North Carolina. Ahmed and Aljahmi are also trying to figure out how best to sell their product directly to consumers. A subscription service is one possibility. Ahmed eagerly discusses plans for an app that will allow customers to learn about the farmers, and perhaps tip them by integrating mobile banking. “We’re a coffee company, but we have a technology background and we want to mix both,” he says.
For now, the partners see the executive immigration order and the war as hurdles rather than roadblocks. “We’re running a business, we have to be creative and we have to find solutions,” Ahmed says. “Randomness exists, we just have to deal with it.” There’s a lesson for business executives.