Yemeni Coffee: Understanding the Pricing Myths

Receiving a Yemen offer list can be daunting, especially as most of the hype around Yemeni coffee comes from the prices some coffees receive at auction. Many believe these prices are indicative of quality, the cost to export or inflated markups from importers, but what actually makes Yemen coffee so expensive and just how much does the farmer receive for their quality crop? 

In reality, the truth is very different. Before the coffee’s quality is discovered and the beans are exported, Yemen coffee already packs a high price point. To help better understand the challenges faced that cause these hikes, below we have addressed some of the top challenges affecting the price of Yemeni coffee.

Coffee Drying Beds

 

Sourcing Quality Cherry 

Farming in Yemen is no easy feat. For many producers, access to enough water for irrigation, fertiliser, seedlings, or credit is either a luxury or simply a myth. This means that nearly all coffee produced today in Yemen is done so organically with no inputs, as it has been for centuries. In many producing nations, some form of support is provided to their coffee industries, however, with nearly half a century of neglect in Yemen's agricultural industry, being able to grow anything with the resources available can be difficult. With an internal economy currently on its knees and little access to the international market, finding a buyer willing to pay fair prices can also be a challenge. This may make growing coffee in Yemen sound like an impossible task, however, for many, there is no alternative. Due to the ongoing conflict, options for work are minimal, with those able to leave the cities returning to their ancestral home to escape economic instability.

For those still able to produce quality coffee, quantities are often limited. By global standards, many Yemeni coffee producers have small farms. How small exactly is hard to say, as the Libna is used as the primary unit in Yemen (for more on the Libna, click here). The majority of a producer's land will primarily be reserved for sustenance farming, with coffee production for many seen as a cash crop. This means that often, a producer may only have a small collection of coffee trees, which they harvest annually for extra income.  

These disadvantages mean that sourcing good quantities of quality cherry in Yemen are difficult. A handful of trees equates to many farmers producing less than 5kg of green coffee a year, meaning quality single producer lots can be hard to find. Therefore, many of Sheba’s coffees are collective lots; often sourced from a single valley or wadi as they are known locally. In these instances, purchasing lots as collectives allows Sheba to deal with villages as a single entity: meaning premiums paid for quality coffee benefit the entire community and not just single estates.

Coffee Sorting

 

Paying Fair Farm Gate Prices

For coffee farmers around the world, low prices paid have been a notorious problem for industry sustainability. For Yemen, a nation facing a host of challenges from conflict, fluctuations in currency and a lack of resources, this is no different. With such small quantities produced, the lack of economies of scale means the problem of price becomes inflated.

On Yemen's internal market, a buyer may expect somewhere between $0.40 to $0.90 per kilo of red cherry. A handful of trees might produce 50kg of cherries, meaning a producer's yearly income from his coffee crop could be as low as $45. To combat this problem, exporters such as Sheba are beginning to pay sustainable prices to the producer, helping low-income farmers purchase inputs and increase the size of their crop. In 2021, Sheba’s average farm gate price (the price paid directly to the producer, before any additional costs are added) was $2.5 for coffees ranging from 80 to 92 points. To alleviate further pressure on the producer, Sheba buys its coffee at the farm gate, conducting all processing internally at its Mill. Here, Sheba supplies their own raised beds, ensuring better control over the quality; by managing the drying process and making sure the beans are dried evenly. As well as processing, Sheba’s team of agronomists regularly visit farms, providing support to producers to maintain quality throughout the harvest cycle.

Coffee Drying Beds

 

Cherry to Bean and The Importance of Yield

Once the cherry has been purchased, sorted, cleaned, and dried, the beans are transported to Sheba’s central mill to be rested and hulled. When a coffee bean is hulled of its cherry, a considerable portion of the total weight is removed. In many countries, an average ratio for arabica might be 6:1, with anything below 7:1 considered poor. For Yemen, this is not the case.

Due to the lack of irrigation, high altitude, and stress that Yemeni trees are placed under, a good ratio in Yemen is as low as 10:1. This means that for every 1kg of red cherry received, after milling Sheba is left with just 100g of quality coffee. Furthermore, the $2.5/kg paid to farmers for their coffee cherry immediately correlates to $25/kg of green beans. Moreover, this is before the cost of milling and transportation have been included. 

Coffee Farmer

 

Logistics: From Yemen to Roasters around the Globe

Once the coffee has been processed from its cherry, so begins its journey to the roaster. Same with any producing origin, the coffee must journey from the high-altitude terroirs to the sea to be exported. Unlike other origins, the geopolitical conflict means this is a journey filled with potential setbacks. High fuel prices, poor road quantities and many internal checkpoints mean that this journey can quickly become longer and more expensive than firstly necessitated. 

Once the coffee has made it down from the cloud-covered slopes to the port of Aden, the next order will be to load the coffee into a container for export. With little investment in logistics services for international trade, tracking down a clean, dry container can be a costly challenge. Once a container has been sourced, the final challenge is to find a service between Yemen and the UK. With so few shippers willing to berth at Aden (the port of Mocha is too shallow for modern-day container ships), those who do carry high costs due to cargo insurance. 

When the coffee reaches our UK warehouse, Sheba's average cost for a Kg of coffee in 2021 was $35/kg across all cup scores: 70% of which has been paid directly to the producer. 

To manage such high costs, Sheba is fortunate enough to work with some very talented producers who produce some of the highest-scoring coffees in the world. By selling competition-grade lots at auction, Sheba can offset the costs of its lower-scoring material: supporting farmers whose coffee would be outpriced by the conventional market. By following this model, Sheba hopes to help rebuild the coffee industry in Yemen for the many, reinvesting in infrastructure and education across Yemen.

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