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Coffee in Middle East

The Decline of the Yemeni Coffee Industry in the 18th and 19th Centuries

In this article, you will discover the historical significance and rich culture behind Yemen’s coffee industry, as well as the factors contributing to its decline. Learn about the competition from other countries, the diminishing quality of beans, and the influence of the British East India Company on the industry’s downfall. Additionally, explore the emergence of alternative cash crops, such as qat, and their impact on Yemen’s coffee production. Finally, get acquainted with the efforts being made to revitalize the Yemeni coffee industry, the obstacles faced, and potential solutions to regain the former glory of this vital economic sector.

Yemeni Coffee Industry  decline

Background of Yemeni Coffee Industry

History of coffee cultivation in Yemen

Coffee cultivation in Yemen dates back to the 15th century. Yemen was one of the first places where the coffee plant was cultivated and is widely believed to be where coffee, as a drink, originated. The country’s unique climate, with its high elevation and scarce rainfall, creates perfect conditions for producing exceptional coffee beans with distinctive flavors.

The history of coffee in Yemen is closely intertwined with the history of Sufism, a mystical Islamic movement. Sufi monks in Yemen were among the first to drink coffee, as they discovered its stimulating effects could help them stay awake and concentrate during long hours of prayer and meditation. The popularity of coffee quickly spread from Sufi circles to the general population.

In the 16th century, coffee production in Yemen took off as the Ottoman Empire expanded its influence in the region. The Ottomans recognized the potential of coffee as a valuable commodity and exported it across their vast territories, introducing coffee to Europe in the process.

Yemen’s role in global coffee trade

Historically, Yemen played a central role in the global coffee trade, acting as a hub for coffee exports to Europe, Asia and Africa. The ancient port city of Mocha, located on the Red Sea coast, became synonymous with coffee in the 17th century, and mocha coffee beans became widely sought after worldwide for their rich, chocolaty flavor.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Yemeni coffee beans were in high demand, and coffeehouses started to sprout up in European cities like London, Paris, and Vienna. However, the Dutch, French, and British colonies in the Americas and Asia started to cultivate coffee plants, which led to greater competition in the global coffee trade. Consequently, Yemen’s prominence in the coffee industry began to decline.

In the 20th century, the Yemeni coffee industry faced multiple challenges, including civil war, political instability, and shrinking global market shares. Additionally, the Yemeni coffee industry encountered high labor costs and a lack of modern farming technology, contributing to a further decline in coffee production.

Significance of Yemeni coffee in local culture and economy

Despite its diminished role in the global coffee market, Yemeni coffee remains an essential part of the nation’s culture and economy. Coffee cultivation contributes to the livelihoods of over 90,000 Yemeni farmers, who grow coffee beans as a primary cash crop.

Yemeni coffee plays a critical role in local culture and social interactions, with coffee serving as a symbol of hospitality and generosity. In Yemen, serving coffee to guests is a traditional sign of welcome and respect. Coffee is often shared during social gatherings and important events, such as weddings and religious ceremonies.

Yemen’s unique coffee varieties are also a source of national pride, and efforts to revive the nation’s coffee industry have been ongoing in recent years. Organizations like the Yemeni Coffee Exporters Association, with support from international partners, are working to improve Yemeni coffee quality, increase production, and build a strong and sustainable coffee industry.

Reviving the coffee industry in Yemen also offers a promising avenue for economic development and poverty reduction for rural communities. By promoting and supporting Yemeni coffee, the global coffee community can play a vital role in preserving this unique coffee heritage and helping Yemeni farmers build a better future for their families and communities.

Factors Contributing to the Decline of the Yemeni Coffee Industry

Competition from other coffee-producing countries

One of the significant factors that contributed to the decline of the Yemeni coffee industry is the competition from other coffee-producing countries. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Yemen was the world’s main coffee exporter, and its coffee was highly sought after due to its rich flavors and rarity. However, with the expansion of European colonization and the discovery of suitable coffee-cultivating environments in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, the market became flooded with different varieties of coffee from these regions.

These newly established coffee-producing countries started to gain prominence in the global coffee trade due to their ability to produce high-quality coffee in larger quantities and at lower prices. This intense competition gradually diminished the market share of Yemeni coffee, forcing local farmers and exporters to find alternative sources of income.

Declining quality of Yemeni coffee beans

Another factor that contributed to the decline of the Yemeni coffee industry is the declining quality of its coffee beans. The Yemeni coffee bean is known for its unique and distinct flavor profile, attributed to its high altitude and the dry, arid climate in which it is grown. However, in recent years, factors such as climate change, overharvesting, and poor agricultural practices have adversely affected the quality and flavor of Yemeni coffee beans.

With the declining quality of its coffee beans, Yemeni coffee struggles to compete with other high-quality coffee varieties in the market. Thus, consumers who once sought after Yemeni coffee for its distinctive taste have switched to other options, further hurting the Yemeni coffee industry.

Lack of modern agricultural practices

Lack of modern agricultural practices and technological advancements in Yemen has further exacerbated the decline of its coffee industry. Most of the coffee is grown in small, remote farms with minimal infrastructure, which rely on traditional farming methods that have become less effective over time.

Yemeni coffee farmers face several challenges, such as water scarcity, soil degradation, and lack of access to high-quality fertilizers, pesticides, and farming equipment. This lack of modernisation has resulted in low crop yields and a lower quality product. In contrast, other coffee-producing countries have embraced modern farming practices and technologies, enabling them to produce better-quality coffee in higher quantities.

Political instability and conflict

Yemen’s ongoing political instability and armed conflict have severely affected its coffee industry. The civil war that began in 2015 has disrupted agricultural activities and led to a breakdown of infrastructure, making it difficult for farmers to cultivate coffee and transport it to the market.

Moreover, these conflicts have created a dangerous environment for farmers, traders, and exporters. Many have been forced to abandon their activities due to fear for their lives, further reducing the output of the Yemeni coffee sector.

Disruption of trade routes and monopolies

The decline of the Yemeni coffee industry can also be attributed to the disruption of traditional trade routes and the collapse of historical monopolies. The once-thriving port cities of Mocha and Aden, which played crucial roles in the export of Yemeni coffee, have lost their significance due to the establishment of new trade routes in the Indian Ocean and the opening of the Suez Canal.

Furthermore, the emergence of private trading companies and the abolition of state-sanctioned monopolies in the coffee trade contributed to Yemen’s decline as a primary coffee exporter. This loss of a once-held monopoly resulted in a diminished global presence and market share for Yemeni coffee.

Spread of diseases affecting coffee plants

The spread of diseases affecting coffee plants, such as coffee leaf rust and coffee berry disease, has also contributed to the decline of the Yemeni coffee industry. These diseases have led to reduced crop yields, negatively impacting the farmers’ income and the overall production of Yemeni coffee.

Additionally, lack of access to modern agricultural practices and resources to prevent and combat these diseases makes it difficult for Yemeni farmers to maintain healthy coffee crops. In turn, this contributes to further decline in the quality and quantity of coffee produced in the country.

The British East India Company’s Influence on Yemeni Coffee Decline

The rise of the British East India Company

The British East India Company (EIC) was established in 1600 as a joint-stock company granted a royal charter by Queen Elizabeth I. The charter authorized the EIC to trade with countries in the eastern part of the world, primarily in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Far East. The company started its activities with the primary aim of breaking the monopoly that the Portuguese and Dutch had on the spice trade in these regions.

Over the years, the EIC’s operations expanded significantly and included trade in a variety of goods such as cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre, tea, and coffee. By the 1700s, the EIC had gained control over the major trade routes in the Indian Ocean region, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Malacca Strait, thereby becoming a dominant force in the global trade scenario.

Meanwhile, Yemen was one of the largest coffee producers in the 17th century, contributing to the global supply of coffee beans. However, the Yemeni coffee industry later faced a period of decline, and there were several factors contributing to this downturn. One of them was the growing influence of the British East India Company in the region, which significantly impacted the Yemeni coffee trade.

Control over trade routes and coffee market

As the British East India Company grew in power, they began to assert control and influence over the trade routes and markets by establishing strategic outposts, protecting the movement of their ships, and entering into treaties with local rulers, ensuring their dominance in the international trade landscape. As a result, the EIC had a significant impact on the coffee trade in Yemen.

Before the EIC’s arrival, Yemen held a monopoly on the coffee trade due to its strategic location and access to the Red Sea, which helped transport coffee beans to various countries across the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, and the Mediterranean. However, the EIC’s control over the trade routes, coupled with the opening up of new markets for coffee by European traders, eventually led to the erosion of Yemen’s dominance in the coffee trade.

In the 18th century, as the demand for coffee grew, European traders started to explore alternative sources for coffee beans. In their quest, they discovered that coffee could also be grown in other regions of the world such as Indonesia, South America, and the Caribbean. This development weakened the Yemeni coffee industry as these regions offered more affordable and easily accessible alternatives. Eventually, the global market started to be dominated by coffee produced by European colonies in these regions, rather than Yemeni coffee.

Impact on the Yemeni economy

The decline of the Yemeni coffee industry due to the EIC’s influence had severe consequences on the Yemeni economy. As the global demand for Yemeni coffee dwindled, local farmers were forced to switch to other crops or abandon their fields altogether. As a result, Yemen’s agriculture sector took a significant hit, and thousands of jobs were lost.

Furthermore, the revenue generated from coffee exports previously played a critical role in the Yemeni economy, contributing to the resources required for the maintenance and development of infrastructure, military power, and political stability. The reduced income from the coffee trade thus weakened the Yemeni government and diminished its ability to govern effectively.

Increased competition from European traders and the subsequent decline of the Yemeni coffee industry also strained Yemen’s relations with neighboring regions, as the country struggled to maintain its influence and power. Overall, the British East India Company’s influence on trade routes and coffee markets played a substantial role in the decline of the Yemeni coffee industry, leading to long-lasting effects on the Yemeni economy and society at large.

Emergence of Alternative Cash Crops and Their Impact

The global demand for cash crops continues to soar, and countries with suitable climates are positioning themselves to benefit from this lucrative trade. Many farmers in countries such as Yemen have embraced alternative cash crops like qat (Catha edulis), a narcotic plant, due to its higher profitability when compared to traditional coffee beans. This shift in agricultural priorities has significant repercussions on the economy, environment, and social fabric of such nations, specifically Yemen.

The rise of qat cultivation

Qat, commonly known as khat, is a flowering plant native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It is often classified as a stimulant and mild narcotic due to the presence of a substance called cathinone. Widely cultivated and consumed in countries like Yemen, Somalia, and Ethiopia, qat plays a significant role in the social lives and economies of these regions. The popularity of qat in Yemen in particular has been consistently increasing over the past few decades, with large swathes of the population relying on the plant for employment, either through cultivation, distribution, or sale.

There are several factors that have contributed to the rise of qat cultivation in countries like Yemen. One of the primary reasons behind the growth of the qat trade is the high profitability it promises for farmers. Qat plants typically generate more income than traditional cash crops such as coffee, fruits, and vegetables, and have relatively low production costs. Furthermore, qat requires less water and has a quicker growth cycle, thereby providing quicker returns on investment in comparison to coffee.

Comparative advantage of qat over coffee

yemeni qat

The advantages of qat over coffee as a cash crop are difficult to overlook for Yemeni farmers. Qat cultivation requires less water and fewer inputs than coffee, making it more easily cultivable in arid environments. It is also more resilient to pests and diseases, reducing the need for costly interventions. Furthermore, qat can be harvested year-round, providing a steady income stream to farmers that coffee cannot offer.

Yemeni farmers also benefit from the strong local demand for qat, which drives the market for the plant. Some reports indicate that as much as 90% of adult males in Yemen consume qat on a daily basis, making it a cultural staple. These factors lure farmers towards qat cultivation and discourage them from investing time, effort, and resources into producing crops like coffee that are less lucrative and more demanding to grow.

Impact on Yemeni coffee production

The shift in focus from traditional cash crops like coffee to alternative options such as qat has had significant consequences for Yemeni coffee production. As farmers prioritize qat cultivation, the production and export of coffee from Yemen have declined sharply over the years, leading to dwindling revenue and a loss of economic opportunities. The decline in coffee production has also disrupted the livelihoods of many Yemeni coffee farmers who have been forced to make the difficult decision to switch to qat cultivation or other alternative crops.

Moreover, the demise of the coffee industry has reduced the availability of high-quality Yemeni coffee in the international market. Yemen is renowned for its unique coffee varieties such as Mocha, which commands a premium price due to its distinct flavor profile. The declining reputation and international demand for Yemeni coffee as a result of the surge in qat cultivation risk further undermining the prospects of the country’s coffee sector.

Ultimately, the emergence of qat and other alternative cash crops has profoundly affected Yemen’s economy, agriculture, and culture. Although qat has provided short-term profitability, long-term consequences such as the decline of the once-thriving coffee sector and the potential negative health effects linked to qat consumption have raised concerns about the sustainability of this prominent cash crop.

Attempts to Revitalize the Yemeni Coffee Industry

Yemen has a long and storied history with coffee, dating back to the 15th century when Sufi monks in the region were the first to cultivate and drink the beverage. However, due to a myriad of factors from its war-torn state to a lack of investment and infrastructure, Yemen’s coffee industry has faced significant hardships. Efforts are currently underway to revitalize the industry, which could have profound benefits not just for Yemeni farmers, but also for the global coffee market.

Local and International Initiatives

Several local and international initiatives seek to rehabilitate Yemen’s coffee industry. The Qima Coffee, a private Yemeni coffee company, for example, has been making efforts to support farmers through direct partnerships, training, and investment in the production process. Established in 2016, the organization has since scaled their operations to positively impact the lives of thousands of Yemeni coffee farmers while exporting high-quality coffee beans to various countries.

There has also been a push to bring Yemeni coffee to the global stage through participation in international competitions. In 2017, Yemeni producer Ali Hiba Muslot’s coffee won third place in the Specialty Coffee Association’s (SCA) Coffee Excellence competition. Consequently, this achievement helped in drawing attention to the country’s unique coffee varieties and raising global interest in Yemen as a viable source of specialty coffee.

International organizations, such as USAID and FAO, have also implemented projects to support the Yemeni coffee sector. These include providing training to farmers on modern cultivation techniques, building farmer cooperatives, and creating public-private partnerships to collaborate on financing, marketing, and sales of Yemeni coffee products.

Modernizing the Yemeni Coffee Sector

For the Yemeni coffee industry to attain sustainable growth, modernization efforts are essential. These efforts can focus on diversifying the coffee production in the country, promoting high-quality beans, and implementing new processing methods to raise the level of quality and yield.

Encouraging the implementation of innovative agricultural techniques and practices, including effective pest management and the use of eco-friendly fertilizers, could help farmers maintain the quality and productivity of their crops as well as protect the environment. Furthermore, better quality control practices, such as implementing standardized grading systems, would establish a framework and create a better understanding of the unique characteristics of Yemeni coffee in the global market.

An investment in farmers’ education can lead to productivity improvements, as knowledge on crop cultivation and management practices would increase. Technology can also play a significant role in upgrading Yemeni coffee production, through modernized irrigation systems or the use of advanced information systems to help farmers manage their crops better.

Obstacles to Revitalization and Potential Solutions

Yemen's coffee industry

Revitalizing Yemen’s coffee industry faces many challenges, with the ongoing civil war being the most significant obstruction. The war has severely affected the country’s infrastructure, labor force, and the ability of farmers to access their fields, impacting the entire supply chain of the coffee industry.

Addressing political issues must be part of the overall strategy to revitalize the coffee sector. While international organizations can provide temporary solutions, a peaceful resolution of the conflict through diplomatic channels is necessary to foster long-term growth for the Yemeni coffee industry.

Furthermore, the competition with the cultivation of the stimulant plant, qat, poses another significant challenge. Qat has historically been a more lucrative crop for farmers and often receives preferential planting over coffee. To encourage coffee production, yield improvements, higher sale prices, and greater financial incentives could be implemented to make the cultivation of coffee more competitive.

Lastly, inadequate infrastructure and limited access to financing are also obstacles to growth. The Yemeni government and international partners should focus on improving transportation networks, storage facilities, processing facilities, and helping farmers gain access to credit options, ultimately fostering a more sustainable coffee industry in Yemen.


FAQs on the Decline of the Yemeni Coffee Industry in the 18th and 19th Centuries


1. What factors contributed to the decline of the Yemeni coffee industry during the 18th and 19th centuries?

The decline resulted from competition with other countries producing coffee, the opening of the Suez Canal, and diseases that affected the coffee plants. European colonization also shifted global trade routes (Manger, 2010).

2. How did the opening of the Suez Canal impact the Yemeni coffee trade?

The Suez Canal’s opening in 1869 facilitated quicker and cheaper transportation between Europe and Asia. As a result, Yemeni coffee, which previously thrived due to its location, became less competitive and lost its status in the global market (Manger, 2010).

3. What role did European colonization play in the decline of Yemen’s coffee industry in the 18th and 19th centuries?

European colonization in Africa and Asia led to the establishment of new coffee-growing regions, creating an oversupply and pushing Yemeni coffee prices down. Additionally, colonizers redirected trade routes away from Yemen, further diminishing its coffee industry (Bates, 1999).

4. How did plant diseases contribute to the fall of the Yemeni coffee industry?

Plant diseases, such as coffee leaf rust, affected coffee production in Yemen during the 19th century, leading to lower crop yields and reduced revenue for Yemeni coffee farmers (Avelino et al., 2015).

5. In which foreign countries did coffee production grow during the 18th and 19th centuries, adding to the decline of Yemen’s coffee industry?

Countries that gained prominence in coffee production during this period include Brazil, Colombia, and the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia), taking market share away from Yemen (Mikus, 2015).

6. What did Yemeni coffee farmers do to diversify their crops in response to the decline of the coffee industry?

As coffee prices fell, Yemeni farmers had to diversify their livelihoods. Many started to cultivate other crops, such as qat—a mild stimulant plant native to the region—and food crops to ensure food security and maintain their income (Varisco, 1995).