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Fatoum Muslot of Pearl of Tehama: a success story in the motherland of Mocha coffee

Pearl of Tehama
Fatoum Muslot

MILAN – Pearl of Tehama is renowned coffee company, based in Sanaa, Yemen – the motherland of historical Arabica Mocha green coffee beans. The company, which has long-lasting relationships with some of the leading specialty coffee traders in the world, is run by a woman: Fatoum Muslot. In this interview by Mayra Orellana-Powell, Mrs Muslot shares her story and talks about the difficulties she has to face both as an entrepreneur and as a woman.

Mrs Muslot, can you Please introduce yourself and provide a brief description of your work at Yemen Mocha Coffee?

I am the owner of the Pearl of Tehama Company for Import and Export. I born in 1957, I am married and a mother of four sons and three daughters. I have two older brothers are Abdulmajeed and Mabkhout.

My late father Ali Hebah Muslat, God mercy is upon him started his business life as youngster businessman in the early fifties of the last century. He was a brave and self-dependent businessman. He established the Stores of Ali Hebah Muslot for Trading and started coffee trading in 1950 (before my birth). He was exporting coffee to many countries and locally as well.

I was not working with them because this work is mostly male oriented in Yemen but I was recognize everything about the trading works. Social tradition does not accept my presence in the stores or in business occasions in general. Additionally, I was married and responsible for looking after my family and raising children.

My brothers continued to run the company until it is dividing among inheritance in 1984. At these moments, I found myself confronting challenging situations that I must overcome and it is only me is the one who determines my business ultimate.

Things were difficult in the beginning, because I was not experienced this business. I was hoping to stay as in partnership with one of my brothers, because they were very experienced in such work and my sons were still young and have never worked in such business.

However, my oldest son Yasser, (business administration graduate from Jordon), encouraged and convinced me of the necessity of working independently and going ahead taking advantage of my father’s reputation in many business areas among which green coffee export and seeds and other agricultural supplies trading. I was very worried at the start although we have a deep vision and wide scope thinking. The ideas were indeed ambitious, reassuring, and encouraging as well.

How did you start working in coffee?

As I aforementioned, my father started trading on Yemen mocha coffee in 1950. He was collecting dried coffee berries from intermediaries and small farmers and then sells it to exporters to foreign countries. He was also share other in coffee export and he started exporting alone to the former Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen, India, Djibouti and some other African countries.

After dividing the company by inheritors of my father, every one of theme became the sole owner of a branch that deal with the same business aspects my father was carrying out in the original company. As for our branch (Pearl of Tehama), we observed that the coffee trade is the most important field that could be developed. Therefore, my oldest sun Yasser (General Manager of Pearl Tehama) started working in the field of coffee on two axes. The first is a continuation of the previous original company activity of exporting coffee to our former customers. The second is represented by the improvement of coffee trading and the necessity to establish an internal center for exporting the highest-grade quality coffee.

Accordingly, we have taken the first steps of establishing the Coffee Center by forming a specialized coffee advisory team to work with us in coffee quality improvement and production development, in addition to the improvement of coffee value chain. We have founded an information bank that contains various types of documents, scientific reports and studies, success stories, statistical data etc. to benefit from all previous efforts and streaming them towards the benefit of this Yemen strategic crop.

The advisory team conducted field visits for our coffee producing farmers in order to prioritize problems of production, marketing and export. The team also started the formation of the company producers’ network in many distinguished areas on coffee production that will enable us to get the best quality coffee directly from producers. The team also has been taking the required steps needed for establishment of several associations of coffee grower

In a short time period, the team reviewed the obstacles that affected the work in our original company and my brothers’ branches status and determined the strengths that need improvement and the weaknesses that hinder the business and means of overcoming.

We have great ambition in forming a company specialized in coffee trading. Therefore, we have spent considerable efforts in assessment study, frames’ field surveys and implementation of public and field level activities, so that we can develop future plans to achieve improved export for the best quality coffee.
These efforts enabled us to benefit farmers and have an integrated vision for future work, which is a very big work. We hope that we could receive support for implementing that because it requires great technical efforts and financial expenses.

What is your favorite part about harvesting coffee?

Our ancestors inherited a rich culture associated with coffee cultivation. Many of these customs are practiced in our country and there are many songs by famous singer and village level farmer group songs associated with each stage of the growth of the crop and taking its drinks. There are beautiful songs associated with the stage of coffee ripening. A famous Yemeni song valuing red coffee berries hanging on the tree says” Yemeni coffee is pearls and treasure on the coffee bush, who plants you never gets poor, never suffer of humiliation”. This song reflects the coffee socioeconomic importance. Even though, income from coffee is not very much but it is important for farmer’s life and there is strong intimacy have developed with coffee growing.

Coffee drinking sessions have a special family atmosphere as well as the drink produced from coffee husks (quishr) that is widely used in the countryside but in urban it is mostly offered it is on occasions of childbirth and condolences.

Can you describe a typical day for you when working at the farm?

My regular daily work schedule has three shifts. First, wake up at dawn around 5 am for prayers, have coffee with milk or Qisher (coffee hulls sweetened tea), go to work about 6 am or earlier depending on the season. Second, work from 8:30 until 12 am with 10 minute Qisher break. Between 12 am and 2 pm I go for noon prayers and lunch. Third, at 2 pm I return to work until 3. 30 when I have a 15-minute break for midafternoon prayers. We go back home at 5 or 5:30 pm depending on the season.

What are the economic, social, and environmental projects associated with your coffee?

We feel that fields of coffee farmers are our own, and we are benefiting from every individual farmer’s effort in his field. They are not only a source of coffee beans, but also our success partners. Therefore, we are trying to provide them with any possible assistance either directly or indirectly.

Our Coffee trade company assists the coffee growing communities through, many activities and projects. We help the needy people and distribute gifts during our community common festivals, provide material and technical assistance to farmers, and give small interest-free loans to be recovered after harvesting. We are currently building a large nursery for the production of quality certified coffee. Up on completion, it will be consisted of ten 360 m2 greenhouses. In this nursery, we will try to propagate the superior varieties in a proper scientific way. This work will go in parallel with transfer of seedlings to the fields of farmers, establishing associations for coffee producers and providing them with necessary institutional support. We are in the process of forming tow associations, one in Buraa and the other in Alhaymah Aldakhlyah.

In partnership with these associations, many activities will be carried out in the future to enhance the skills of farmers, transfer of technical packages for crop management, train farmers on how to apply appropriate cultural practices, improve their capabilities of improving value chain, and increasing crop added value.

On this occasion, we are asking the Royal Coffee to help us in the preparation of a none-profitable Project Appraisal Document (PAD) to target a large number of farmers so that we make rapid and tangible effect. Through this PAD, we can deliver a strong and convincing message for potential donors to provide the necessary support to alleviate the suffering of Yemeni farmers especially under these unstable war- conditions of the country that have even made the situation severely affecting their daily life. Such support could be delivered through many International none governmental organization (INGOs) currently working in Yemen.

The difficult environment in which coffee is grown in Yemen

Does your farm offer lodging facilities for employees?

At the field, coffee plantations surrounds small villages and labors are the owners or sharecroppers of coffee plantation who stay in the same village. Each village usually has a mosque with a walking distance from the farms having bathrooms and washing facilities for public use. Labors from distant areas rarely employed, they are housed in separate rooms inside the family house with special facilities.

How many permanent employees do you have?

Pearl of Tehama has many workers working in the field of coffee at various production and postharvest stages. We have 6 part time, qualified farmer areas’ supervisors native of the production sites who assist farmers in the production of good quality coffee and provide the company of any relevant information in addition to collecting dry coffee lots from farmers. We also have 4 workers responsible for sorting, purification and processing coffee for export. There is also agricultural technical team, which performs multiple tasks for both coffee and vegetable crops, as Pearl Tehama has many commercial agencies for many agricultural production supplies.

The company pays appreciable salaries for all employees and has health insurance for them.

Can you list any information you would like to share with buyers about Yemen Mocha Coffee’s impact in the community where the farm (s) are located at?

We would like to point out to the buyers that the strength of Yemeni coffee product is derived from being the only country in the world where the coffee tree is grown under unique climatic conditions that are not found elsewhere in other parts of the world. Yemenis have converted very steep and barely accessible high mountainous areas into terraced fields that grow and accommodate coffee plants or sometimes even a single plant that could be described as hanging trees.

Yemen’s coffee farmers are among the poorest farmers in the world and their lands are marginal and located at high altitudes as high as 2500 meters. Many coffee production areas are accessible only by foot. Water scarcity and inefficient soil water storage dominates Yemen’s coffee-growing areas. Despite all of that, Yemeni farmers are able to produce the best coffee in the world known as Arabica coffee.

We hope that a team of Royal or other buyers can visit the areas planted with coffee at the time of flowering in those high mountains and observe everything surrounding the crop. It is grown naturally depending on rain and in harmony with the existing ecosystem in these environments. This will certainly makes them feel the greatness of these struggling farmers. They will also recognize the fact that the money value of the crop obtained by Yemeni farmers worth nothing compared to the culture and skill of that man who is still so far suffering from poverty and lack of services, while coming out of his hands one of the most enjoyable coffees in the world.

Finally, we are pleased to find ourselves in partnership with this farming segment in different stages of crop production. We travel long distances to reach them and provide them with what could be offered, i.e. agricultural services and extension and the most important thing is that we buy coffee crop from those production areas at a price higher than the price they can get in any distant market. We will be happier in the future if we could improve the value chain of the crop, raise productivity per unit area, and price per unit of weight, thus, improving the livelihood of our struggling coffee farmers.

As we are exporter of coffee, we consider our neighborhood community/s as part of our business and we try to provide them with any assistance. The needy people sometimes need to food basket aids during the holy month fast month (called Ramadan) to help them to establishing of public project, such as, maintenance of schools and village level roads. So we believe it is our responsibly to carry out their massage to all related sides and we take this opportunity to inform you about their suffering

Can you describe the successes and challenges you have experienced from working in the specialty Coffee market?

Through our work in coffee business, we found that the most important challenge is that Yemen, as a country, has not exploited the opportunity of Yemeni coffee fame in global markets. That could be achieved by improving the quality and quantity of current production directed to special international coffee markets that are still capable to absorb any increase in the volume of Yemeni coffee exports without affecting its price.
The other challenge is the difficulty of agro ecological characteristics of coffee growing areas that can be summed up as follows:

  • It is growing mainly at an altitude of 1000 to 1700 meters above sea level, in the intermountain valleys and in the mountain terraces that descend from the western, central and southern highlands, especially, in the series of Western mountains overlooking the Tehama coastal zone,
  • The density of the area planted with coffee is between 900 to 1000 trees per hectare, and the production of one hectare between is 300 to 600 kg, these areas represent about 40 percent of the cultivated area in the country.

The skill of the Yemeni farmer is evident in the open mountain terraces built at1700 meters above sea level. Farmers turned these terraces into a kind of hanging garden. They are skillfully able to provide perfect environment for the growth and production of coffee tree through taking care of soil and planting forest trees, which are effective in providing a humid environment and protect the coffee trees negative effects of severe cold. The most important tree is cordia, Cordia Africana, which is also a source of good timber.

Certainly, such difficult environments cannot be cultivated in many coffee producing countries for the great risk that surrounds the production process. Meanwhile, Yemeni farmer resorted to methods that are not without ingenuity acquired and inherited for generations, especially, the primary care of coffee seedlings during establishing. They dig holes deep enough, then seedling is placed at the bottom of the hole, and enclosed by a tight stone surrounding (stone mulching). Forest trees are then planted within the area allocated for coffee seedlings to provide shade, wet climates and protect the coffee trees from harsh cold. Young tree is individually watered by hand until it become large enough to depend on rainfall.

One of the things that make us feel successful is that Yemen was once the first exporter of coffee that lasted for hundreds of years (before the 1960s). Coffee was first exported from Yemen to all parts of the world through the port of Mocha, from which comes the Mocha Coffee name.

Our country was relying on the income generated by production of coffee in its economy and budget. It is also the slogan of our country. However, due to many factors, most importantly farm gate low prices, many farmers shifted for more profitable crop alternatives. Therefore, its cultivated area was diminished to one tenth of what it was in the 1960.

Despite the boom in coffee production in many countries, such as Brazil and Ethiopia, Yemeni coffee is still the best and most demanded because of our contribution in the export of Yemeni coffee and the search for markets to absorb most of the production of this important crop. This was due to our interest in improving value chains for the crop, which we currently apply to coffee we export to Royal.

Backed with years of experience in coffee business and the Yemeni farmer’s historical wisdom in coffee production, our company has been able to gain the trust and satisfaction of its customers globally. Our major challenge are providing our buyers with the best specialty coffee quality.

Coffee specialist in the field of coffee production

What are your long-term goals as a coffee producer for Yemen Mocha Coffee?

Regarding our long-term goals, we have tried through previous messages to inform you of the framework and methodology of the long-term future work that we have been doing. Here are some of the future’s aspirations that we hope to share with us in achieving as much as possible:

  • Contribute to the improvement, propagation and dissemination of local varieties (in terms of productivity, high quality and tolerance to environmental stresses) with competitive advantages directed to special international coffee markets,
  • Contribute to the improvement of coffee cultivation (terraces and valleys) by expanding the cultivation of desirable varieties in the appropriate environments and replacing deteriorated trees that are not possible rejuvenate,
  • Contribution to the improvement and raising of production and quality of the final exportable product from the existing and future expansion areas by mainly assisting farmers in building of rainwater storage structures to save water needed for supplementary irrigation sources by using modern and improved irrigation systems in rainfed areas,
  • Contribute to the development of quality standards and standards for the final product both for domestic consumption and for exportable high grade quality.
  • Contribute to raising capacities and skills of coffee growers and production groups, by applying and adopting of research techniques and appropriate cultural and post-harvest practices and processes through:
    • Improving the management, productivity and quality of coffee and reduce losses, in exchange for a fair price for coffee farmers, especially the poor.
    • Increasing the exportable quantities of high quality coffee to increase national income of foreign currencies.
  • Establishment of a laboratory, greenhouses and nurseries to produce seedlings that are improved by tissue culture and cuttings.

What is the most expensive part of coffee production?

The process of harvesting coffee is the most expensive practice because of the multiple selective picking of harvest and the need to hire workers in addition to family members. The heterogeneity of coffee plants in the same field contribute to the prolonging of harvesting time and cost. Traditionally farmers harvest fruits as thy get ripe, in a manner that allows the preservation of quality and competitiveness. As the color of berry tends to light red, the farmer starts to harvest.

Farmer are keen in collecting the berries harvested at the same day separated from other fruits harvested later to ensure better quality and flavor of the berries. Farmers also isolate fallen berries, so as not to affect the quality of coffee as this type of berries usually saturated with moisture. This long and arduous process represents the most expensive stages of production

What would you like roasters and consumers to know about your coffee?

It’s after Yemen, that the world gives the name of Arabica coffee, and coffee grown in Yemen is the finest coffee globally. Under the name Yemen coffee the most planted country wide are four distinguished types, they are namely :’Aludini, Aldoaira, Altufahee, and-AlBuraee, There are also many mostly related to the coffee growing regions or districts , such as: Hammadi, Mattari, Hayme, Yafei, Buraee, and Harazi.

Coffee is one of Yemen major strategic crops, an important source of national income, and to the families of the producers. Not only, because of its export advantages and fame, global markets pay higher prices for Yemeni produced Arabica coffee, but it is also characterized by high cupping qualities compared to Arabica coffees produced in other countries.

According to ministry of agriculture statistics, coffee cultivation spreads mainly in 13 mountainous governorates, namely Sana’a, Rayma, Sa’ada, Al – Mahwit, Hajah Amran, Ibb, Hodeidah, Abyan, Dhamar, Lahj, Taiz and Dali, and to lesser extent in 4 governorate recently stared coffee plantation, they are: Hadramout, Amana, Bayda, and Marib.

The area of coffee ranks second among cash crops, ranging from 42260 to 45717 ha, while net coffee production ranges between 22293 to 30029 tons/ha anually. The average productivity per hectare of net coffee beans is about 536-550 kg., this productivity is low compared to the average productivity per hectare in Brazil, which is more than a ton. The average plant density in Yemen ranges between 700 to 2500 trees per hectare, and the volume of exports is between 5527-8867 tons yearly.

Preparation center of seedlings propagation

What is your opinion about the prices of coffee in the international market?

The international price of coffee is our major concern much, as we benefit somewhat if prices are high. The most importantly how much is the share of farmer producing this coffee of this price? Because currently no matter how much the price of coffee in the world market and exporters profit from the price difference, the price at the farm gate remains low and farmers have been deprived of this rise in Yemeni coffee prices.
As for the decline in prices, it certainly negatively affects our profit as we spend part of it on the development of coffee trade and help farmers.

How do international market prices affect your ability to produce coffee?

Good coffee revenues enhance our ability of adapting and improving farming operation towards more favorable social, environmental and sustainable conditions such as paying higher wages, installing irrigation systems, building water reservoirs, terraces maintenance etc.

How often do you meet green coffee buyer?

In fact, we are dealing with foreign importers such as Royal Company and communicate with them constantly. As we are a company for import and export, (Pearl Tehama) we rarely meets purchasers of new coffee. Meeting more buyers is not currently a concern for us as much as we need understanding and supporting partners for our vision and ambitions. Therefore, it is very crucial to win the confidence of our life long customers, the most important of them is The Royal Company, which we have been dealing with since 1984, and my brothers were very proud of dealing with this company.

We are now keen not only on the continuity of this business relationship, but also hope to broaden our partnership so that we can meet the maximum annual demand of Yemeni coffee for the company. We aim to achieve this through providing high quality merchandise

This will be a new start to work with you with this vision to prove our worth, although we have been partners for a long time. And this is one of the main reasons that led us to develop the process of exporting coffee to you to level worthy of the reputation and position of your company worldwide.

What is the most important part for you about green coffee buyers?

Appreciation of our coffee, Fairness of prices, and desirability to develop.

How is climate change influencing the coffee production at Yemen Mocha Coffee?

In general, Yemen is one of the world’s poorest countries in water resources. Moreover, it is more susceptible to the negative effects of climate change.

It is important to know that the agricultural biodiversity prevailing in the coffee growing areas is suffering of severe deterioration due to the negative effects of climate change. Coffee cultivation depends mainly on seasonal rains and on rain water harvesting. Because of climate change, annual rainfall rates have decreased and their fall dates have changed. If the rains do not fall during the flowering seasons and fruit development, quality of coffee beans is affected. Therefore, building of cisterns, barriers and ponds to harvest rainwater have become a necessity for the continuation of coffee cultivation in Yemen. Unfortunately, many farmers are unable to establish the harvesting facilities.

It is noteworthy to mention that the coffee crop represents more than 50% of household income and this income contributes significantly to the farmer’s ability to maintain agricultural biodiversity and benefit from it. Hence, it is very important to support farmers to overcome such harsh conditions that have been exacerbated not only by climate change and its negative effects, but also by the ongoing conflicts in the country.

Please share with us the current state of your harvest and you’re welcome to share any event that may impact your coffee production or quality of your coffee.

In addition to the adverse effects of climate change, many other problems also have a significant impact on the productivity of coffee, the most important include, the smallness of the size of tenure, ageing of trees, inefficient control of pests, negligence of periodical pruning of seedlings and coffee trees, and primitiveness of marketing and export methods. All of which greatly reduced the economic importance of coffee to most farmers forcing them to resort to the cultivation of other alternatives. Qat (Catha edulis) is the most important alternative in the most important production areas of coffee.

Anything else you would like to share?

Many local exporters of Yemeni coffee follow outdated methods of export and treating the coffee like any other commodity. The Pearl of Tehama believes that the change to the excellent export process should start from the farm itself, and interest in the crop and its care and management is an integrated way throughout all stages of production and post-harvest until shipping.

Many governmental agricultural and donor organizations projects are working on existing trees, while we are looking to a deep-rooted change by providing seedlings of excellent varieties beginning by choosing excellent mothers of old trees and propagation of seedlings from seeds. We will train farmers on how to reconcile between the rainy season and the fruiting season. Therefore, we will contribute to the establishment of reservoirs that retain rainwater near the production fields; since the quality is achieved when the irrigation is compatible with the season of fruit development while the quality of the crop is less if this is not met.

Many Yemeni traders export coffee to Japan because it is one of the most valuable markets. They pay over $ 40 per kilogram and benefit from the rise in this price. The Yemeni farmer remains deprived of this big difference, while many countries get half of this price for their coffees provide support for this oppressed segment. We are willing to do our best to draw the attention of many importers of Yemeni coffee and supporting humanitarian organizations to this missing truth. We know very well that this price difference if reach the producing farmers will enable them to pay more attention to crop and its cultivation will expand at the expense of crops competing with it in the future.

Mayra Orellana-Powell