A Snapshot of Farming Conditions in Yemen

The following is a lightly-edited audio transcript of an interview between Ketan Patel, Regional Director for Enveritas, and the project management team from the National Vision Development Fund (NVDF), a Yemeni NGO and research organization. Enveritas and NVDF recently completed more than 430 interviews with coffee farmers in Yemen.

Listen to the full recording here. Audio mixing by Joaquin Cotler and musical interludes by MC Maniphes.

Introductions

Ketan Patel:

Let’s start by introducing ourselves. Please could you tell us your names and what you do with the National Vision Development Foundation.

Khalil Hezam:

Hi. Let me start to introduce myself. I’m Khalil. I’m a Projects Manager with the organization here [NVDF].

Ketan:

Excellent, and your colleagues?

Ahmed Shami:

Yes, I’m Ahmed Shami, Programs Coordinator, National Vision Development Foundation. We are here with Rami Al-Iryani. He was the trainer and also one of the specialists we relied on for the coffee response and intervention in Yemen.

Ketan:

Thank you Khalil, Ahmed and Rami. You’ve just finished your first project with Enveritas. Can you take us through what the project encompassed and how many farms you visited?

Khalil:

We made a survey with 437 coffee farmers. We hoped we could visit more than this number, because the farmers in these areas are very hard workers. They want to make Yemeni coffee more suitable for the local and the international markets.

It was so hard to reach certain areas because they are in mountainous places. You cannot reach them by public transportation. Our team worked so hard and faced a lot of obstacles to achieve the survey.

We tried to reach areas by motorbikes and sometimes we could only move by foot.

In general, the areas in Bani Matar and some in Al Haymah were easy to reach because they’re near to public transportation. They can be reached by motorbikes but it was dangerous for our team to take motorbikes.

Map of Yemeni Coffee Regions Surveyed

The Conflict

Ketan:

We understand that there are challenges in reaching these farmers in their communities. Would you be able to shed some light on the conflict and how the conflict has affected these farming communities? Are they feeling the effects or have they been relatively isolated from it?

Ahmed:

The Yemeni context has changed due to the conflict / sieges, and also due to the bad economic situation we’ve faced since 2015. For the last five years, all the farmers have been affected due to the conflict.

For example, we face issues with granting permissions to export or to import anything. After discussions with allies and local authorities, they grant some permissions for farmers and for companies to get things to and from Yemen. But the charging cost for this process has increased due to what we can only say is the “separating of Yemen”.

We have one government in the north and one government in the south. When we have something from the south, we have to pay customs two times: one time in the south and one time in the north. The tax has increased. This has affected the coffee farmers, buyers and the coffee market as a whole. Importing diesel from outside Yemen is challenging. It is difficult to get anything into Yemen to help the farmers or to have good quality products.

Over the past five years, some coffee farms have changed to khat farms. As you know, the money from coffee is not something big and so farmers are getting money from khat as well.

Khalil:

Farmers have moved to khat farming because the khat tree can be harvested more than three times per year. But coffee just has special seasons. Some farmers harvest every six months and some farmers have just one harvesting per year

Coffee Farms

Ketan:

Would you be able to describe to us what a typical coffee farm that you visited looks like?

Ahmed:

We don’t have something typical for all governorates in Yemen. Each governorate has its geographical situation and conditions. For example, in Ibb governorate, coffee farms are huge. For the others, it can be referred to as a small farm.

It also depends on the economic conditions for each farmer. For the farms in Ibb and Al Hudaydah, the farmers used to have some other trees like mango with the coffee trees, but we don’t find this in, for example, Al Haymah or Bani Matar. They are not using this kind of farming.

We also have variations in irrigation. For example, in Ibb governorate they are using flood irrigation for the farms, which is the most water-intensive way of irrigation among all the districts we have visited.

Ketan:

Would you be able to describe for us, in terms of the number of coffee trees, what you would classify as a big farm?

Khalil:

In Bura district, for example, we found a farmer who has more than 20,000 trees. We found that in Bura they have a lot of trees but they don’t know the size of their land. They just know that they have a square meter for every tree. In Manakhah and Bani Matar, as well as in Al Haymah, you will find some middle sized farms. There you’ll find 500 to 1,000 trees.

Distribution of Coffee Tree Counts by Growing Region

Intercropping and Khat

Ketan:

You’ve mentioned that some farmers have mango trees and fruit trees on their farms. You’ve also alluded to khat grown by farmers or preferred by farmers. What other crops are grown on the farms?

Khalil:

Farmers who use mango trees use them as shade trees but in some places, like in Al Haymah and Al Qafr, they use them as cash crops too. You’ll find that some farmers plant tomatoes and beans in between the trees of the coffee itself. Some farmers plant corn with the coffee trees because they want to get a good harvest from the whole farm and they do not depend on just one type of farming inside their land. So they get money from the coffee harvest and they get money from the other crops planted in between the trees. They get good money during harvest time and during the rest of the year.

Ketan:

You’ve mentioned a little bit about khat and farmers growing khat on their land. We’ve understood that there may be less inputs required or less water required to grow khat, but in terms of preferences, do you think that farmers would prefer growing coffee over khat?

Khalil:

Farmers have started to leave coffee farming. If you see in the surveys that farmers have a good size of land, for example, 500 qasbah [around 3 hectares], you’ll find that they just plant the coffee within 50 and they leave the other land because they don’t have the ability to plant coffee in these areas. They start to plant khat in huge land sizes. As I told you, you will not find khat with coffee in the same place, but you’ll find some land where the farmers leave it from the previous seasons. It was coffee but now they start to plant khat.

Khat is a hardy tree, but coffee is a “soft” tree, so coffee has special needs and also special practices. Khat you can plant, and just use some chemicals and a little bit of the water, and you’ll find a good crop. The coffee needs more practices, more care. And you get less coffee. So they move to khat and start planting it more than coffee.

41% of coffee farmers said they also grow khat on their farms.

Fertilization

Ketan:

We’ve understood that coffee requires more care. Do farmers use chemical fertilizers as inputs, or are they more reliant on an organic production system?

Khalil:

In Al Qafr, they use more organic things. In Bura, because it’s a mountainous place, they use fertilizers from Saudi Arabia [Sabic 46 Urea]. They don’t have wells there and they depend only on rainfall. When it’s raining, they use those chemicals. In Haraz, Bani Matar and Al Haymah, we found only a few farmers who use inputs. But in Bura nearly all farmers use chemical inputs.

92% of coffee farmers follow organic practices and don’t use any synthetic fertilizers.

Varieties

Ketan:

Let’s talk about the coffee trees themselves. On the ones that you visited, how old do you estimate those trees as being? When do you think they were planted?

Khalil:

Actually we found very, very old trees. When you ask some farmers about the age of the trees, they will directly answer, “We came here and we found this tree from our father’s age.” So there are some trees that are more than 150 years old.

We also found that they use good practices. The roots of the trees are very big and they do some stumping, so that is how they have some trees more than 150 years old.

Ketan:

Those trees have been there for generations.

Khalil:

A lot of generations. The farmers directly answer, “it’s from my father’s age.” And that means it’s even more … it’s older than their fathers.

Yemeni Population Pyramid — Age of Farmers vs Age of Trees

Ketan:

If we were to speak about the different coffee varieties you observed on the farms… How do farmers describe or identify the different varieties they have on their farms?

Khalil:

They explained to us some of these trees. For example, in Al Qafr, they know that they have Hawari and Udaini types.

In Manakhah and Bani Matar, they have Shobroqi and Khawlani. You’ll find some place where people will tell you they have Burai.

We found in Bura that this type of coffee is called Burai type, but when you go to the market near Bura, you will find that they said this is Khawlani type. Also, they export it to Saudi Arabia, as Khawlani type but it’s actually Burai type.

So the farmers know the type that they are farming. Also, sometimes they give you the variety and explain from the trees that this is Dawairi type and this is Udaini type, and start to explain. They know well the type they use inside their farms.

Ketan:

So the farmers are able to identify the variety of coffee from the type of leaves on the trees?

Khalil:

Yes, that’s right.

Main Coffee Tree Varietal by Altitude and Growing Region

Post-Harvest and Marketing

Ketan:

Let’s get into some of the post-harvest processes that farmers follow. Would you be able to explain how farmers dry their coffee?

Ahmed:

Most farmers are depending on their own resources. They’re used to drying their harvested coffee on the roof of their houses to get something ready for sale. Usually the duration of drying is three days. They try to load the coffee to be dried and to be in some sunshine for three days. Three days is the average duration for drying the coffee.

They try to have some tools and some equipment for drying the coffee.

Khalil:

For example, they know that they cannot put it directly in cement places or roofs. They know that they have to put something under the coffee because they know that it will not be good dried. Also, they know if the humidity of the place is not good for the coffee, and will put something under the coffee to make the coffee have more quality and taste.

Ketan:

When it comes to the selling process, you mentioned that farmers take their product to the market. Are there specific market days that they have to wait for before they can sell their coffee? Are there buyers that may visit them at their farms or at their homes to pay directly or to observe the coffee on the tree?

Khalil:

The people who visit their farms do not purchase any type of coffee. They go and see the trees and choose the farms which they know have a good quality coffee type.

Also, some of the farmers know some of the trees that have a very good type of coffee. They separate them for the selling process, because they know they will get more money at harvesting time.

They don’t have a marketing mechanism to get the buyers to their farms. But the companies and the buyers start to make observation visits to the farms, to see the size of the place, the size of the trees, the type of coffee that the farms will produce.

Some of those farmers need money, so they sell to the buyers at a lower price than they get during harvest time. Some farmers need money in the beginning of the season, so they start to see that “this is for the buyers and we have to take care of this part of the farm”. The buyers provide them with special bags to make sure only red cherries go inside, which has good taste and good size.

Ketan:

When it comes to the price that farmers receive for their coffee, are they aware of the current prices and have those prices been increasing or decreasing in recent time?

Khalil:

Actually, the farmers know the value of Yemeni coffee, especially in Haraz because they have a person outside Yemen who’s marketing their coffee there, so we found the highest prices there.

Most of the farmers around the cities that we visit, they are not worried about prices. They know that they deserve more money, but as I told you before, there is some government support and they stopped the import of coffee. The price before was less than now. They are satisfied somehow but they are not satisfied with the prices on the other hand because they need water during the season, they need workers. Also their farms sometimes face flood waters, which is harming and destroying their terrace walls, so in the end of the season they find that they are not getting a good amount of money to support them to purchase their family needs, as well as to start the new harvest.

Most of them are not aware of the export price but they know the prices inside the local markets. If there are some companies to help them export the coffee outside of Yemen, they know they will get higher prices for that coffee.

The average farm-gate price reported by all farmers surveyed in Yemen was equivalent to $4.05 per pound green (as of January 2021).

Water and Climate

Ketan:

You’ve spoken about some of the irrigation methods and the practices that farmers employ, but do farmers also enlist any practices that help conserve water and soil?

Khalil:

Actually, in most areas that we visit they are using the traditional ways of irrigation. Most of them also use rainwater. Some farmers, especially in Al Haymah and Al Qafr use the hose and pump type of irrigation. That means they make a flooding mechanism to take the water inside the farm itself.

Very few farmers use [drip] irrigation systems. They explain that this is not good because the coffee tree needs water and it’s not just a small amount of water, so this system of irrigation is not suitable for them. They move from traditional irrigation systems to hose and pump irrigation. That means they brought two inch or three inch pipes from the water body and they took the water directly to the trees.

Most of them don’t know the amount of water that they are using for the trees, so they make a hole near the roots of the trees, and start to take the water from the water bodies and make it full. They move to the other trees and by that they know this tree just needs one time, three times, five times, and it’s enough.

Ketan:

Okay, and we know that farmers are increasingly feeling the effects of climate change. Droughts are becoming more and more frequent in Yemen, how do you believe that farmers are coping with this risk?

Khalil:

Farmers don’t know much about it, they just know the time of rain. When you ask them, “When did you start to ripen the coffee?” They will say, “During August and September.”

When the coffee flowers start to grow in the trees, they start to pray that the rain should come to get a good amount of coffee. Some people face this problem by purchasing solar panels to pump the water from under the ground for a very long distance. Sometimes it’s more than 50 meters.

They hope that the government or other organizations can support them to face this problem. Climate means to them, “We have to get water.” And this is the big issue and problem for them.

Training and Knowledge

Ketan:

Do farmers have access to training or any government extension services that can provide them with more knowledge?

Khalil:

Actually, for most farmers, we can say more than 90%, they cannot access training because their places are far away from the center of the governorates, where the training is located. For example, in Al Qafr, it’s far from the center of the governorate — more than 100 kilometers.

Also only a few NGOs visit those areas. The only people who get some training from the district itself are technical engineers or agriculture engineers. In Bura, we found that some farmers get some training sessions but it’s not that effective because the farmers say they know most of the practices that the engineers start to explain. So as I told you, most of the farmers cannot access the training and knowledge of modern practices for coffee farming.

Ketan:

So the traditional knowledge that they have, how is that passed down?

Khalil:

Most of them, from our visits, when you see the farms, you would think they are experts because by their own knowledge, they are. Some of the farmers have more than 70 years of coffee farming. They started to collect some knowledge of their practices so they can move the practices to the new generation of farmers, “This is good and this is not good for the trees.”

Sometimes even engineers don’t know or they don’t have the knowledge of some big questions in coffee farming. For example, in Al Haymah we found a person whose age is more than 70 and they call him a “father of the farmers”. If any one of the farmers face any problem, they go directly to this big man and start to ask him, “What do I have to do and how do I face this problem? How do I save my land or trees? How do I have to deal with these diseases?”

So their traditional knowledge is good most of the time and there’s less care from the official authorities and ministry of agriculture.

Ketan:

From your visits to the farming areas, did you find that farmers belong to groups or cooperatives?

Khalil:

In some areas, like Haraz, they have this practice. A little bit in Bura. They start to make cooperatives but it has failed. So when you ask people there, “Are you part of some cooperatives or associations?” They will say that, “Three or four years ago, we established something like that but it’s not supporting any type of training or providing anything for the farmers.” So only in Haraz do they really have this thing.

The Future

Ketan:

In terms of the future for the next generation, do you believe that the next generation will want to continue farming coffee?

Khalil:

In my opinion, I think it’s 50–50. They know some of their kids will continue, but as I told you, if the problems that the fathers faced now, which is lack of water and other issues related to water, their next generation will move directly to khat because it’s more money than coffee. Also, the price of coffee is less than khat. The government won’t support the farmers in the marketing process. It supports them only in stopping the import of the foreign coffee, but it’s not support them in their own marketing or providing them with good practices. It’s not supporting the new generation or training the new generation to be coffee farmers.

Ketan:

I know you’ve provided us, through the course of this conversation, many of the obstacles that farmers face, but in your opinion, what do you think is the greatest challenge that Yemeni coffee farmers face today?

Khalil:

It’s finding the water for their farms, as well as the marketing for their crops, because even if they get a good harvesting season, they cannot get a good price in the local market. They also don’t know the good agricultural practices. So those three challenges, maybe, are the big challenges for the farmers.

Top Challenges Cited by Coffee Farmers in Yemen

Final Words

Ketan:

It’s very rare that we get to hear from experts in coffee on the ground in Yemen. If there was a message you wanted to take to the world about Yemeni coffee farmers, what would that be?

Khalil:

Actually, the biggest advice it’s to stop the war and the conflicts which destroyed most of the infrastructure for the Yemenis. This is the biggest challenge during six years of conflict. Also, it’s to support the coffee farmers in training, to provide the water for the farms. We need some storage to collect the rainwater for the farmers and also to provide them with solar panels for their farms.

Also, we want some support in building the terrace walls to support the land for the farmers, because when the floods come, it destroys most of the trees in the valleys, especially in Al Qafr, Al Haymah and Al Kharijiyah. So we need support in new practices and international practices in coffee farming, water storage to collect the rainwater, as well as to provide the farmers with solar panels to take the water from underground.

Ketan:

Thank you for this really informative conversation. We know that to reach the 437 farmers, you had to travel through some of the harshest terrain on the globe, through areas of conflict. You’ve faced many, many challenges but you’ve managed to get the plea of Yemeni farmers out there.

Khalil:

Thank you so much for today’s conversation and thank you for your time also.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store