I-lab Startup Applies Socially Conscious Mission to Yemeni Coffee Imports

Mokha Origin, a new startup based at the Harvard Innovation Lab, has made strides to begin importing coffee beans from Yemen to encourage economic growth and stability on the Arabian Peninsula.

The startup, which has developed through the Venture Incubation Program at the i-lab, was one of ten finalist teams in the third annual President’s Challenge, a competition offering prize money to the best entrepreneurial ventures designed to bring about positive social change.

Mokha Origin lost its bid for the grand prize to VACU Scan, which won the President’s Challenge on Thursday evening. VACU Scan will use $70,000 in prize money to continue developing their smartphone-based prognostic test to assist in treating diabetic foot ulcers.

While the Mokha team did not win any prize money, co-founder Anda Greeney said he is proud of the work that he and the other team members have done.

“If you buy this coffee, you’re going to help promote stability in Yemen,” said Michael Maxey, the USAID senior agriculture advisor for Yemen. Maxey, who first met with the Mokha Origin team in January, added that the drive for economic stabilization sets Mokha Origin apart from other speciality coffee brands.

Greeney said that Mokha Origin seeks to foster development through market mechanisms, which will hopefully reach a large population of Yemen’s small-scale coffee farmers.

“The Yemeni coffee industry is highly fragmented,” he said. According to Greeney, about 100,000 families produce about 115 kilograms of coffee each.

Mokha Origin uses local merchants to collect a relatively small amount from each farm, he added, tailoring their development strategy to the needs of Yemeni communities suffering from widespread poverty and malnutrition. Maxey noted that although local vendors offer plenty of food, families do not have enough money to buy it.

By increasing both the profit and production of coffee farmers, Mokha Origin could indirectly increase families’ purchasing power, Maxey said.

Greeney noted that the i-lab’s events, mentors, and office space have been influential in developing the venture in its early stages.

The i-lab assigned Mokha Origin a mentor—Jonathan Rosenthal, executive director of Coop Coffees, which imports coffee from regions around the globe. Mokha Origin will partner with Rosenthal’s company to learn how to best move coffee beans to the U.S. from Yemen.

“Rather than learning by trial and error, they can build on the expertise we have,” Rosenthal said. “We give insight and assistance to figure out how to create a  social enterprise that meets their social and business goals.”

Mokha Origin has already begun selling its beans online and will introduce the product to Boston markets this year. Greeney hopes to have generated $100,000 in retail sales by the end of December.

As Mokha Origin brings their product to American markets, Rosenthal will help them overcome import challenges, such as heightened security concerns and the lack of proper infrastructure.

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