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.

The company also faces the challenge of ensuring the quality and purity of its coffee, Greeney said.

According to Greeney, local coffee merchants often illegally mix cheaper Ethiopian beans with more expensive Yemeni beans to lower costs. Mokha Origin, however, which sells exclusively Yemeni coffee, has spent $5,000 to make a database of Yemeni seeds that a research lab can use to identify contaminating strains of beans.

Mokha Origin places such a high premium on the purity of the coffee they import because Yemen was the origin of coffee production worldwide.

Although many believe that coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia, Sufi monks created coffee in Yemen in the 15th century, Greeney said. In fact, Al Mokha was a port city in Yemen where coffee merchants first shipped coffee to Europe during the early 17th century, he added. The modern chocolate drink “mocha” derives its name from the port city as well, Greeney said, because Europeans often confused coffee beans and the South American cacao bean, which were introduced to Western Europe around the same time.

Rosenthal added that modern coffee consumers continue to have many misconceptions about the origins of coffee.

“The global coffee market knows very little about Yemeni coffee,” Rosenthal said. Building brand loyalty through a comprehensive marketing strategy is key to overcoming this unfamiliarity, he added.

“Mokha Origin has gotten a lot of attention at Harvard, and their challenge is taking that excitement into the outer world beyond the University,” Rosenthal said. “I think they’re well-positioned to do that.”

—Staff writer Karl M. Aspelund can be reached at karl.aspelund@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @kma_crimson.

—Staff writer Marco J. Barber Grossi can be reached at mbarbergrossi@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @marco_jbg.

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