At the start of the year, Mokhtar Alkhanshali already knew his business would be facing hard times ahead.
His coffee company Port of Mokha, founded in 2016 and serving what has been described as ‘the best coffee in the world’, was finalising construction on a fulfilment centre in Kuwait. Alkhanshali hoped it would help re-establish Mokha, a port city on the Red Sea coast of Yemen, as the epicentre of the global coffee trade: just like it was for 150 years, starting way back in the 16th century.
In February, Alkhanshali was preparing to visit the new site, where he would be joined by Port of Mokha’s COO Karim Abouelkheir. Neither of them made it to their destination. Abouelkheir, who had been visiting family in Egypt, was already in the air when Kuwait’s government shut its borders to prevent the spread of Covid-19. On arrival he was quarantined for 12 hours then deported to the US. Alkhanshali’s plane never left New York.
Port of Mokha may be named after the legendary Yemeni coffee port, but it is actually based in San Francisco. The pandemic left the company particularly divided, cutting off the network of coffee producers in the Middle East from the roasters and consumer markets they sell to worldwide. But Alkhanshali was used to taking upheaval in his stride.
‘My company has thrown me a series of difficult events. Every couple of years, something awful happens. I often say that Yemen was in some ways sheltered from Covid-19 because it has basically been quarantined for the past five years,’ he says, referring to the civil war there.
‘They thought I was a smuggler – nobody believed that this kid would leave America to go and sell coffee in Yemen during a war.’
In interviews, Alkhanshali likes to downplay the setbacks he somehow manages to overcome. ‘We do face difficulties, and there are systems that might be against you, but it doesn’t mean you can just give up,’ he said once. ‘Maybe you don’t have to cross an ocean on a boat like me, but it’s universal.’ Indeed, Alkhanshali believes that you have to experience hard times to be able to appreciate the good times. Still, the ability to constantly motivate himself is a leadership principle he has put into practice probably more than he would have liked to over the years.
Since founding Port of Mokha, Alkhanshali has been kidnapped, shot at and nearly shipwrecked, as well as being in close proximity to two bombings. Running half of your business in a war-torn country is, Alkhanshali says in typically down-to-earth fashion, ‘pretty dangerous’. Some of the obstacles he faces back in the US seem almost trivial.
What motivates Alkhanshali, who is in his late 20s, to persevere through all the hard times? Port of Mokha is much more than just a job, comes his reply. Nor was he destined for the life of a coffee salesman anyway.
In 2013, his parents sent him to live with family in Yemen, their native country, after worries he was hanging around with the wrong crowd at home in the Tenderloin, a rough part of San Francisco. ‘The first time I had a gun pulled on me wasn’t in Yemen but in America,’ says Alkhanshali. ‘It had a big impact on me.’ But during his two year ‘bootcamp’, living and working on coffee farms in his family’s Yemeni village, Alkhanshali developed a love of coffee and witnessed the hardships that the locals had to put up with. Experiencing that firsthand is partly what motivates him to keep coming back from setbacks.
By helping small-scale producers to elevate their offering, Alkhanshali has pioneered a social impact model business ‘where farmers who worked on quality could be paid more for their produce. After helping them develop their product, we are completely hands off. For me that was the goal: to improve the quality of farmers, creating value for them until they are able to become self-sufficient so that they don’t need our help.’ Some of his farmers are now earning six-times more than they used to. Other, more advanced ones are now even selling direct to roasters without Port of Mokha’s help at all. But since the pandemic swept around the world, the International Coffee Organization has issued warnings about how badly coffee consumption has plummeted.
‘Some reports say 75% of coffee companies are going to file for bankruptcy,’ says Alkhanshali. ‘Companies that I thought were pretty stable are barely surviving. There is a threat that only Costa and Starbucks are going to survive this.’
The key reason Covid-19 is troubling Alkhanshali isn’t just the doom surrounding the global coffee trade, but the obligation he feels to his producers – his biggest motivation for overcoming the many setbacks his company has already overcome in its short existence. ‘I have promised these farmers something. I told them that if they produced higher quality coffee, I would sell it for them. When you give people hope, especially in countries like Yemen, it is a very heavy burden to bear.’
Port of Mokha’s coffee sells for as much as $16 a cup – arguably worth it when you consider it earned the highest score ever awarded in the 25-year history of the prestigious grading programme by Coffee Review. James Freeman, the founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, has even described it as ‘tasting like angels singing’.
A lot has also gone wrong for Alkhanshali, despite his many successes. Dave Eggers found his never-say-die attitude so compelling he wrote a book about him called The Monk of Mokha, which went on to become a New York Times bestseller. Eggers describes Alkhanshali’s voyage to Yemen, learning about the coffee of his homeland, as well the story of his escape from Yemen after the outbreak of war in 2015.
On living amid conflict, Alkhanshali says: ‘Even after seeing the bombs dropping, it was very difficult to wake up into the reality of a war. To feel the earth shake, smelling death and smoke, hearing the screams of women and children, and not to know if you will even live to see the morning…’
Still, Alkhanshali was determined to leave Yemen to attend the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual conference in Seattle to showcase his coffee. Despite the country’s airports having been bombed, he undertook a perilous journey to get back to the US in time for the tasting – which would lead to him being shot at, kidnapped, nearly blown up by suicide bombers, drowned, and arrested when he finally reached Djibouti. ‘They thought I was a smuggler,’ he says. ‘Nobody believed that this kid would leave America to go and sell coffee in Yemen during a war.’ ‘When you go through difficult times you don’t realise how tough it was until you look at it retrospectively,’ he says. ‘When you are in a difficult situation there are just two options: first, you just give up. Second, you are endlessly optimistic, you keep finding new solutions even if there is no logical way to succeed. And I think that takes having a tough mind.’