It’s not everyday you get an opportunity to sit down with a missionary, with the soul purpose of changing the way coffee is traded, committed to sourcing it fairly and ethically, whilst elevating the farmer to their rightful place – at the forefront rather than at the backend. Clear my calendar is what I did when Ali Mansoor, co-founder and CEO of People’s Coffee, invited me for a cup of coffee.
Teaming up with Ali is Sheikh Dr. Majid Al Qassimi, this dynamic duo are en route to make a difference. They were inspired to share stories of coffee farmers from Yemen, hence they created People’s Coffee to go beyond the traditional B2B and B2C models. They are not aiming, rather they have claimed the title of the first human-to-human coffee trading company. After the meeting, I ended up walking out inspired by their vision, and by the time you reach the end of this article, you will too.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers, Ali?
I’m going to rewind back to 2016 when I was receiving an award at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for a campaign in Fucecchio near Florence, Italy. The idea was to highlight the local heroes and their stories that have lived in the area. I have been in advertising for the past 20 years, and co-founded Baroque Worldwide.
I started in 2015, I was trying to figure out how to transform and evolve from traditional media. I would always say that transformation was not about B2B or B2C, but human-to-human. An example of this is when you have a B2B model, you connect one business to another. Just like that, we created a transparent approach which has only one focus point, and that is collaboration. A direct and seamless line between you and the coffee farmer.
Human to human = integration, innovation, collaboration
People’s Coffee takes an integrated, holistic approach to the coffee trade, we are involved in the agricultural side, the production and processing, and the sale of wholesale and retail, green and roasted coffee.
How did you meet Sheikh Dr. Majid?
I discovered his account on Instagram by accident when I was searching for entrepreneurs from the UAE. I was trying to find a new venture leaving the world of advertising behind. We touched base and met post COVID. The first thing we did when we saw each other was hug. There was a genuine connection already. We conversed about life, advertising, challenges, and he stopped me when he heard me say ‘human-to-human’.
I told him about my trip to Yemen where I was doing a documentary about the farmers and the coffee plant. Majority of the inhabitants in these areas were under turmoil, the cultivation of Qat has been plaguing the community for generations. The leadership took matters in their own hands and a “Qat to coffee” campaign was initiated to restore stability. You can read the whole story here.
When we parted, it was certain that we were on the same page. That day we decided to create People’s Coffee. We both have this love for coffee, we drink it everyday but neither of us have any experience trading it. But, it was coffee after all and I knew deep inside we will find our way as long as we stay the course.
Coffee has a sense of connection that brings the community together. How did you come about the name ‘People’s Coffee’?
We created the name because of our vision behind it. We had a plan to tell the stories of the farmers to the world and use their allegory to trade the coffee. When we started, we bought 500 kgs from Yemen to begin with.
We invited selected stakeholders that we wanted to do business with. We introduced our model and the coffee to them. What we did next changed everything for us, we connected the farmer on a Zoom call in this meeting.
They were shocked, to say the least. I think it’s because nobody revealed their cards like we did, but believe me, we are not here to pull a trump card. They had their opinions about us and the way we were doing business, which revolved along the lines of revealing our farmers and being afraid that someone will steal them from us.
The first year was us trying to figure out the coffee business. It took us a year because we had to learn how to do it from scratch. We were paying attention, listening and learning. We shared the stories of the farmers and we didn’t stop there, we invited them to Dubai and made them engage with our stakeholders and the public, with no strings attached.
This to some extent is called traceability and transparency. We gave the farmer and our stakeholders full freedom to do business the way they like. If they wanted direct trade, be my guest. My job was to bring the farmer to the stage, empower him, so that he can stand on his own feet. This is what we are aiming to achieve – integration, partnership and collaboration.
It became clear to us how we were going to take People’s Coffee forward. Last year, we were invited to do a master class at DIFC. Sheikh Dr. Majid and I presented in the most organic way we knew possible, with the farmer connected on Zoom the whole time. Our audience were financiers and high net worth individuals. This gave us access to not only supply our coffee to them but also opened our doors to other groups that shared our vision and mission.
We signed contracts with hospitals, organic farms, sustainable cities, development offices and financial centers. People wanted to drink clean and good tasting coffee, and to think the majority have no idea that specialty coffee existed is only because we are too busy fighting petty battles that does not matter in the long run. Our clients are pleased to know where the coffee is coming from and who the farmer is, to the extent that they can call the farmer any time they like.
Majority of us can relate to this, even before we were introduced to specialty coffee. We have subconsciously put down coffee as the bitter drink that it is. But it doesn’t have to be, coffee tastes good. And our clients are aware of that. Even our young adults in universities, gone are the days when they fancied a cup of instant coffee. They are prioritizing filter coffee.
We are on the process of opening cafes and engagement experiences, where people can come and brew their own V60 if they want. It’s going to function like a coffee shop regardless, but the central theme is education. We are also on the verge of opening our own Innovation Center. That’s the vision we are going after. We have our hands full and the future is exciting. This is People’s Coffee today, and it is just the beginning.
Can you explain why Yemeni coffee is expensive?
The reason Yemeni coffee is expensive because it’s harvested only once a year. There’s simply not enough Yemeni coffee, the yield is quite low. Imagine the farmer has to live for the entire year with this single harvest.
They also don’t own huge acres of land. The farms are terraced fields carved into the Yemen landscape. Growing the coffee plant in this origin hasn’t changed for over 500 years now. The cherries are hand-picked, and naturally dried as-is. The process in and itself is slow and tedious, producing more aged and rich flavored beans. The combination of low supply and high demand, fetches a higher price.
We are now supporting the Yemenis to solve this problem, by training them to become their own producers, bringing them out to the world instead of fighting them and hiding them. This is the sad reality, the traders are hiding their farmers. But, for us being a trader, it’s easier if the farmer represents his coffee in Dubai.
What other coffees do you sell besides Yemen?
We have access to Colombia, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. We are open to more origins but that depends on who we are partnering up with. As I said before, this is key for us. We are looking for a long term relationship. We will work with them to bring them to the stage just like we did with the Yemeni farmers.
I know you cater to the B2C market as well, what do you sell exactly and where can we buy them from?
We have got drip bags, brew bags and whole beans. We sell them online here. Our partners that we are collaborating with are moving our coffee for us, and we help them sell it. All these platforms are now my platforms. So, ultimately I have become a consultant for them. I train them with regards to the coffee and how to deal with the customers.
It must have been a rough journey, from setting up your business and choosing the people you want to work with.
My mantra was simple, being as blunt and transparent as possible. What that did was separate the wheat from the chaff. The right people are now connected to me. It took them some time, and I can understand, people are waiting to see if you are real.
On that note, I have to really appreciate DMCC Coffee Center and Ahmed Bin Sulayem for supporting us. He built DMCC to what it is today, an incubator for coffee creating trading opportunities for all stakeholders in the coffee value chain.
What is the future of specialty coffee in the UAE?
The way I see it, it’s time to embrace change. Adapt now or you are going to be left behind. You will be replaced by people who know how to do things the right way. Either you clear the way now, or change your trajectory. Either way it is going to be for the betterment for this industry and for our farmers at origin.
I spoke about empowering farmers, but let’s not forget other personnel in the value chain like baristas and roasters. We need to start looking out for them otherwise we will have a shortage very soon. You can already see it happening in many parts of Europe.
Send them for training, so they can become senior baristas or even diversify their skillset so they can roast coffee for example. They are not going to stick around, and you have to understand that one day they will move forward. So, why don’t you give him or her a helping hand in reaching that better place.
You’ll find details on how to reach Ali here.
Comment below if you’ve tasted coffee from Yemen. And don’t forget to subscribe.