Mustafa had been studying for an MBA in Malaysia when Yemen erupted into a cruel civil war in 2015. Straight away he found his scholarship had been cut and soon, he realised, he would no longer be legally entitled to stay in the country.
“So we started our business at the end of that year. I had been looking at things I could bring here from Yemen, and I decided on coffee” said Mustafa.
Setting up a coffee business
Yemen is not most people’s idea of a fertile agricultural wonderland, but it enjoys a large number of microclimates that have fostered some of the most highly sophisticated methods of water conservation and seed adaptation found anywhere in the world. As a result, surprisingly diverse crops are cultivated there.
The two main cash crops in Yemen’s northern highlands are arabica coffee and khat, or leaves that produce a mild narcotic enjoyed by many Yemenis as an afternoon pick-me-up.
The global coffee trade, which began in the 16th century, originally focused on Yemeni coffee. For centuries thereafter, coffee was the country’s most important and renowned export.
The port city of Mocha — from which the style of coffee takes its name — was the point from which most of Yemen’s coffee was exported between the 16th and 18th centuries, before production in other parts of the world became more efficient.
But it is now easier to get the coffee shipments from the Yemen to Malaysia than it is transporting them to Mocha and other ports from the coffee plantations in the highlands.
Mustafa set up Maas Group in Selangor in 2015 with a plan to import Yemeni coffee and honey, which is regarded by many as being among the finest in the world, and distribute them to customers across Malaysia.
Within a year, the company had moved into manufacturing with a packaging plant where it would box imports from Yemen under its own brand.
“We would bring our goods here, package them and distribute them to the market. Then, in 2018 we went from packaging manufacturing to real manufacturing,” said Mustafa.
The company had decided to formulate the raw materials with other ingredients to give the Maas coffee brand more reach.
“We started to think about what we could do about sugar, which is now a problem everywhere in the world. Everyone likes taking sugar with their coffee. Then we decided we would sweeten it with natural flavours, like pomegranate, honey and date. These are traditional Arabic flavours,” Mustafa explained. The range was launched earlier this year.
'There's a lot of risk'
In a country at war that is split down the middle in terms of support for either warring faction, it is inevitable that shipments will have difficulty crossing the country, though the farming areas are reasonably safe.
“The war is only happening in military places and the cities, so three is no problem now for plantations. They are close to Sana’a but they are far enough away so that aircraft bombings don’t happen there,” said Musafa.
Checkpoints are frequent and operated by anyone from militia and rebel fighters to the official army and police. These must be paid off, once they have taken their cut of the shipment.
“We still can export our products from there but it costs us a lot. There’s the cost of transportation, and the dollar being very strong doesn’t help,” he added.
“There are many difficulties shipping coffee from the plantations. If we have to move a shipment from Sana’a to Aden, for example, it may take three or four days and a lot of money to send a container cross all the checkpoints on the way there.” The trip would otherwise take less than nine hours.
The problem isn’t so much with paperwork and permits — shorthand for greasing the right palms with the necessary sums — the difficulty comes from the chances hauliers take in crossing all the checkpoints in areas that are often hostile.
“It’s not safe, and there’s a lot of risk. This is why we take out insurance on shipping. We take out insurance more from Sana’a to Aden than we do for Aden to Malaysia,” Mustafa continued.
“You get stopped by people asking who you are and what you’re doing. They want to take down the container and go through it — it’s like every group thinks they have the right to take things.”
Despite the challenges, he insists on sourcing both the coffee and the honey from Yemen. Other ingredients come from other countries, depending on price, including pomegranates from Iran and Egypt and dates from Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.
When the ingredients arrive, they are formulated into flavoured Yemeni coffees at Maas’s factory in Selangor and sent to retailers. The company also has a retail store in Jakarta, where stocks are kept for the Indonesian market.
'I'm focusing on Yemini products because I love my country'
Malaysia has been a favourite destination for Arabs for many years, with large numbers of students in particular coming from the Gulf.
Today, there are more than 35,000 Yemenis in the country who have formed a strong community, Mustafa says. They share one thing in common: they cannot return to their home country until war ends.
Mustafa proudly displays the name of his homeland on the products out of pride as well as because he believes Yemen has a distinct cachet when it comes to coffee. People who know about coffee will always choose the authentic arabica wherever it is available, he says.
Despite the success of founding and managing the business, he says he will not be happy until he goes back to Sana’a. Malaysia will never feel like home, even though it has provided a good base for manufacturing and distribution.
“We are all still proud of our country even though there’s this war going on. I brand all my products Yemen, Yemen, Yemen—I show it everywhere—because going back there is my dream,” he said.
“I’m focusing on Yemeni products because I love my country. And when the country becomes okay again, I will move tomorrow, and start again with all the same products.”