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Entrepreneur tries to get Yemenis buzzing about coffee, not qat

Yemen's best known crop is the narcotic leaf qat, but it was once coffee. A businessman seeks to revive the country's past reputation as a leading coffee producer. 

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A worker sorts coffee beans at the Timor Coffee Cooperative in East Timor September 6. In Yemen, one businessman is trying to reignite the country's coffee trade.

Jim Watson/Reuters

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Yemen's best-known crop may be qat, the omnipresent narcotic leaf chewed daily by many Yemenis, but this impoverished country was once one of the world's great coffee producers. Now one enterprising businessman is seeking to reclaim that historical status.

Indian businessman Shabbir Ezzi, a member of a Shiite sect with roots in Yemen, hopes to persuade farmers to give up growing qat –  "a Class-A drug," according to him – and give coffee a try instead.

"The whole country is completely gripped by [this] drug habit," he says.

A half-dozen years ago, Mr. Ezzi relocated to Yemen and Al-Ezzi Industries, his family company, invested $1 million in an enterprise buying coffee from producers and exporting it abroad.

But rather than preach to qat growers that qat is harmful, Ezzi created a competitive pricing standard and startup resources and worked to convince farmers that they could make more money by planting coffee. He says he's now breaking even and recently bought large coffee processors to speed up production.

Farmer Mohammad al-Azzi, one of Ezzi's clients, quit growing qat six years ago. Standing amid terraced fields carved along a horseshoe-shaped valley in the Haraz Mountains, a couple hours from the capital of Sanaa, he points to the red bean coffee plants that he now cultivates.

"For us, coffee is like gold," says Mr. Azzi, explaining that coffee has been more successful than qat, proving to be a "great income" for his family. 

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