Brewing A Sustainable Specialty Coffee Business With Port Of Mokha’s Mokhtar Alkhanshali

It is not very often that an entrepreneur starts a business with the mission of creating a path to social impact. More often than not, a business is created to make money, and if it can have a social impact somewhere along the way, that would be an added benefit.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali, CEO and Founder of Port of Mokha, is the antithesis of your typical entrepreneur. In his path to find himself, he discovered a way to revitalize the ancient coffee trade in Yemen. At the same time, he created a product which is ethically sourced, farmers are well paid for their labor, and consumers enjoy coffee which tastes far superior than most beans on the market today.   

Mokhtar recently sat down with me for some coffee talk. He shared the ways in which his heritage impacted his future, the most challenging aspects of creating and running a business oriented toward social impact, and how he uses coffee to help empower people economically. Grab a cup of coffee and listen in.

  • The Path To Social Impact Through Business: I grew up as a third culture kid somewhere between San Francisco and my family’s homeland in Yemen. As a kid, you’re always trying to negotiate and figure out what your identity is from two different cultures. Growing up in the Bay Area, it’s hard to not be someone who cares about social justice and someone who is a bit of a foodie. And on that journey, I stumbled upon specialty coffee. I was really interested in the idea of social impact through business. My journey started around 2013 and this is where I am now. (0:45)
  • Why The Port Of Mokha Plays An Important Role In The Ancient Trade Of Coffee From Yemen: I love history. I love to look at where we came from, understand our journeys. There is actually a city in Yemen called Mokha. It’s a port called Mokha. And it was the first place to commercialize coffee and introduce coffee to the world. I was really intrigued by that history and I wanted to reclaim that narrative and try to revitalize this ancient trade in Yemen. When coffee began being taken from Yemen and grown in other countries, including Indonesia and then straight to the western hemisphere, it made its way to countries like Colombia. There’s a particular type of chocolate flavor some cultivators have, usually mixed with some kind of fruit. So, as you drink the coffee, you’ll taste those chocolate notes. And when they began to grow coffee in other countries, it didn’t have the same flavor, and so what they began to do in cafes would be to make a cup of coffee and put chocolate in the cup to make it taste like the chocolate flavor which came from the Port of Mokha — those Yemen beans. So that’s where the mocha drink finds its name. Most of us know the word mocha through the chocolate-flavored coffee drink. (2:32) 
  • What Sustainability Looks Like At Port Of Mokha: The way our goods, our foods, our electronics are being produced, distributed, and consumed, is not really sustainable for our environment and it’s up to us to try to re-envision how we produce and consume things every day. The supply chain for coffee is really pretty broken, where you have the farmers who do all this work, they get the least amount of the profits. You end up having a very cheap product — kind of like fast food, fast fashion, and in our case, fast coffee. I was really interested in specialty coffee. This new market where it was about transparency and traceability — where certain knowledge was sent to farmers to produce things of better quality, and in exchange for that added quality, they would be able to get paid more. I really thought it was an interesting model which would be sustainable and it’s basically teaching people how to fish. At the end of the day, you have a product which is ethically sourced, the producers are paid well for their labor, and we as consumers get to benefit from something which tastes far superior and much better. This was what I loved about this idea of specialty coffee and why I wanted to create this business. (4:28) 
  • The Most Challenging Aspect In Redefining The Coffee Model: I saw this opportunity and I was trying to find my path in life. I was trying to figure out how to do this and I discovered business was a way to address it. In creating a company that could achieve this, my biggest issue was actually not external, it was internal. I did not have any business knowledge. I did not know anything about supply chain management, marketing, etc. I didn’t know anything about quality control. I had to invest heavily in understanding coffee — understanding sensory impact and how we evaluate coffee by becoming a coffee Q-grade, which is a certified coffee taster. I had to learn how to be a farmer. I had to learn these things in order to be able to produce this product. You just jump into a new world. You get to read books. You get to go to conferences. You get to meet people, and so I’m very fortunate to have been around some incredible teachers in business and in coffee. The other thing was Yemen is a difficult place to source coffee from. There is active war. There are these mountains. It’s so far away. And I grew up in San Francisco, so it’s so different from beans here. You’re facing a lot of obstacles and challenges, but we live in a world with a lot of problems and if we try to think about what is something I can solve, it gives you a lot of motivation to get through those hurdles, both internally and externally. (6:47) 
  • How Port of Mokha Set Sustainability Goals: Sustainability is a really big catch phrase nowadays. Companies have CSR programs, and they have impact reports, and, at least for me and my company, I didn’t want to create an enterprise that made money which just had a social impact arm or extension. I wanted to build a company with an essence that was socially impact driven. That’s what we do. Maybe if you look at our website, it might seem like we are a very high-end, luxury business, but that’s the way we market and tell our story. But really at the core of it is trying to use coffee to help empower people economically. I believe farmers around the world are some of the most exploited and disenfranchised people, and they work really hard to produce things for us each day. And we might not see them when we buy that cup of coffee or a product. But these small actions we do every day, if we change our habits as consumers and are more conscious of the power that we have, when millions of people buy coffee more ethically, it affects farmers around the world. So, my goal is trying to help farmers live a dignified life and I try to do that by cutting back as much as possible from the middlemen involved in our value chain so the value goes back to farmers. And at the same time, I try to educate consumers on what it really costs to produce this for them and that there’s a whole world of flavors they don’t know about because they’ve been taught to drink cheap coffee. (9:51) 
  • The Value Sustainability Has Brought To The Business: For us, it’s two-fold. One is it’s really incredible seeing people, consumers, enjoy our coffee. When we first launched at The Blue Bottle in 2016, they charged $16 for a cup of our coffee, which, at that time, was the most expensive coffee they had sold. Some people were interested and intrigued by this price point, and when they tasted it, they understood like, wow, I didn’t know coffee could taste this way. It was a way to elevate that experience on the consumer side. On the producer side, I think it’s important when you build a brand, you should always recognize it’s not just about the consumer, you think about your producers, you think about your employees, think about the people around you, and your company culture. It’s pretty important on the producer side that you build that strong connection with people there. And so, for us, our farmers, to see their lives being changed by being able to earn more. They can now afford school for their children or hospital bills, or whatever it is that they need in their lives that they have their needs taken care of and they have a way to connect to markets they never would have thought possible. So, I see myself as almost a bridge in that regard. (11:48) 
  • How To Ingrain Sustainability Into Your Day-To-Day Operations: We have so many problems in our world today. There are so many issues. Environmental issues, social issues, etc. I think we can all think about one problem we can solve. What is a problem or service I can curate that can help alleviate some of these problems? We all need to try to be problem oriented as opposed to just revenue oriented. The money will come eventually. There is always a business around something. This is really important for young people out there to think about something they care deeply and passionately about. We only have a few years to live. What are we going to leave behind for our children and grandchildren? What do we want to do? There are moments at our company where we are in a difficult place and it’s reassuring to know that, at least I’m doing something bigger or greater than I am. That’s one thing. The other is to make sure that you have this vision, you have others around you that have the same vision. And particularly investors. Just because someone gives you a check, think about that person’s values. Do they have the same vision as you or do they just want to get acquired or go public down the road? This is important because investors who are focused are going to stay with you for a long time. And there are a lot of wonderful investors out there, but there are, unfortunately, a lot who don’t align with your values or your vision. And third, whatever vision you have, make sure that you have the right team and be sure your team members are being compensated and treated like team members. In my experience, the best businesses I’ve seen are ones where there’s been a strong company culture and there is a strong team behind you. And whatever problems come, they can come, and they can support. And that usually means they’re aligned, not just for compensation, but also values. They need to feel that they’re part of something that they’re proud of. So those are my 3 go-to’s for advice I can give people. Even if your company is not doing something “sustainable”, there are practices you can do. Make sure you have compostable garbage, make sure your company is doing things sustainably for the environment, for their employees, and making sure there is adequate mental health support. There are so many things that are sustainable which you can incorporate into your company. Companies should have internal audits or bring people on to see how they can improve their company to be able to use that word sustainable. (13:35) 
  • The One Thing Everyone Should Know About Port of Mokha And Coffee In General: We just launched a new product: the single-serve pour over pouch. I was in Japan when I first saw this invention. Usually when you make a pour over coffee, you have to have a grinder and a scale, and a brewer, and it’s a whole process. And so oftentimes, people don’t want to do that. So, I tried to figure out how I could get more of my coffee farmer’s coffee into people’s hands. This is a great way to do that because it gets rid of all the stuff. It’s actually a completely recyclable, sustainable product where you just put it on your cup in a very ingenious way and you add your hot water. It’s great for traveling or outdoors or in hotels. For the consumer, it is important whether you buy coffee from our company or go to any coffee shop in your local area, to try to buy as local as possible. Support local businesses and local grocers who really need your help because they do incredible work trying to source great coffees. And just ask the barista, where is this coffee from? If they tell you, “This coffee is from Ethiopia, grown at 1800 meters and has these beautiful notes of this and that, etc.” The more intimate knowledge they have of the coffee, the more you’re in the right place. I always tell consumers, when you go in and buy coffee, try to understand where the coffee came from and that journey. Try to buy as local as possible and try to understand where your food comes from. (17:15) 
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Jennifer: Tell me about yourself and the Port of Mokha. 

Mokhtar: I grew up as a third culture kid somewhere between San Francisco and my family’s homeland in Yemen. And as a kid, I guess, you’re always trying to negotiate and figure out what your identity is from two different cultures. And growing up in the Bay Area, its hard to not be someone who cares about social justice and someone who is a bit of a foodie. And in that journey, I stumbled upon specialty coffee, and I was really interested in the idea of social impact through business. And I began my journey around 2013 and this is where I am now. 

Jennifer: I picked up a box of the pour overs. I love this style of coffee, I think its really great. I only have a few left, but I think these are great. Had a couple this week. Also picked up some of the Mokha Beans. I haven’t tried these yet, but I am very excited to try these as well. 

Mokhtar: Those are really, really great. One of my favorite collaborations. We worked with an amazing chocolatier here in San Francisco called Dandelion Chocolates on the mission [2:00] and those Mokha Mokha beans, they are the most incredible chocolate espresso beans you’ll ever have. My only warning is, I usually have them after lunch. I’ll have one or two, you know, and they’ll give you enough caffeine to last out the day. So just eat them cautiously. 

Jennifer: Tell me about the name part of Mokha. 

Mokhtar: Yes, part of the story, and I am a big fan of history. I love history. I love to look at where we came from, understand our journeys and so, coffee, there is actually a city in Yemen called Mokha. It’s a port called Mokha. And it was the first place to commercialize coffee and really introduce coffee to the world. So as someone who loves history, I was really intrigued by that history and I kind of wanted to reclaim that narrative and try to revitalize this ancient trade in Yemen. 

When coffee began being taken from Yemen and grown in other countries, Indonesia and then straight to the western hemisphere, it made its way to countries like Columbia and people…there’s a particular type of kind of chocolate flavor some cultivators have, usually mixed with some kind of fruit. So, as you drink the coffee you have, you’ll taste those kind of chocolate notes. And when they began to grow in other countries, it didn’t have the same flavor and so what they began to do is in cafes, they would make a cup of coffee and they would put chocolate in the cup to make it taste like a chocolate flavor that came from the Port of Mokha, those Yemen beans. So that’s where the Mokha drink finds it name from. And so, most of us know the work mocha through just chocolate covered, [4:00] or chocolate flavored coffee drink. 

Jennifer: What does sustainability look like for the company today? 

Mokhtar: I think that the way our goods, our foods, our electronics are being produced, distributed, and consumed, it’s not really sustainable for our environment and its up to us to really try to re-envision how we produce and consume things every day. And so, for coffee, the supply chain for coffee its really pretty broken where you have the farmers who do all this work, they get the least amount of the profits as it goes up in that. So, you end up having a very cheap product, you know, kind of like fast food, fashion, and in our case, fast coffee. So, for us, I was really interested in specialty coffee. This new market where it was about transparency and about traceability where certain knowledge was sent to farmers to produce things at better quality in exchange for that added quality, they would be able to get paid more. And so, for me, I really thought it was an interesting model that would be sustainable and its really teaching people how to kind of fish and at the end you have a product that is ethically sourced, the producers are paid well for their labor, and we as consumers get to benefit from something that tastes much superior, much better. So that was kind of my…what I loved about this idea of specialty coffee and why I wanted to create this business. 

Jennifer: What was one of the most challenging aspects of trying to change the model in this way? 

Mokhtar: Definitely there is the Blue Ocean Theory, which is great. It is a book but it’s also great when you are looking at business. When you have people that are kind of doing things…its kind of repetitiveness. And its sometimes good to zig when people zag. And so, for me, I saw this opportunity and I was really…as a young person, you’re trying to find your path in life. I was trying to figure out how to do this and I found out business was a way to do this. Creating a company that could do this and my biggest issue first was actually not external. It was actually internally I did not have any business knowledge. I did not know anything about supply chain management, marketing. I didn’t know anything about quality control. I had to invest heavily in understanding coffee. Understanding sensory and how we evaluate coffee by becoming a coffee Q-grade, which is our version of [inaudible  7:24] to be able to be a certified coffee taster. I had to learn how to be a farmer. I bought argentamine [7:29] I had to learn these things in order to be able to produce this product. So, there was that and on top of that…and that’s always, like, the most difficult. But that’s also the most exciting part of the business. You just jump into a new world. You get to read the books. You get to go to conferences. You get to, you know, meet people, and so I’m very fortunate to have been around some incredible teachers in business and in coffee. And so…you’re only as good as your teachers, [8:00] right? So, that was for me. The other thing was Yemen is a difficult place to source coffee from. There is active war. There are these mountains. It’s so far away. And I grew up here in San Francisco so it’s so different from beans here. So, for me, I had a personal stake in this bean that my family was from, this origin, and when I started bringing back coffee samples, the results were astounding how these coffees tasted. And so, yes, in the beginning, my family…talked about issues, I was supposed to finish law school and so for me to throw that away and go to become a farmer. Like, they risked their lives to come to America for the American dream. And as a kid, my parents were actually telling me, they would warn me and threaten me and tell me if I did not do good in school, they would take me back to work on the farm in Yemen. Which is what I do now. And so, you’re going to be facing a lot of obstacles and challenges, but I think that we live in a world with a lot of problems and if we try to think about what is something I can solve, it gives you a lot of motivation to get through those hurdles, internal and external problems. 

Jennifer: What are some sustainability goals that you’ve set for yourself or for the company, I guess on a regular basis? How do you know that you’re meeting commitments that you want to make around sustainability or knowing that you want to be doing more? 

Mokhtar: Sustainability is a really big catch phrase nowadays. And companies have CSR programs, and they have impact reports and I think, [10:00] at least for me and my company, I didn’t want to create an enterprise that made money that had a social impact arm or extension, you know. I wanted to build a company with an essence that was socially impact driven. That’s what we do. Maybe if you look at our website, it might seem like we are very high-end, luxury, but that’s the way we market and tell our story. But really at the core of it is trying to use coffee to help empower people economically. I believe farmers around the world are some of the most exploited and disenfranchised people and they work really hard to produce things for us each day. And we might not see them when we buy that cup of coffee or a produce. But these small actions we do every day, if we change our habits as consumer and are more conscious of the power that we can do. You know, when millions of people buy coffee more ethically it affects farmers around the world. So, my goal is trying to help farmers, you know, live a dignified life and I try to do that by cutting back as much as possible for the middlemen involved in our value chain so that the value goes back to farmers. And at the same time, I try to educate consumers on really what costs produces for them and that there’s a whole world of flavors and stuff that they about because they’ve been taught to drink cheap coffee. And so, its kind of like where I am right now. 

Jennifer: What value has sustainability brought to your own business to want to invest in a pretty significant way like you have? 

Mokhtar:For us, it’s two-fold. One is it’s really incredible seeing people, consumers, enjoy our coffee. When we first launched, I think it was the first…the blue bottle [12:00] in 2016. They charged 16 dollars for a cup of our coffee, which at that time was the most expensive coffee they had sold. But people, you know, some of them were interested and intrigued by this price point but when they tasted it, they understood like, wow, I didn’t know coffee could taste this way. It was a way to elevate that experience on the consumer side. On the producer side, and I think it’s important when you build a brand, you should always…it’s not just on the consumer, you think about your producers, you think about your employees, think about the people around you, your company culture. And it’s pretty important on the producer side that you build that strong connection with people there. And so, for us, you know, our farmers, to see them, their lives being changed by being able to pay more. That they can afford now, you know, school for their children or hospital bills, or whatever it is that they need in their lives that they have their needs taken care of and that they have a way to connect to markets they never would have thought possible. So, I see myself as almost a bridge in that regard. 

Jennifer: What advice would you give for other business leaders, business owners to start incorporating sustainability into their business like you have? Not just with a corporate social responsibility arm but really ingrained into the actual day to day operations. 

Mokhtar: We have so many, that’s really a great question. I don’t know if I can fully answer it, but I’ll try. We have so many problems in our world today. There are so many issues. Environmental issues, social issues, [inaudible 13:42]issues. And so, I think that we can all think about one problem we can solve. What is a problem or service I can curate that can help somehow get, you know, alleviate some of these problems. And try to be problem oriented as opposed to just [14:00] revenue oriented. The money will come eventually. You know, there is always a business around something. And so, I think that’s really important for young people out there to think about something that they care deeply about, passionately about. We only have a few number of years to live. You know, what are we going to leave behind for our children, grandchildren, what do we want to do. And I think, it just feels, you know, there are moments at our company where we are in a difficult place within our company and it’s reassuring at least to know that, at least I’m doing something bigger or greater than I am. That’s one thing. The other is to make sure that you have this vision, you have others around you that have the same visions. And particular investors. You know, just because someone gives you a check, you know, think about that person’s values. Do they have the same vision as you or do they just want to get acquired or go public, you know, down the road and its important because investors who are focused are going to stay with you for a long time. And there are a lot of wonderful investors out there but there are unfortunately a lot of ones that don’t align with your values or your vision. And third, I think that whatever vision you have, making sure that you have the right team and making sure that your team members are being compensated and treated like team members. I think that, at least in my experience, the best business I’ve seen are ones where there’s been a strong company culture and there is a strong team behind you. And whatever problems come, they can come, and they can support. And that usually means that they’re aligned, not just for compensation but also values. That they feel that they’re part of something that they’re proud of. So those are kind of my 3 go-to’s for some advice I can give people because I am still, you know, needing advice myself. 

Jennifer: I think that’s great advice. And one that really kind of struck a chord with me was around making sure that the culture is really about sustainability as well because I think all employees at a company have to [16:00] be aligned with that culture and that vision and it just really has to be about, or I guess it has to be incorporated into the day-to-day mindset of every single person on the team. It can’t just be a single person thinking about sustainability or you, yourself thinking about sustainability. 

Mokhtar: Yeah, I mean, even if your company is not doing something, you know, “sustainable”, there are things around for practices. Making sure you have compostable garbage there, making sure that your company is doing things as sustainable for the environment, for their employees, making sure that there is adequate mental health, you know, support. There are so many things around that are sustainable, sustainability that you can incorporate into your company. And so, I think that companies should have like internal audits and, you know, or bring people on to see like how can we improve our company to be able to use that word sustainable. 

Jennifer: If I was drinking my cup of coffee this morning, what is the one thing I should know about sustainability with the Port of Mokha? What would be that one takeaway that I should be thinking about? 

Mokhtar: So, actually, that’s a new product that we just started to launch.I saw that, I think it was in Japan when I first saw this invention. Basically, what it is is usually when you make a pour over, which is for coffee, you have to have a grinder and a scale, and a brewer, and it’s a whole thing. And so oftentimes, people kind of just like, I can’t. You know, I’m not into coffee that much. So, I tried to figure out how I could get more of my coffee farmer’s coffee into people’s hands. So, this is a great way to do that because it gets rid of all that. It’s actually a completely recyclable, you know, sustainable product where you just put it on your cup in a very ingenious way [18:00] and you add your hot water. So, it’s great for traveling, or outdoors, or in hotels. So, for the consumer, you know, I think if you buy, you know, from our company, part of Mokha.com or if you go to any coffee shop in your local area. First of all, try to buy as local as possible. Support local businesses and local grocers who really need your help because they do incredible work trying to source great coffees. And just ask the barista, you know, where this coffee is from. You know, if they tell you, “This coffee is from Ethiopia. From an [18:30 inaudible]phase, grown at 1800 meters and has these beautiful nodes of this and that.” And the more intimate knowledge they have of the coffee, the more you’re in the right place. So, I always gauge, and I always tell consumers, you know, when you go in and buy coffee, try to understand where the coffee came from and that journey. That’s pretty much it. Just try to buy as local as possible and try to understand where your food comes from. 

Jennifer Wong
Jennifer is the Head of Sustainability at Convoy, helping transportation leaders make progress against their environmental and social impact goals.