For my friends and readers, this post is something of an announcement that I’ve joined the advisory board of a start-up coffee company. Al Mokha is coffee with a purpose, premised on a big idea: that revitalizing a 500-year old industry can be a vehicle for peace and prosperity, that strategic investments in certain markets can be an effective foreign policy tool.
Coffee, Erin?, you might say. Didn’t you write not too long ago about how you had your first cup of coffee ever? Like, literally ever?
It’s true; I don’t drink coffee (though I did have my second cup ever in Tanzania in February–you try telling an Ethiopian and an Italian that you don’t drink coffee). So, I can’t even really tell you whether I think the coffee is tasty. But, I do know that other people really like this coffee. And I think this is exciting. So, bear with me.
Author conducting research for the IRC in Nyarugusu, Tanzania
In Part I, Anda–the founder of Al Mokha–wrote about the perils of trying to be a salesperson / academic, and how that duality plays out in the business: investors want to see sales growth whereas economists (me!) want to see real, measureable change in things like poverty levels, in coffee production, in anything we can quantify with data.
So we’re working towards that. In this post, Part 2, I introduce myself and in parts III- V we tackle some tough questions.
Well, who am I? If you visit Al Mokha frequently, you know Anda and you’ve heard mention of some of his advisors (as he spins tales of sinking all his time into a startup). I’m the nerdy PhD obsessed with data and development. I have a doctoral degree in economics. I spend most of my time reading and writing papers on violence against women and children and female labor force participation. I spend a lot of time thinking about very economist-y things like incentives.
For a while, I did this thinking and writing at Harvard. That’s actually where Anda and I met. Over beers at Shay’s in Cambridge, he was quick to tell me he didn’t want to talk about work (and thus didn’t want to talk about Al Mokha). Faced with a real-live economist, though, he couldn’t keep quiet long, and we spent the evening having a super nerdy academic discussion about development economics, foreign policy, and reducing violence. We talked about famous development scholars like Angus Deaton, and making lists of other economists he should read, like Marc F. Bellemare.
These days, I do similar work for international organizations. I’ve worked with UNICEF to model what a fully functioning child protection system would look like in Zimbabwe. I’ve advised the United Kingdom’s Department For International Development (DFID) and the Nike Foundation on social norms. And in a room full of experts on evidence for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), I’ve found consensus on evidence in programming for adolescent girls. I’ve written and administered surveys to better understand poverty, disease, and violence in Nepal for Engineers Without Borders, and Kurdistan and Tanzania for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). These may seem like disparate topics, but I think what they reveal is that I like thinking big—about varieties of programs, about outlandish ideas, about what the best model is to solve a problem in development.
At Al Mokha, this is also my job. Anda and I share a vision of development that is big. It is, however, nestled in the details, of course: I read articles about agriculture and development, but with each paragraph, I’m highlighting what I think is relevant to Al Mokha’s model, whether it helps or hurts the plan to revitalize Yemen’s coffee sector. We talk about how new research supports or hurts the underlying motivation and theory behind the business. What makes this big? What makes this different? Currently, we’re also spending a lot of time thinking about measurement, which is really what this blog series is about.
Can coffee actually stem terrorism? Can we foster a big enough market for Yemeni coffee to actually have an effect on poverty and people’s general wellbeing? Is it even possible to build up an export business in what people are calling a failed state?
War memorial in Kurdistan (taken by author, 2015)
I don’t know if coffee can bring peace to earth, or even to Yemen. The evidence on how economic activity affects terrorism and violence is mixed. Some say that agriculture and people getting training and jobs can reduce violence, but the programs that have been tested are complex and require a lot of inputs. It’s also messy and full of endogeneity problems. I’m not really sure what the best way to measure peace is. I also don’t know if boosting the coffee sector is the right thing to do for Yemen’s economy. Could money and effort be better spent on technology or some other industry?
But there’s also a lot of promise in the idea. Yemen’s embassy in DC and Yemen’s Ministry of Agriculture, for example, see coffee as an engine for rehabilitating Yemen. This particular coffee is really good. And creating a stable market for a commodity could reduce price volatility for coffee, encouraging farmers to plant more. Okay, I already got more technical than I intended for this post, but I promise we’ll come back to price volatility.
So, who’s right? And what does it take to show that Al Mokha works? What does “work” even mean in this context? What can we learn? I have lots of questions, and a few might have come to your mind as well. There are probably many more I haven’t even thought of. But that’s super exciting to me; there’s so much to find out.
Over the next three weeks, I’m going to write more about Al Mokha’s impact and how we are going to measure that. It’s something we expect to evolve as the company does and we hope to get some of you involved in our research and thinking about how we go about it.
It might get a little nerdy. You’ve been warned. Stay tuned!
Those interested in trying Al Mokha’s coffee can shop at www.almokha.com
Note: I have no financial interests in Al Mokha and have received no compensation for this post. As a member of the advisory board, I occasionally receive coffee samples, which I hand out to friends and family as I only learned how to brew a cup of coffee last month.