David Robinson takes his coffee the way he speaks: plain with just a touch of sweetness to get the conversation going.
The youngest son of Jackie and Rachel Robinson was on the tail end of a three-week trip to the United States and Canada to meet with investors and coffee roasters for his Sweet Unity Farms coffee.
Located in a remote corner of southwestern Tanzania, the 300-farm coffee cooperative gives small-scale farmers access to the international coffee market. It’s Mr. Robinson’s way of brewing up social justice and consciousness.
“It’s tragic that there are so few farmer-direct coffees in Africa, but it’s very tough,” Robinson says. “We’re competing with established brands that are on the tip of your tongue. You hear the jingle and see the logo in your mind. So it takes a bit of time to question if there are alternatives, to ask if the coffee is directly sourced.”
Tanzania sells about 50 million pounds of coffee a year to coffee-shop chains such as Starbucks and Peet’s. But Sweet Unity is the only finished branded product from the East African country to be sold directly in the US, Robinson says.
Sweet Unity’s direct-trade system means that its farmers elect other farmers to hold various positions, including chairmen, clerks, and bookkeepers. When payments come the cooperative decides on projects to undertake, from solar panels for electrification to water-management systems for better irrigation.
Soon Robinson will be back home in Tanzania accompanied by his mother, Rachel. She’s keen to hug her grandchildren and walk through the village’s new educational center.
The $60,000 educational center is the latest accomplishment of the cooperative. The center, which took five years to build, joins a primary and a secondary school already built through the cooperative.
Robinson started Up-Country International Projects to market Sweet Unity Farms gourmet coffee in North America. The coffee is available for purchase on www.sweetunityfarms.com and is sold in some US airports, including many in Florida, he says.
The cooperative produces 120,000 to 140,000 pounds of coffee annually. The yield depends on the rains, and the rains are coming later every year, he says.
“If that rain doesn’t come, you’re looking at a percentage or two of your harvest drying up on the tree every day,” Robinson says.
The cooperative recently built a rainwater catchment that holds 900,000 liters (238,000 gallons) of water. Farmers attach jugs to their bicycles or load oxcarts with containers to fetch the water.
Each time he visits North America Robinson is reminded of water’s abundance and easy availability there. He wishes the same for those living in his part of the world.
Robinson also hopes more Americans will consider buying direct-source products from countries that need water or electricity. Using that income "those countries can get as much water as the rest of the world,” he says.
Robinson grew up in Stamford, Conn., and attended New Canaan Country Day School. When he was 15 his mother took him to Africa. His father stayed home. The trip touched Robinson deeply.
“It was the trip as a whole, not one specific thing, that gave me an innate impression of something I wanted,” he says.
After graduating from high school Robinson enrolled at Stanford University. But he felt adrift. He dropped out, and in 1971 returned to Africa, a place where he saw potential and great beauty.
“I was probably a naïve youth, but I saw that I could make things happen,” Robinson says.
He was there only a few months when the call came. His older brother, Jackie Jr., had been killed after falling asleep at the wheel of his car. It was the first of three great losses for Robinson. In 1972, his famous father, Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play major league baseball, died unexpectedly. His grandmother died as well.
After what he calls a “trying time for the family” he moved to Tanzania, attracted by its economic and political stability. While visiting the coffee-growing Mbozi District he felt he’d arrived home.
The village elders told Robinson he could have whatever land he cleared. So that's what he did – with hand tools and workers from five tribes, hence the name Sweet Unity.
“It was an effort by diverse people to do something together, and it blossomed,” he says.
The number 42 included in Robinson’s business email address honors his father, who wore that number on his uniform and is now enshrined in baseball's Hall of Fame. Together with his wife, Rachel, he fought for equal opportunity long after he retired his baseball jersey.
In the hours before Robinson boarded his flight from New York's JFK airport to Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, he paused to consider what his father would think of his enterprise.
“They [his parents] were opening up opportunity in America: Now we’re doing it on a global basis," Robinson says. "It was a tough job they took on, and they left it unfinished. I know I will leave my work unfinished. I just hope I planted enough seeds in my children and grandchildren that they will continue.”