As the son of American baseball legend Jackie Robinson -- who was the first African American ever allowed to play in the major leagues - David Robinson was expected by some to follow in the footsteps of his famous father. But David Robinson blazed a trail all his own. He became a coffee farmer. Even more notable is the fact that he developed his business thousands of kilometers away from home, in a country where he didn't even speak the language.
David Robinson, a tall, distinguished man in his early 50s has operated his coffee business, Sweet Unity Farms, in Tanzania for more than 20 years. He says his travels throughout Africa as a teenager sparked his interest in the continent. "It is a continent that is rich in natural resources, human resources and in opportunity, but it is really underdeveloped," he says, adding, "I wanted to play a role in that (development)."
David Robinson wasn't yet born when his father Jackie made history as the first African-American ever allowed to play major league baseball in the United States. But he says the activism of both his parents during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s made a great impression. He says their struggle for change led to his desire to create a positive link between the land of his ancestors and the country that held them in slavery for 400 years. "I always wanted to look at what synergies could be created between America and Africa - Tanzania specifically -- and try to develop those synergies to see that the indigenous population of Africa could benefit more from the natural and human resources in my own tribe." Mr. Robinson says he now identifies African-Americans as a tribe - "one tribe amongst the many, many tribes of black people originating from Africa."
As Americans are the biggest consumers of coffee in the world, he adds, coffee farming seemed to be a logical way to begin. "The country in which I was born and the country in which I live are a perfect match," Mr. Robinson says. Tanzanian coffee was once the country's largest foreign exchange earner, he explains. Today it is harvested by 2nd and 3rd generation coffee farmers. "So there is indigenous knowledge in soil and altitudes that create really a lovely coffee."
David Robinson's Sweet Unity Coffee Farms, located in southwestern Tanzania near
the border of Zambia, is part of the Mshikamano Farmer's Group, a farmer's cooperative. Sometimes the crops are sold nationally at auction near Dar es Salaam. More often, he says, the bulk of his coffee bean harvest is exported to the United States.
"We've developed over the last 10 years a direct relationship with American Roasters and Importers. Those are the people we depend on to give us better prices based on direct sales, as opposed to going through 3 or 4 middle hands that take most of the profits. So we've seen progress."
When asked how he reconciles the different worlds he has lived in -- one in the media spotlight as the son of a sports celebrity, the other as an African coffee farmer -- David Robinson was quick to draw a parallel.
"Coffee likes to grow under the shade of a tree. Having the parents that I had was a great stabilizer and image-builder." Mr. Robinson says their influence protected him from some of the "harsh conditions that existed back when I was a child." He says his parents were "inspirations and teachers and also examples that one could strive and achieve."
Though their lives seem to have taken very different paths, David Robinson notes that his father, Jackie, spent part of his post-baseball years as Vice President of Community Relations for Chock full o'Nuts -- then the premier coffee company in the United States.