Most know of baseball legend Jackie Robinson breaking barriers using the medium of baseball, but few know of his son, David Robinson, who is breaking barriers as well in the world of coffee. An extraordinary man from extraordinary parents, David Robinson chose to “challenge the contradiction of rural poverty within the multi-billion dollar industry” says the Sweet Unity website.
Having visited Africa as a child due to his mother’s insistence that he see the world as a teen, he felt the call to return to Africa to live. One can only be humbled by his dedication in making a difference in the lives of the coffee farmers there. However, he is not an outsider. His marriage to Tanzanian Ruti Mpunda and their children create dual citizenship for him as well as a multifaceted understanding of the issues when it comes to the coffee industry, its farmers and its ultimate consumers. His tie to both worlds significantly raises the stakes in finding meaningful solutions when it comes to the disparity between the lives of the coffee farmers and those who reap the highest profits in the coffee industry.
Sweet Unity is the name of the coffee farm in Tanzania as well as the name of the coffee product that is produced by a cooperative formed 13 years ago called the Mshikamano Farmers Group and includes 300 coffee farms of which Mr. Robinson is marketing manager. Globally, life is difficult for all coffee farmers. It is labor-intensive work and is particularly unforgiving in a place without the comforts we take for granted like running water and electricity. Wanting to know how much, if any, progress has been made, I had the pleasure of getting some insight directly from the man himself.
Bella: Today, in 2008, how far has the cooperative come in changing the lives and conditions of the people of Tanzania as opposed to what it was like in the beginning?
Mr. Robinson: "In 1990 when the first coffee seedlings were planted on the Robinson/Mpunda family owned Sweet Unity Farms in rural Tanzania, our village and our district of over 100,000 coffee farming families were greatly isolated from the international markets, the national Tanzanian Coffee Board and from ourselves as individual families.
While we consider the substantially better prices we are now receiving, the input credits and the greater availability of farming equipment as true progress, I believe the most important change is in the creation, evolution and continued struggle of our cooperative organization. Over a 13 year period Mshikamano Farmers Group has grown from 47 members to 765, has worked through 3 leadership changes both organically and through elections and has built a potential for our self development as farmers, village citizens and participants in the global community.
Most of our members are third generation coffee farmers who had harvested and inherited as individual families prior to 1995 only poverty. Today we have an organization standing on a collective strength that could never have existed if we had remained individual farmers. The Cooperative has given us the ability to establish an international bond with the American coffee company Up-Country International Products and a branded, finished coffee product under the Sweet Unity Farms label. Today we have farmers who are also chairmen, bookkeepers, clerks, representatives to a Leadership Council and members who are working to organize and build their future. None of what we have is complete, nor will it continue without the greatest care and work, but we have created a unified potential for the production of a lovely Arabica coffee, meaningful relationships with the consumer community, and a model for physical/economic growth in rural Tanzania. 2008. However, it is only the beginning."
Fair Trade vs. Direct Trade
Bella: I notice that you do not use the term Fair Trade on your coffee or the stamp of any environmental organization like The Rain Forest Alliance, and yet I know you are using a comprehensive approach to accomplish many of these objectives. Can you elaborate on these endeavors and the difference between you if any? Don’t you think that having this type of approval stamp would bring you more into the forefront of these movements and result in more avenues for bigger revenue?
Mr. Robinson: "Mshikamano Farmers Group and Up-Country International Products Inc. support and are grateful for the work of the Fair Trade movement. This movement has tremendously raised the awareness of the consumer and world community that coffee farmers were receiving far from a "Fair" share of the income from the international coffee business. As the movement went to implement as solution to this injustice, mechanics such as the cost of registration for farmers and the expense of monitoring the system became a problem.
One day both our cooperative and our American partners may seek certification, but at present we are working through model we call "Direct Trade" which actually achieves greater economic benefits and assists on a broad range of issues like improved education facilities, water availability and development project financing that "Fair Trade" could never begin to directly address. Again much of what we have is potential in an early stage of growth, but the "Direct Trade" model in its simplicity offers the ability for consumers to impact a specific rural community of farmers and assist in the broad range of development issues that community faces.
The business of the international coffee marketing and sales requires first an organization like Up-Country International Products Inc. to commit itself to a partnership of respect, understanding and mutually protected interests with coffee farmers. Once that relationship exists the consumer community both corporate and individual can be communicated with to understand and appreciate the meaning behind the coffee product offering. It takes more effort than simply recognising a trade certification, but sales negotiations and/or marketing are complex enough wherein the opportunity for explanation exists. To enhance this and strengthen our marketing message we are looking for ways to secure also the Fair Trade stamp on a cost effective basis"
What about the Coffee?
Bella: I can personally say the coffee is great. I have abandoned my practice of adding cinnamon to my coffee because I really enjoy the flavor “(Cabernet of coffee” a term coined by the New York Times and lively best describe it). Besides the website, where else in the US can I purchase the coffee?
Mr. Robinson: "The web at Sweetunityfarmscoffee.com is the easiest way to access our coffee. We are happy and proud to say that an increasing number of Deloitte associates and partners are enjoying our coffee within their offices through a unique and extremely progressive partnership initiated by the Deloitte Corporation in 2007. Up-Country International Products based in New York is actively looking for additional partners whether they be corporations, social or religious organizations, supermarkets or distribution companies."
Bella: Are there any major upcoming plans for Sweet Unity?
Mr. Robinson: "Coffee is a difficult business. To work internationally from the rural farm level to the quality in the cup is an even bigger challenge. The important news as far as we are concerned is that Sweet Unity is alive and pressing forward on both the African and North American continents. With the support of the consumer community the concept and the families involved will grow stronger every season."
Changing the World by Changing your Brew
When supporting a movement of any kind, we are often left wondering if our good intentions directly benefit their intended target. In this case, Mr. Robinson has eliminated all doubt. Sweet Unity Farms Coffee is available on the website in whole bean or ground at a very reasonable price.
Please encourage your local vendors and employers to put Sweet Unity Farms Coffee on their beverage menu. Along with providing excellent gourmet coffee comes the added satisfaction of knowing that with each cup, the future of a community of coffee farmers in Tanzania is looking even brighter.