David Robinson of Sweet Unity Coffee Farms walks his farm land. Photo credit: Courtesy of Sweet Unity Coffee Farms Facebook

Coffee farmer David Robinson, son of Hall of Famer, Jackie Robinson, breaks barriers in U.S. coffee market with Tanzanian java company

4 mins read

The black gold of East Africa flows through the veins of a son of a legend. Sparked by the movement and a commitment in global trade between African Americans and Africa, a 20-plus year business is brewing.

Seventy-five years ago, on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson took the baseball field as a Brooklyn Dodger, becoming the first African American in the all-white Major Baseball League organization. The momentous occasion marked a shift in “America’s pastime,” including the nationwide push to dismantle segregated racial laws in the U.S. known as the Civil Rights Movement. Whereas Robinson’s culturally and politically significant career reverberates in the annals of desegregating the country, his family has been expanding his legacy of piercing through the almost impenetrable in other ways.

David Robinson, the surviving son of Rachel and his magnanimous father, carried the legacy in a way that elevates the connections between Africa and its diaspora. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it was a dangerous occupation to participate in, but as a student at Stanford University, for David, it was natural to breathe and become the air of resistance. The youngest of three, David’s father took him to the march on Washington D.C. in 1965. “It was a privilege,” described David in growing up being the son of Jackie Robinson. But, unlike his Republican father, Robinson and his sister Sharon, embraced the more assertive side of the movement: like that of the philosophy of Malcolm X. 

Often joining his parents in their ongoing Civil Rights work, their emphasis on education and activism encouraged him to “focus in terms of life goals and the meaning of life and things that were important.” David had first traveled to Africa at 15, around the time his oldest brother, Jackie Robinson Jr. passed away in a car accident. Moreover, the explosive climate of the 1960s and 1970s had challenged him to find his footing in another way. At 32, he decided to stay. “I went to Africa to try to find a way of integrating global resources in Africa with the American economy,” recounted David. 

Relocating to the continent, David visited countries from the horn of Africa to its cape. Eventually, he settled in East Africa where he married Ruti Mpunda in an arranged marriage. He sought a wife with the Wanyamwezi people. Ultimately, the Pan-African lens of David wanted to forge the diaspora with the continent, but also cultivate a cause away from his father’s iconic role in sports and Civil Rights.

In 2019, David Robinson (far right) was part of a group that visited Soma Book Cafe in Dar es Salaam. The trip was part of the Books for Africa initiative, a campaign promoting education in Africa by getting more books to the continent. In the group is STEM Power Executive Director (center right), Kiddist Gebreamlak talking to Robinson STEM and virtual learning for in and out of school children and youth. Courtesy SOMA’s Twitter page.

In his work, he launched the Mshikamano Farmers Group, a cooperative of small, family-owned farms in Tanzania, growing coffee beans and food. Also implemented into the business is an educational program. “A successful coffee cooperative requires that farmers become more than just tillers of the soil,” explained the farming cooperative on Instagram. The collective is over 20 years old, and has evolved to where “Farmers elected farmers who would double as chairmen, clerks, bookkeepers, and representatives to a governing council.”

Through the farming association, David built his business, Sweet Unity Coffee Farms from the rich coffee bean agriculture in the nation. Ranging from dark to medium roasts, the company offers beans from both Tanzania and Ethiopia, creating a rich delicacy that is hand-picked and meticulously harvested. While Ethiopia is noted as the origin of Arabica coffee, the first coffee is said to have been located in the bush of Tanzania around 600 A.D. Although Ethiopia and Uganda dominate in being some of the top producers of coffee, the bean is still Tanzania’s largest exported crop.

Sweet Unity Farms Coffee’s East African Supreme blend. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers

Sweet Unity Coffee Farms continues to work on breaking into the coffee market as one of the few, Black-owned, and only African-American and African owned companies. “[We’re] making an impact for coffee farms, and really the global economy,” said David when discussing his own legacy which also includes infusing Africa with books.

Last year, Sweet Unity Coffee Farms partnered with Black Farmers Index, a Louisiana based non-profit that commits to connecting consumers to Black farmers. The coffee company, which roasts its beans in the U.S. was part of a group of growers who supplied their food-items for the Index’s food gift box called, Vittles. “We grew up on the legacy of Jackie Robinson,” said Amara Brown, the treasurer and communication strategist of Black Farmers Index. “When we found out that Mr. Robinson’s son lived in Africa and worked with farmers, and had his own farm, we were awestruck. Then we saw he sold coffee, so we knew we wanted to bring as much visibility to him.”

Brown, along with Ayanna Shivers are my sisters who have worked with me to grow Black Farmers Index because it originated as an Ark Republic media project. “The response of other people to learn that the Robinson’s were farmers was so positive. They felt like in some way they were giving back to a family who had given so much to so many causes that played a major role in uplifting Black people, but ultimately forwarded America.”

All jokes aside, the coffee is delicious. “This coffee is royalty,” said my father, Paul Shivers, when my parents received the food gift box. My father was a college athlete who was blacklisted in the 1970s after participating in protests at Southern A&M University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. David Robinson and my father are around the same age. They would have seen the similar controversial news broadcasts covering the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s. Perhaps, they chanted the same protest demands. Definitely, both grasped a profound Pan-African lens. As well, they share a love for coffee.

My father, a java aficionado who brews a pot of octane every morning, drinks a cup of Sweet Unity’s medium roast with awe of its depth of flavor, and the history of the complex advocacy behind it. About 450,000 farming families harvest coffee in Tanzania, a country ranked tenth in Africa’s economy. While they are in the top, coffee harvesting is a “means of survival” explains David.

Although, David is adamant about separating his father’s work from his coffee business, the core of his model points back to the stand for collective progress that his father and mother dedicated their careers to see. Even if it comes in a Cup o’ Joe, it is still hot, Black and strong.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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