David Robinson: The Pioneering Spirit Continues; Jackie Robinson's Son Builds a Coffee Business in Africa with Links to Major League Baseball

Article excerpt

THERE'S something to be said for connections. In family, business and in life, the ties that bind are strengthened by a common experience, a history and cherished memories.

For David Robinson, 53, the only surviving son of the legendary baseball integrator Jackie Robinson, that tie--to baseball--is tightening. Hopefully, Robinson says, that tie to Major League Baseball (MLB) will lead to bigger and better things.

As one of the founders of Sweet Unity Farms, a cooperative of more than 300 small-scale coffee farmers in the Mbozi District in the Southern highlands of Mbeya, Tanzania, Robinson has worked for years to market their Arabica coffee beans to customers in the United States. The Sweet Unity Farms cooperative collectively grows just under 1 million pounds of coffee annually.

It's no secret that coffee, one of the richest and most consumed commodities in the world, results in little or no profit for coffee farmers. So it would take a new approach and new strategy to help farmers benefit from the fruits--or beans--of their labor.

When Robinson moved from the United States to a Tanzanian village, he says he was searching for an opportunity. In exchange for teaching him and his family (he and his Tanzanian wife of 15 years, Ruti, have six children, and he has four children from previous relationships; a son, Jack, died from malaria at age 6) the secrets of coffee farming, Robinson offered to come up with a better marketing strategy for the local coffee.

"I had never seen coffee until I went to the village where I'm a resident now and met with second-and third-generation coffee farmers," Robinson says from his home in Tanzania. "It's the creation of a finished coffee product and the value-added income that we can try to obtain that is the level of benefit that Africans and African-Americans need to be involved in with this crop that is indigenous to our continent."

While Sweet Unity has had some success with restaurants in New York and corporate clients such as the Cendant Corp., it's a relationship in its beginning stages that has so much promise. This year, Sweet Unity is expected to begin selling its product through Levy Restaurants in up to three Major League Baseball parks in America--U.S. Cellular Field, the home of the Chicago White Sox; Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks; and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Levy Restaurants is owned by Compass Group, the world's largest food service company with reported annual revenues of more than $21 billion.

It's a grand chance for Robinson and his partners--and one that he hopes will help secure the future of the company.

It's also very intentional on the part of Major League Baseball, which has a long history of successful diversity initiatives--with vendors and suppliers, particularly, says Wendy Lewis, vice president of strategic planning for recruitment and diversity for MLB. It's an "evolution of the diversity commitment" to target concessions and the supply chain, says Lewis, part of a diversity recruitment strategy to which Commissioner Bud Selig is highly committed. For Lewis, there's also the added significance of Sweet Unity belonging to so many African families and being able to participate in something that has an international significance. …