Coffee with a Legacy of Self-Empowerment
David Robinson came to the offices of the International African Arts Festival this past Sunday, invited in partnership with the National Association of Kawaido Organizations (NAKO), and spoke about the creation of his Tanzanian coffee farm, the Sweet Unity Farms cooperative of four hundred small family farms he is part of, and expanding to trade with the “African-American tribe” of the Diaspora.
They produce 100% Tanzanian Gourmet Coffee. This is coffee you’re proud to drink. Below are some of his remarks.
We went to Africa in the ’70s, and again to relocate in the ’80s, trying to create some optional directions. Investigate different potentials for the development of our African-American tribe and our ability to impact the African race which our tribe is part of.
Our years of enslavement and struggle here have put us in a strong position to be able to impact our race’s development; and yet based on those experiences we have come to be a much more domestic people in terms of the confines of America as opposed to being global. Right now, and for the last many, many years, colonialism in the 1800’s was just another form of globalization. But everybody, crossing the deserts and the badlands coming from South America, Central America, into North America, those were individuals. The Chinese were sponsoring corporations and individuals all around the world. American companies, European companies, are all throughout Africa. Everybody, whether it’s an individual, a small-scale company or a corporation–large multinational corporations are dealing on a global economy in order to survive.
I have believed for the last 30 years, and it’s been part of the reason that I’ve gone to Africa, that the African-American as a tribe cannot afford to hope to stay here and survive and develop. We will not impact our race and play a role that we can play as a group that has been exposed to Western dynamics in education and economics to help save and develop our race.
So, I’ve been blessed to be in Tanzania, made the transition from 1982 to 1984 – very grateful to have started a farm in 1990. Met my dear wife in 1990 as well. We have a little over 250 acres of land as our family’s farm, by 1996 we started a cooperative which grew into several hundred small-scale family-owned farms and neighbors. I think I mentioned the figure of over 1000 acres under cultivation in coffee as a cooperative. There are 400,000 small-scale families growing coffee in Tanzania. Annually, the nation produces 100,000,000 pounds of coffee. Kenya, Ethiopia and Cameroon produce but that’s just Tanzania’s figure.
So, we are on a wealthy continent with a crop called coffee which originated from that continent. We have taken it to the level of not just farming a commodity and selling that commodity, either at the village level or the national level as a raw product. We ship our coffee to the United States in a 40,000-lb. container and then we roast coffee in New Jersey and sell it under the name of our farm, Sweet Unity Farms Coffee. I’ve been with Segun (Segun Shabaka) before and we’ve sold the coffee here. I just got in a week ago and did not organize coffee to be sold for this meeting but there’s ways on the web that you can find it and that’s a discussion.
But we’ve taken the wealth; the raw product of coffee is not much more than 10% of the cost of the coffee in the supermarket. So, when you’re selling at the village level, you are really not engaging in the profitable component.
With just the labor component, we get enough money for the grist and the fatback and the greens, to go back and farm; but not to develop our schools, our families, our housing, our medical facilities, and that will be the order of the day. And over the 40 years that we’ve been in analyzing and working in the struggle and when we hear people say, “War is the nature of humanity”, we say that may be true but there are different kinds of war. Certainly, economic conflict, competition, taking advantage of opportunities, developing your raw products into finished products. Being sophisticated enough to negotiate in the global economy. That isn’t violent warfare and it seems like fair game and we aren’t playing it.
We’ve reasons for it but that’s not going to guarantee our survival and we were here in Harlem in the ’70s under the name of United Harlem Growth. We were buying brownstones back then for $500 apiece and you know to this day I will not condemn any Jew, Greek, Asian who is in our community today because brother, from 1960 to 1980, we had 20 years of opportunity and we were unfortunately going in the wrong direction. We were leaving Harlem and going to Queens, we were going to Jersey. Those who had to put a few dollars into education were trying to get out.
So, we’ve gone to Africa to build our global resources. The land, the knowledge, how to grow the coffee and then come back and deal with the American market. So, I’m very proud and pleased that our cooperative involved in that and that is led by our family. You didn’t see – you saw some of the younger end of our family. We have 7 children here in America total and 3 left at home, but one of the children you saw is the last in this film. Young man just came over this year so we’re coming over here and getting education. We will see – those of us who go back, but one of our children who you didn’t see in that film now works for Gregory Coffee. Gregory is one of the chains here in America. She’s learning the coffee business on that end and then she comes in on her spare time. She’s also going to the university and then she also comes into the office of our coffee company and volunteers to help out on the paper work of our own coffee company. So, it’s definitely – I’m not supereducated by a long degree. As my sister said I went to Stanford University for one year and all that was protest. So, I didn’t go to class.
What we did in Harlem we did because we were people who needed housing. We were the – we had the heart but we could not pull together the brains, the educated of our tribe, the moneyed of our tribe to back it, we were raggedy, dirty and tough, and that separated us. I know people today who see I cleaned up my language and my beard is combed. But I know people, African-Americans, who wouldn’t relate to me in the 60’s and 70’s because of the cultural, verbal, dress, appearance and that this unity screwed all those brownstones. Those few of us got it but all the other housing… When I went to Africa we returned 15 brownstones to the city of New York because we could not find brothers and sisters to join in with our form of operation. Lost opportunity is happening every day, week, decade. It’s happening now in North America and globally.
We are fortunate to have what we have in the land that we have in Tanzania today, but my wife has been buying property around Dar es Salaam for the last 5-7 years. What she bought 5 years ago we couldn’t afford to buy today. So, even land costs in Africa are going up and opportunity lost. When I went to Africa, the first time I landed in Dar es Salaam I got to the hotel room and counted out my little $275 on the hotel bed and that was my start-up capital. Today, I encourage people to think $50,000 as your start-up. You don’t need that money the day you land but certainly in the first 12 months to set something up, you’re talking about that level of investment.
So, we’ve had 30 great years, we’ve tried to show that it can easily be done. Like I said, a brother without a college degree and a couple of hundred dollars in capital for his trip, be struggling and juggling and bringing in money always. Over the continent, you will be known as being a non-Swahili speaker. So, you’ll be known that you’re not from Tanzania and the next thing people say is where are you from Zambia? Uganda? South Africa? Once they find you’re from America, people call me Americani. You don’t get upset with these little titles. They call us a lot worse here. We have to know who we are, and we know where home is and that’s how we deal.
So, what we’ve come today to announce, discuss, plant the seed of an idea is we – our family has allocated 756 acres of land and we are in the process of designing a project where in 3 African-American individuals or families come and reside on housing that we will build on that land and manage a model and demonstration farm, growing a variety of agricultural crops. Then processing those crops at the village level into finished product. So instead of selling corn in the kernel, we will take the dried kernel, process it into flour and sell it by the 5 kilo, 10 kilo, 50-kilo bag both in Tanzania and outside. 40% of our vegetables, tomatoes rot after harvest because we can’t get them to market quick enough. We don’t process them. And now with jarring, which my grandmother did, she had a whole wall full of jarred vegetables, to sundrying, to the making of tomato sauce and spiced sauces, is what we will do with the vegetables.
We will be planting, harvesting, processing, marketing and selling the finished products. Not just of that 75 acres but all of our co-op families. Several hundred families who have extra corn or other crops. Once we find a crop that works then we can begin. Those people who plant a quarter-acre of tomatoes now, if there’s a market in the village they can easily go 4 times that to an acre, 8 times that to 2 acres, because we have created a processing mechanism to make it more profitable and to avoid spoilage.
We have begun to outline this initiative on paper. This is the first time I’m back in the United States to speak on it and I’m really here to sell coffee and see family but our relationship with Segun goes back deep and this is a great group of family to discuss with initially to get some feedback.
The Sweet Unity Farms coffee will be available at the IAAF office in Restoration Plaza in 1-2 weeks. Call 718-638-6700 for more information.