Jackie's son impacting lives in Tanzania

David Robinson forging own path in coffee, community development

David Robinson's voice comes through the cellular phone clearly, almost as if where he sits, at home in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, is right next door to America.

"It's technology," says the son of Jackie Robinson. "It's bringing the globe together more and more."

Robinson, 61, is enjoying life in the coastal city in East Africa where he has lived for 30 years. But soon he will return to his other home, reachable by a 12-hour bus ride plus a hired motorcycle taxi on dirt roads.

It's there, at Sweet Unity Farms, in Bara Village in the Mbozi District of the Mbeya Region, where Robinson oversees a coffee-growing operation that supplies gourmet java to North America. Harvest season begins in late June, but right now, there's construction to oversee.

Robinson's latest project, other than running Sweet Unity, is the building of the Bara Village Multimedia Education, Training and Entertainment Center.

Upon completion in August, the facility will be by day an educational center for over 2,000 primary and secondary school students and a training center for farmers, women's groups and youth organizations. At night and on weekends, a 150-seat theater will show feature entertainment films from Africa and America and cartoons for kids.

The venture was launched through the Higher Ground Development Corporation, for which Robinson serves as managing director, plus the Tanzanian coffee farmers cooperative, Mshikamano Farmers Group and the American coffee marketing corporation, Up-Country International Products. The financing is from the sale of Sweet Unity Farms coffee, which is sourced from small-scale, family-owned Tanzanian farms that are organized as cooperatives.

The coffee farm sits near a village that has no electricity, running water or television, so the theater will be powered by 1,600 watts of solar energy imported into Tanzania from the United States.

Robinson has been assisting the local generations of coffee farmers for decades through involvement with Sweet Unity, and it's no surprise given his upbringing as the youngest child of the man who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947.

"Growing up in the 1960s in the household of Jack and Rachel Robinson, it directed us toward human development," Robinson said. "African-Americans have lived in a world where they are not always given equal access to opportunities to prosper, so there has always been a calling to do something that impacted the human situation."

Robinson found that calling upon his first visit to Africa at the age of 15, and it continues today. He is married to a Tanzanian woman, Ruti Mpunda, and they have 10 children.

In Bara Village, the walls are going up and the roof is being finished on the center. When it is complete, it will feature a film projector that was donated by Major League Baseball with the help of MLB Network executive Mark Haden and broadcaster Bob Costas, who had done a feature on Robinson years earlier. The projector will beam forward a new view of life for a rural village community of more than 4,000.

Ideas will be planted inside like those valuable Arabica beans in the nearby fields. Women's groups, farmer cooperatives and village organizations will learn things they need to know for future involvement, as Robinson puts it, in "the global economy."

"I believe that many producers of coffee, be it in Africa or elsewhere, are isolated from the global business table," Robinson said. "Coffee farmers are marginalized because they're not at that table. They're not getting fair return for their work, and it continues poverty and ignorance and undereducation.

"We need to put down our hoes for a time and learn business -- accounting, bookkeeping, management. We've got to educate and focus and prepare ourselves from primary schools on. We want to see doctors and scientists emerging from this area. Building communities, sharing in income, developing and capitalizing on global partnerships."

Robinson said the facility, which will have a paid staff of seven, is being constructed with dollars from the sale of Sweet Unity Farms coffee and other aspects of the coffee operations, but he hopes to get major industries "like soft drink companies, beer companies and the mobile phone companies" to support the educational programs.

A small theater in a small village in a hidden rural pocket of a huge nation on a huge continent might not seem like a big deal, but it is.

"This undertaking is a first, important demonstration project serving a few thousand people in a nation of 46 million," said Grace Mvule from the Tanzanian Ministry of Education. "We have a long road ahead to raise the educational standards for the entire nation."

Robinson, whose father became an executive for the Chock Full O' Nuts coffee company and restaurant chain after retiring in 1957, happened to land in a place where the coffee beans blossom into some of the richest and most flavorful in the world, and, like his father with the game of baseball, he has used the power of that commodity to change lives around him.

"Coffee is a wonderful beverage," Robinson said. "It's the drink that wakes me up. It's a taste you acquire and enjoy and it helps sharpen your focus."

And now it's helping build an educational center that local farmers, such as the headmaster of the new school, say they never thought they'd witness in their lifetimes.

But it's not over. It's just beginning, always beginning, always evolving, for the son of Jackie and Rachel Robinson.

"We have another decade and beyond to see the full impact of educational development on rural citizens and production operations," Robinson said. "We are still gathering digital, E-learning materials, still have to refine the teaching process and still have to support our children as they absorb knowledge using these new learning tools.

"This is how our work benefits us as citizens of Africa and citizens of the globe on the economic level. Our problems and our solutions are global."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.