Tanzanian Coffee Producer, Fair Trade Advocate, Has U.S. Roots and Pedigree

14 July 2005
interview

Washington, DC — Promotion of "fair trade" has become an increasingly important strategy of the campaign to alleviate global poverty. While consumers in developed countries have become more aware of producer realities, enterprises in developing countries are rewriting old rules of business, fusing growing world demand for coffee with the quest for a livable wage.

David Robinson is the co-founder and a member of the Mshikamano Farmers Group, an independent coffee-growing cooperative in Bara Village, Tanzania. The group has been growing coffee since 1995 and has nearly doubled the income farmers receive when selling their coffee. David Robinson is also the son of pioneering baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who was the first African-American to break the color barrier in major league baseball.

AllAfrica's Tali Trigg spoke with David Robinson at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., where his label, Sweet Unity Farms Gourmet Coffee, had its products and methods on display. Robinson outlined the challenges and promises of the cooperative model and the difficulties of exporting from Africa to America.

Tell us about your road from America to Tanzania?

I was fortunate enough to go to Tanzania in 1967 in the company of my mother [and] traveled to Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana. I saw Africa at a young age and was impressed with the beauty and also the wealth of the culture. I went back at nineteen as an independent traveler and went through ten African countries. Tanzania was tremendously politically progressive under the presidency of Julius Nyerere. A beautiful country, wealthy in natural resources, on the Indian Ocean, and [it] offered a person the potential to start up and engage in endeavors with a reasonable economic start-up. Tanzania was my country of choice, and I was fortunate in 1984 to begin to reside there permanently.

Coffee is the second most valuable commodity in the world after oil. What is your take on the current world coffee market, and where does Tanzania - and Bara Village - fit into it?

Everyone in Bara Village is a coffee farmer - second- and third-generation coffee farmers. We have created no wealth for our village as participants in the trade, only as laborers and selling from a village basis as opposed to participating in the chain. Coffee is a multi-billion dollar industry, but unless farmers begin to participate in that marketing chain, we will always remain poor. That is what Mshikamano Farmers Group is about.

We are a cooperative, started 10 years ago with 47 members. We are over 300 members today. Our focus is to engage ourselves in the business of selling our product as direct marketers to American roasters and importers and hence generate enough funds for development of our community.

This is July now; it is the selling season in Tanzania. Right now, individual farmers, non-cooperative members are selling for between 27 cents and 31 cents per pound. Our cooperative will be able to deliver between 53-55 cents per pound. As finished product, we sell an additional 15 cents per pound. So we're doubling what a farmer can get.

Now farmers are selling to the multi-nationals and domestic traders based on a need for cash. Those buyers come in and make immediate cash payments. The cooperative pays thirty, sixty, even ninety days later, so we have to plan our economies and that is extremely difficult for someone who only has one cash crop a year. We tell our members that if you have to sell coffee, sell your lower grade coffee to the multi-nationals and hold your best coffee for the cooperative and that's what everybody does - sometimes, in some years. I myself have sold a small portion - five to 10 percent - of our crop to deal with cash needs.

For those unfamiliar with cooperatives, what is unique about the methods of production and its relation to the environment?

A coop is a voluntary association generally [made up] of neighbors coming together in some form of economic and social activity. In our case, we are all coffee farmers. We all own our land and our farms. Our average member has three acres of coffee, four acres in a food crop. [We] come together at a processing stage and a marketing stage to function as an economic unit, where there is an equal distribution of proceeds for all members.

Coops offer an opportunity for farmers to create an organizational and quantitative product, but once you're organized and functioning as an organization, you can begin to deal with other social issues in the community. For example, we have a solar energy project now. We are distributing solar panels to our members. The larger panels can be purchased on credit. It's a natural spin-off. We are not on the electrical grid, and solar energy is a wonderful way to allow a quality-of-life improvement at a cost a farmer can choose, anywhere from a five-watt system to a 50-watt system.

Fair trade is a wonderful movement that we credit with raising social consciousness of consumers across the world in terms of some of the inequities in agricultural trade and production. We support the concept, and we function much in the same philosophical mode.

We are not members or certified as fair trade. We are certified as direct trade by the Tanzanian Coffee Board. When it comes to the mechanics of actually functioning in the coffee marketplace, fair trade requires that sales be done at a $1.26 per pound level, and an additional payment paid by the roaster or importer of green beans to the fair trade organization. We found that to be too restrictive in terms of market realities. We had three and a half years from 2000-2004 when the price of coffee was below 80 cents a pound, and in market realities such as that, importers and roasters will buy a tiny token of coffee as fair trade to say, yes we have it, but 99 percent of their coffee will be bought based on market realities.

So as a direct trade organization we have the same philosophy and actual equal distribution of funds to our membership. We have a democratically elected 13-member executive committee, but we also have the flexibility of not being bound into a price structure, and we're able to negotiate with market realities in mind and therefore sell the totality of our coffee crop at the very best price possible.

Coffee likes shade, birds like shade, the soil likes shade. So we are to a very large extent, all shade grown. Normally you will clear a farm of trees because some species of trees are not viable to grow with coffee - they will suck up nutrients or moisture from the soil. There is a special grade of tree that grows rapidly, that has a broad canopy [which is why] we plant those, and that becomes shading for the coffee bean. It helps to retain moisture in the soil and also becomes habitat for birds and other wildlife. The leaves themselves, when they drop, assist in returning nitrogen to the soils.

In the last five years, fair trade, especially in coffee, has been getting a lot of attention. What do you mean by the "philosophy" of fair trade, which your cooperative follows? Also, you've called fair trade and direct trade the "second vote of consumers." Why are consumers important, and how do Tanzanian farmers relate to them?

As the group of producers on the losing end of the traditional trade system, African producers (and Africa in general) have always been advocates of fair trade. Julius Nyerere, former President of Tanzania, used to talk about the fact that when we buy tractors from the west, the price is determined by the west. When we sell coffee to the west, the price is also determined by the west. The inequity of voice in being able to determine the economic wealth of either your imports or your exports - that's something Africans have always been aware of.

The movement really started, I believe, in Holland and over the last 10 years has taken an international focus. They have done a tremendous job of raising consumer awareness. The cooperative movement, whether direct trade or fair trade, will not be able to survive without consumer involvement. Stores are very susceptible to consumer requests, but they are also very comfortable with the existing system. The existing system generates a great deal of money for the corporate intermediary - not the producer - and that corporate intermediary is able to be a sponsor and to make large contributions in the supermarket industry. It's very difficult for the small [producer] to get on the shelf, because supermarket space is like real estate - the big players can pay the big rents.

The fair trade movement has been responsible for giving consumers awareness, knowledge, and, now, a voice, and with that knowledge consumers are realizing that their dollars can go either way. They can support systems that are totally unfriendly to human development [and] exploitative of men, women, and children. Or their consumer dollars can go to creating systems of international economic harmony wherein people are progressing together. Political systems can only do so much. Consumers have an "ability" with their spending dollars.

What kind of economic climate is necessary to set something like this up? Have you received Tanzanian government support?

Cooperatives are traditional in Tanzania and, for a long time, had a monopoly on coffee collection from the farm to the international auctions held in Moshi, Tanzania, a town in central Tanzania. International trade liberalization sponsored by the IMF/World Bank had the greatest effect on that cooperative system.

In 1994, legislation was passed by the Tanzanian parliament allowing multinational and domestic buyers to buy from individual farmers in villages. The coops lost their monopoly. [They had] to a certain extent grown fat and inefficient having the monopoly, which is part of the reason why they lost it. The cash payment made by multinationals was really the greater factor. And that became a detriment to the cooperative movement. In some cases we went from a 100 percent control of the coffee in our villages to 10 percent control of the coffee in our villages.

The competition to one extent was good. It made us aware of our weaknesses. It made us sharpen our act, and you had the smaller, village-based cooperative societies spring up, because there's a lot more accountability amongst 47 neighbors, as we began, than you have with huge cooperatives representing thousands of people, with an administration that you really don't know. So the small cooperative grew up as a reaction to the trade liberalization that occurred first in 1994.

In 1999-2000, two studies were done by the World Bank and European Union, which found that trade liberalization did not improve farmers' income nor the quality of the coffee. The Tanzanian Coffee Board, which is responsible for trying to regulate the coffee industry in Tanzania, began to try to make adjustments in trade liberalization policies that would potentially result in the desired effect of increased producer prices and better quality. The steps that they took somewhat favored cooperatives. Now cooperatives are back in a position of trying to serve a larger degree of members in our community. Cooperatives probably serve 50 percent of the farmer's coffee marketing, either to auctions or direct sales out of the country.

We've been supported by our Tanzanian Coffee Board. Trade liberalization has had its negative impacts but [also] its positive impact, in that it has forced us to look smaller, be more efficient, be more service-oriented to our membership and really deliver the goods, since there's a competitive system involved. [We've been able] to show our members that we can deliver better prices consistently and to work with our membership to create a better quality coffee - which is always a great focus when you're trying to direct market to a very sophisticated and quality-conscious roaster and importer market like the U.S.A.

You asked about partners in development. We had for our first ten years no external financing. We are fortunate, after two years of discussion in February of 2005, to have closed our first five-year, no-interest external loan from the African Development Foundation. A good portion of that money is going not only to inputs to improve the quality of our coffee and in advance to deal with the cash flow issue for our farmers, but it also deals with training and capacity development for our administration to become better cooperative leaders, better managers, bookkeepers, and operators and marketers. So that is the first external financing that we have had.

I think the first 10 years of operation, working and 'gelling,' without external financing, may prove to have been good for us in the long run, because we have been able to move a long way on our own - and now these funds have come in, I think they'll be wisely used. But this partnership with African Development Foundation is working in Tanzania, [and] they are our sponsors here at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. So it's had an effect on the working relationship on two continents, in Tanzania and now here in the U.S.

Has the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) influenced your operations at all?

AGOA deals with finished products. We export raw green beans, and for freshness purposes they are roasted in the U.S. We were never affected by tariffs or taxes, and so AGOA doesn't really affect us. We're able to continue to import our green beans into the U.S. [where we roast them], so that we have a product that's immediately fresh for delivery to the consumer.

How have computers and the Internet been able to help you? I noticed that you have a website - sweetunityfarms.com - where customers can directly order their coffee.

I'm only two years [in], utilizing a computer myself, but it is a fantastic technology. We are in daily communication with American markets, and we can be the responsive partners required of business in the U.S. We can respond to inquiries. We can track shipments. We can respond to price points. In a communications sense, it's fantastic.

We neither have stores nor marketing teams, nor any other real administrative setup in the U.S., but the website has allowed us to reach people and let us build a certain network of clientele through word-of-mouth only and sales that could never have been made had it not been for that technology. Those two points alone make it a tool of development for us.

Specifically, how do you market to the U.S.? Do you think you have an advantage in the American market because of your connections here? Could your coop serve as a model for others?

Certainly, having been born in the U.S. and having relationships here is a benefit. The cooperative movement, again, is based on the fair trade movement and the opening of awareness has a lot of the importers and roasters sensitive to the issue. There is no reason cooperatives - regardless of their relationships to the U.S. - if they have the information technology abilities to outreach and the coffee quality, as operated by Mshikamano, cannot operate the cooperative model.

In fact, there are other cooperatives that are marketing more coffee in America than Mshikamano is. And so it is good that it is a 'duplicatable' model for other cooperatives to follow. We do have to show success, and we do have to build and grow, and then others will follow suit. And that's part of our mission: to be a model and to see others follow that example.

On a final note, what are your main influences and inspiration in starting and continuing to work with this cooperative?

I went to live in Tanzania 21 years ago with the concept of engaging in international activities. Coffee was Tanzania's leading foreign exchange earner. I think mining has taken over in the last five or six years. America is a large coffee-consuming country, so the blend of natural resources in Africa and consumption patterns in the U.S. and my desire to bring together the two components of where I was born and where I'm choosing to reside fit perfectly.

The concept of involving myself in international trade was to have peoples of African descent benefit to a greater extent from their natural resources and human resources and intelligence. Hence, we needed to take our coffee and labor outside of the village and market in the manner that we are doing to capture value-added. Thank the Lord, we are on the road on those two aspects, and, really, the greatest limitation in African development is human resources.

Individual farmers will always be just the laborers in a trade. We are wealthy in terms of natural resources but those natural resources will always be exploited for the benefit of others if we don't have the human catalysts - our producers - and gel an organization, build the organization and administrative capacity to become a real economic and business force to negotiate and work with the international markets.

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