Sometime late next month a freighter from Israel will dock at Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania on the African coast of the Indian Ocean, and a shipment of large, perforated plastic pipes will be unloaded. David Robinson, a former New Yorker and current resident of Tanzania, will be at the Dar es Salaam port to make sure the pipes clear customs. And he will be in Dara, a mountainous area in western Tanzania near the Zambian border, when the pipes arrive by truck a few days later.
The pipes will be installed early next year in some Dara fields, introducing to a group of sustenance farmers the drip irrigation system developed by Israeli agricultural experts four decades ago.
The project is Robinson’s idea.
Robinson, 50, son of American baseball icon Jackie Robinson, has lived full time in Tanzania since 1984, working at first in the import-export business.
Now, “I’m a coffee farmer,” he says. He lives on a nearly 300-acre farm in Dara and is a founder of Sweet Unity Farms, a collective of 375 local farmers. The isolated region, a three-hour drive along unpaved roads from the nearest town, has no electricity. Water comes from wells and a small river about a mile away. Farmers conserve scarce water for their crops after the rainy season, November to April, ends.
“That is the circumstance of 70 percent of Africa,” Robinson says.
So he proposed that Sweet Unity Farms experiment with drip irrigation, which was developed by the Netafim agrotechnology business at Kibbutz Hatzerim. The system maximizes available water by controlling the amount that flows through the holes in the pipes, and it is credited with increasing Israel’s agricultural production.
“Israel’s involvement in advanced agriculture is something that is well known,” Robinson says during a recent business trip here.
Tall and thin, with a graying beard, he has the dignified bearing that made his late father, who broke major league baseball’s color line in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, an American hero.
David Robinson made his first contact with Netafim, and with researchers at the Weizmann Institute, through which he hopes to bring Israeli advances in solar heating to Tanzania, during a brief visit two years ago.
“I’ve had an interest since my mid-teens in the development of the State of Israel, in the development of the Zionist movement,” he says, sitting in the Midtown headquarters of The Jackie Robinson Foundation, which offers scholarships and mentoring to minority high school students across the United States.
Robinson says he admires the classical story of Israel making the desert bloom in an area that also has limited water supplies, and the centrality of the diaspora experience, which he likens to the story of Africans who were taken from their homelands to become slaves.
Robinson’s drip irrigation project will begin in a pair of one-acre garden plots, and in a five-acre coffee field. If successful, and he predicts drip irrigation will increase yield 15 to 40 percent, it may have continent-wide potential, he says.
“We are an agricultural continent. We are looking to create a model,” Robinson says.
Only 4 percent of the land is arable in Tanzania, a country roughly twice the size of California and one of the poorest in the world. “The need for appropriate, sustainable, renewable energy sources in tremendous,” Robinson says.
Robinson’s fellow farmers are enthusiastic working with Israel. There is no concern about political repercussions, or the growing movement to reinstitute the trade boycott of Israel.
“We’re a rural farming community,” Robinson says. “Our involvement in politics is very, very little.”
Robinson says his efforts to improve farmers’ lives follows in the barrier-breaking footsteps of his father. “My father’s name is synonymous with equality. My father’s medium was baseball. Our medium is coffee. But the objective is the same — equality. We are pleased that this is a continuum of my father’s life.”