Starbucks is sending an executive to Africa to open farm-support centers. He visited Latin America this winter to watch the harvest in progress and learn what is working there.

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ALAJUELA PROVINCE, Costa Rica — Like a man on a safari — multipocketed vest and all — Chris von Zastrow takes pictures from the SUV cutting through dirt roads at one of Rodrigo Vargas’ farms.

It’s December, and he’s visiting Guatemala and Costa Rica to learn about Starbucks’ operation. He’s been with the Seattle coffee-shop company for a month.

He is headed to Africa next to lead Starbucks’ newly created farm-support centers.

He tours Vargas’ operation with his Latin American counterpart, Peter Torrebiarte, two Starbucks agronomists and Vargas’ nephew, Edgardo.

Starbucks agronomists have collaborated with Vargas’ own experts on a number of issues since the company opened the Farm Support Center in 2004 near San José.

The team inspects efforts to combat a fungus that infects coffee plants and also to look at some experimental hybrid plants.

They pick leaves off plants and canvass the neat rows of trees used as a windbreak next to coffee fields.

Von Zastrow also asks how Costa Rican cooperatives are run. He will help farmers in Africa to organize better because when Starbucks buys from small farms, it usually goes through co-ops.

In January, Torrebiarte visited Africa to help launch operations there.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” von Zastrow says.

He’ll face another set of challenges in Africa: less-developed operations and social obstacles, especially in Rwanda and Ethiopia, where the wounds of war are still fresh.

Von Zastrow was born in Kenya, grew up in Tanzania and also lived in Uganda while working with the USAID-funded Regional Agricultural Trade Expansion Support (RATES) program.

“The efforts exhibited by the Starbucks agronomy team to partner with a producer who is looking for answers to challenges [is a relationship] one I would like to duplicate in Africa,” he says.