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Zimbabwe's first cigar manufacturing company begins production


<p>A Zimbabwean entrepreneur in Africa’s top tobacco producer has launched the first local brand of hand-rolled cigars, defying coronavirus and economic odds to light up manufacturing. </p> <p>The southern African nation produced more than 252 million kilogrammes of tobacco last year, making it the sixth largest producer in the world. </p> <p>Nearly all of it is the “golden-leaf” Virginia used for cigarettes and most of that is exported to China, Germany and other international markets.</p> <p>Upon returning last year to his homeland after 15 years working in the United States, Shep Mafundikwa was determined to start a business that would “benefit” Zimbabwe.</p> <p>“Though I am not a smoker, I noticed a preponderance of cigar lounges across the United States and decided I’d try to corner some of that market,” said Mafundikwa, 54, who worked for an American airline. </p> <p>He started with trips to Cuba and the Dominican Republic, both premium cigar producers, where he recruited Dominican cigar-rolling maestro Elias Lopez.</p> <p>The pair selected air-cured Burley tobacco, a darker variety that accounts for a small percentage of local production. </p> <p>In May, Mafundikwa launched Mosi Oa Tunya Cigars — the local Lozi name for the Victoria Falls, which translates to “the smoke that thunders”.</p> <p><strong>Against all odds</strong> </p> <p>“It was like building a house from scratch,” Mafundikwa recalled. “Though I had settled on hand-rolled cigars there was still equipment needed.” </p> <p>One of the first setbacks was the brittle nature of Zimbabwe’s tobacco, which forced Mafundikwa to import special wrappers. </p> <p>When the coronavirus hit Zimbabwe in March, progress was delayed for weeks by a country-wide lockdown. </p> <p>Mosi Oa Tunya eventually opened in May and Lopez has since been teaching seven Zimbabwean women the craft of rolling cigars.</p> <p>“They are rolling about half of the more than 200 cigars a day they should roll when they have the experience,” said Lopez, whose eventual target is 2,000 cigars per day.</p> <p>Mafundikwa deliberately recruited an all-female rolling team to “empower women” and “provide them with an income”.</p> <p>Zimbabwe’s economy has been crippled by years of mismanagement and corruption under the late ex-president Robert Mugabe that forced millions to leave the country.</p> <p>Galloping inflation has wiped out savings and caused most companies to collapse or relocate.</p> <p>Manufacturing is limited and more than 80 percent of Zimbabweans are out of work. </p> <p>“I was unemployed but can now support my family,” said cigar roller Gamuchirai Chibaya. “We all see a future here.”</p> <p><strong>‘Ready’ for export</strong></p> <p>Mosi Oa Tunya cigars come in different sizes, prices and flavours that send wafts of cherry and vanilla across the factory.</p> <p>Mafundikwa said he was targeting both seasoned and novice smokers.</p> <p>“The idea (of smaller size) is to provide an option for those who cannot afford to buy the cigars,” he added.</p> <p>Restaurant-owner Peter Mubi is a member of Zimbabwe’s small community of cigar aficionados. </p> <p>He was enthusiastic about Mosi Oa Tunya and said he plans to stock the brand once his restaurant — shuttered by coronavirus — reopens.</p> <p>“Refined taste and aroma without being too strong,” Mubi exclaimed, pointing to the finger of ash clumped beyond the cigar’s burning tip — a sign of “good quality”.</p> <p>Gun shop owner Preemesh Mohan Doolabh considers Zimbabwean cigars to be of similar quality to Cuban brands.</p> <p>“If you blindfolded me and made me smoke both, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” he said. </p> <p>As the brand seems to have passed muster at home, Mafundikwa is eyeing new markets abroad, where he will go up against the Cuban and Dominican brands that inspired him. </p> <p>Mosi Oa Tunya also has African brands to compete against: Morocco’s Habanos, which is seeking to expand to the US, and another new southern African manufacturer — Mozambique’s Bongani luxury cigars.</p> <p><strong><span class="caps">AFP</span></strong></p>
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