Harare - 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.
The Southern African nation produced more than 252 million kg of tobacco last year, making it the sixth largest producer in the world.
Nearly all of it is the "golden-leaf" Virginia used for cigarettes and most of that is exported to international markets.
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.
"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.
He started with trips to Cuba and the Dominican Republic, both premium cigar producers, where he recruited Dominican cigar-rolling maestro Elias Lopez.
The pair selected air-cured Burley tobacco, a darker variety that accounts for a small percentage of local production.
In May, Mafundikwa launched Mosi Oa Tunya Cigars - the Tonga name for Victoria Falls, which translates to "the smoke that thunders".
"It was like building a house from scratch," Mafundikwa recalled. "Though I had settled on hand-rolled cigars there was still equipment needed."
One of the first setbacks was the brittle nature of Zimbabwe's tobacco, which forced Mafundikwa to import special wrappers.
When the coronavirus hit Zimbabwe in March, progress was delayed for weeks by a country-wide lockdown.
Mosi Oa Tunya eventually opened in May and Lopez has since been teaching seven Zimbabwean women the craft of rolling cigars.
"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.
Mafundikwa deliberately recruited an all-female rolling team to "empower women" and "provide them with an income".
Mosi Oa Tunya cigars come in different sizes, prices and flavours that send wafts of cherry and vanilla across the factory.
Mafundikwa said he was targeting both seasoned and novice smokers.
"The idea (of smaller size) is to provide an option for those who cannot afford to buy the cigars," he added.
Restaurant-owner Peter Mubi is a member of Zimbabwe's small community of cigar aficionados.
He was enthusiastic about Mosi Oa Tunya and said he plans to stock the brand once his restaurant - shuttered by coronavirus - reopens.
"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".
Gun shop owner Preemesh Mohan Doolabh considers Zimbabwean cigars to be of similar quality to Cuban brands.
"If you blindfolded me and made me smoke both, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference," he said.
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.
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.
Mafundikwa is confident Mosi Oa Tunya is up to the challenge.
"It will be fantastic for Zimbabwe to start earning some foreign currency from value-added Burley tobacco," he said. – AFP