HARARE – Dominican tobacconist Elias Lopez sits on a stool rolling cigars at Zimbabwe’s first factory.
“People who smoke cigars are classy people,” he tells EFE.
Lopez, who claims to have rolled smokes for the like of Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, settled in Harare three months ago to train staff at the Mosi-Oa-Tunya cigar factory.
Despite being the largest tobacco producer in Africa and a key export, cigars are a novelty in Zimbabwe.
Lopez, 52, looks at hundreds of freshly rolled cigars resting on a wooden table.
Some are long, others short. Some are carefully packed in boxes, others are meticulously wrapped in cellophane.
But they all sport the striking Mosi-Oa-Tunya branding, which in the Tonga language means “the smoke that thunders” and is also the indigenous name for Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe’s most famous natural site.
Each Mosi-Oa-Tunya cigar is bound by hand with great attention to detail. The fine outer layer leaves have been imported from Indonesia, the filler leaves are a blend of tobacco from Zimbabwe and Malawi and around each cigar, near the head, a band wraps the smoke in true Caribbean tradition.
Dressed in jeans, an FC Barcelona sweatshirt and a wool hat, Lopez carefully chooses a cigar and fires it up.
“I can take any from the pile and it’s going to burn in just the same way,” he says and shows EFE how a dense column of smoke and a stiff tower of ash form, the unmistakable sign of a cigar’s high quality.
“Cubans have a saying: if a cigar burns badly, that means bad luck. If it burns well, you’re going to have a good day,” he adds.
The Dominican is no stranger to sharing his knowledge and has traveled to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and other Central American nations before moving to Zimbabwe.
Lopez met Shep Mafundikwa, founder of the Mosi-Oa-Tunya cigars, in the Dominican Republic after the Zimbabwean had traveled to the Caribbean to learn how cigar factories operated.
Unlike Lopez, Mafundikwa, 54, is neither a smoker nor a cigar maker, but a former manager who worked for an airline in the United States for 15 years.
Like many of the hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans living abroad, he yearned to return home and his dream came true in 2019.
A conversation with a London friend, where he traveled to for a funeral, sparked the idea to open a tobacco factory.
“I saw an opportunity. I saw a niche market, which could be exploited,” he tells EFE.
Mafundikwa recruited seven unemployed women living in the suburb of Sunningdale, near the factory which produces about 1,000 cigars a day.
“I felt we needed to empower women, to give them a skill and a livelihood. Women are patient. They’re very good with their hands,” he says.
Zimbabwe is in the throes of its worst economic crisis in a decade. Inflation this month hit 785 percent. There are chronic shortages of fuel as well as foreign currency needed to import raw materials.
The lockdown imposed three months ago to stem the spread of coronavirus has also disrupted the company’s plans.
“We came back with Elias from the Dominican Republic. It was all systems go. We were all excited and started training in March and then: Boom! The pandemic hit,” explains Mafundikwa.
Neighboring South Africa, the market Mosi-Oa-Tunya is targeting, imposed a ban on all tobacco products as part of containment measures put in place in late March.
Restrictions on international air travel have prevented the necessary tobacco packaging materials from arriving from China.
In this hostile context, Mafundikwa and Lopez are focusing on employee training and production, accumulating stock and wrapping cigars in cellophane to keep them fresh in preparation for when trade reboots.
Mafundikwa has been greatly encouraged by the growing international interest in his cigars from far-flung places like the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
“We’ve got a unique African cigar coming out of Africa, and we’re confident about the quality of the cigar. We know we will have a market out there,” the businessman says, brimming with optimism.
If the company has hit temporary headwinds, Lopez seems to be taking things in his stride.
He seems content at the Harare factory, sharing skills he has acquired over the last 34 years surrounded by home comforts: tobacco leaves, enthusiastic artisans in training, and the Dominican flag draped on the factory wall next to one from Zimbabwe.
Taking another puff of his cigar, and then a sip of the Zimbabwean coffee he says he has grown to love, Lopez says he’ll stay in the country for “as long as it takes.”
“Our goal is to establish this company. I will not leave before everything is settled and stable,” he concludes.