Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - New Zimbabwe cigars: ‘Smoke that thunders’



New Zimbabwe cigars: ‘Smoke that thunders’

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Elias Lopez, a cigar-making maestro from the Dominican Republic, was instrumental in the founding of Mosi Oa Tunya Cigars. AFP

New Zimbabwe cigars: ‘Smoke that thunders’

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 China, Germany and other 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 local Lozi name for the Victoria Falls, which translates to “the smoke that thunders”.

Against all odds

“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.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A woman rolls and cuts tobacco leaves at Zimbabwe’s first cigar manufacturing plant. AFP

Mafundikwa deliberately recruited an all-female rolling team to “empower women” and “provide them with an income”.

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.

Galloping inflation has wiped out savings and caused most companies to collapse or relocate.

Manufacturing is limited and more than 80 per cent of Zimbabweans are out of work.

“I was unemployed but can now support my family,” said cigar roller Gamuchirai Chibaya. “We all see a future here.”

‘Ready’ for export

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.

MOST VIEWED

  • NY sisters inspired by Khmer heritage

    Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Cambodian-American sisters Edo and Eyen Chorm have always felt a deep affinity for their Cambodian heritage and roots. When the pair launched their own EdoEyen namesake jewellery brand in June, 2020, they leaned heavily into designs inspired by ancient Khmer

  • Omicron patients can stay home: PM

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has given the green light for anyone who contracts the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron mutation or any other variant to convalesce or receive treatment at home or in any other reasonable non-healthcare setting. The new decision supersedes a restriction on home care for

  • Cambodia records first Omicron community case

    The Ministry of Health on January 9 reported 30 new Covid-19 cases, 29 of which were imported and all were confirmed to be the Omicron variant. The ministry also reported 11 recoveries and no new deaths. Earlier on January 9, the ministry also announced that it had detected the Kingdom's

  • The effects of the USD interest rate hike on Cambodian economy

    Experts weigh in on the effect of a potential interest rate expansion by the US Federal Reserve on a highly dollarised Cambodia Anticipation of the US Federal Reserve’s interest rate hike in March is putting developing economies on edge, a recent blog post by

  • Cambodia’s first ever anime festival kicks off Jan 22 at capital’s F3 centre

    Phnom Penh's first ever Anime Festival will bring together fans, artists, shops and other local businesses with ties to the Japanese animation style for cosplay competitions, online games, pop-up shops and more on January 22, with Friends Futures Factory (F3) hosting. F3 is a project that

  • PM eyes Myanmar peace troika

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has suggested that ASEAN member states establish a tripartite committee or diplomatic troika consisting of representatives from Cambodia, Brunei and Indonesia that would be tasked with mediating a ceasefire in Myanmar. The premier also requested that Nippon Foundation chairman Yohei Sasakawa