By Oliver Matthews
Harare, Jun 24 (efe-epa).- Dominican tobacconist Elías López sits on a stool rolling cigars at Zimbabwe’s first factory.
“People who smoke cigars are classy people,” he tells Efe.
López, 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.
López, 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, López 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.
López 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 López, 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.