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C'est L'Afrique: Cameroon Wrapper Leaf

Tobacco Scion Rick Meerapfel and Associates Are Raising Quality Wrapper in central Africa
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

The silence of the warm and wet African afternoon is broken by the sounds of monkeys anxiously screeching as a we climb a bush-covered knoll hundreds of miles from what most people consider civilization. Green wood pigeons cautiously coo as they fly from tree to tree in the dense rain forest just a few hundred yards away. As far as the eye can see, the rich green of trees and bushes contrasts with the cobalt-blue sky filled with silver and gun-metal gray clouds.

"C'est l'Afrique," says Etienne Yandji, 37, a tall and handsome African wearing blue jeans and a blue-and-green striped golf shirt, as we gaze in awe at the sheer beauty of the panoramic view of the countryside. "This is Africa." We are on the outskirts of a place called Tapourou, about 12 miles south of the town of Berberati on the border of Cameroon and the Central African Republic. This year, Yandji and hundreds of co-workers have transformed what was once virgin brush into prime cigar tobacco. Most of the crop has been cured and selected in large drying barns made of bamboo poles and leaves. Nearly 600 people had moved to Tapourou to work the tobacco. They had built a small village of dozens of mud huts and other makeshift buildings within a few days of arriving.

Central Africans use the phrase "C'est l'Afrique" to explain anything from poor weather to a coup d'etat, but it still seems the best way to describe the magnificent view of the rain forest and tobacco plants. The rich aroma and flavor of the Arturo Fuente Don Carlos cigar in my hand enhances those feelings--I am actually tasting Africa as well as seeing, hearing, touching and smelling it, since the cigar's wrapper had originated here.

Rick Meerapfel, 46, a slim, salt-and-pepper bearded American with chrome-rimmed eyeglasses, takes a drag off his Don Carlos and says, "This is ugly compared to what was here a few months ago, before the plants were harvested. Everything was planted in perfect rows going right down to the borders of the forest. It was absolutely beautiful. This is the future. This is the beginnings of great tobacco from Central Africa."

Yandji and Meerapfel are two of the key figures behind CETAC S.A., Compagnie d'Exploitation des Tabacs Centrafricains. A privately held company, it grows, contracts and processes tobacco in Central Africa, both in the Central African Republic and Cameroon. When cigar lovers around the world light up a Don Carlos from Arturo Fuente or a Partagas from General Cigar, they are savoring the labors of CETAC. Known in the cigar trade as Cameroon wrapper, but more accurately called Central African, the tobacco is some of the finest and richest this side of Cuba's legendary Vuelta Abajo. The trend in the premium cigar market, especially in the United States, has been moving towards darker cigars, not black or maduro colored but opulent or rich brown--what Cubans call colorado. Although Connecticut, Ecuador, Indonesia and even the Dominican Republic have their advocates for wrapper tobacco, most tobacco men agree that Central Africa produces the best dark brown wrapper outside of Cuba. In fact, Central African wrapper was the backbone for many popular machine-made cigar brands in the United States during the 1970s, including Garcia y Vega, Anthony y Cleopatra, Medalist and Cuesta-Rey.

The biggest problem over the past 10 years has been obtaining good quality wrapper tobacco from Central Africa, a region stretching from Baturi, the eastern section of Cameroon, east across the continent's mid-section to the western section of the Central African Republic. Some cigar manufacturers, such as Consolidated Cigars, which produces the non-Cuban H. Upmann, began using Indonesian wrapper tobacco when it couldn't get what it needed from Africa. Even now, Arturo Fuente, General Cigar and León Jimenez are the only companies that are using African wrapper in premium hand-rolled cigars and, until recently, they couldn't get sufficient quantities. "The supply is still not enough," says Carlos Fuente Jr., president of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., in the Dominican Republic. "But the quality since the Meerapfels took over the operation is as good if not better than what we used to get. We have all the confidence in the world in the Meerapfels. If anybody is going to succeed, it will be them. They have big hearts and it's all in tobacco."

Until CETAC established itself, just about everything possible had gone wrong for Central African tobacco, from poor harvests in Cameroon to civil unrest in the Central African Republic, not to mention poison politics and shady business dealings on both sides of the border. This is one of the most unstable parts of Africa, countries that Western governments advise people to visit only if necessary. A week doesn't go by without mention in the international press of numerous deaths by bullet, machete or disease in these and neighboring countries such as Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). The Central African Republic, particularly in Bangui, its capital, continues to have intermittent fighting between the local army and French military forces based there. Early last summer, hundreds were killed in battles in Bangui.

"That's not our problem," says Meerapfel, who acknowledges the dangers but believes they are overstated. "We are here for the tobacco and to run a serious business. Politics and other things do not concern us." The straight-talking tobacco man is somewhat of a legend in Central Africa. Not only has he brought back a great tobacco from the brink of extinction, but he has helped Central Africa establish one of its first Western-style privately held companies in the region. Says one Central African businessman in Yaounde, Cameroon's capital, "Until CETAC was created, business and politics were all the same. Central African politicians controlled the busi-nesses and the French controlled the politicians."

Meerapfel created CETAC with local businessmen and almost completely without government involvement. The president of the Central African Republic was behind the idea of a private company establishing itself on its own, and by the time other government officials realized that they missed an opportunity to get their hands into the fledgling tobacco company (something Meerapfel probably would not have allowed anyway), it was too late. Even moves by some sectors of the Central African Republic government to hinder CETAC's development through legal and illegal methods were unsuccessful. One story has it that when an official asked during a meeting with CETAC when his new Mercedes would be delivered to him for business concessions, he was told, "Never." Meerapfel allegedly told another politician to send in his résumé to CETAC if he thought he was qualified for a position with the company, but he wouldn't automatically be given a job based on some sort of spoils system.

"We have the backing of the local people of the region," explains Emile Nokombo, 37, managing director of CETAC, a well-educated and elegant Central African who gave up a prestigious job with a leading international bank to head the company. Nokombo, along with most of the people working for CETAC, are shareholders in the company, a concept previously unheard of in Central Africa. "For the first time, a local private company has been set up with a foreign company and the head people running the company are black and from here," Nokombo says. "Lots of people now want to know what we are doing and how we did it. But it has really been a question of people, an American and a group of Africans trying to achieve something good for themselves and the country. We have great admiration for one another, and we wanted to do something that helped the people here."

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