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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

(continued from page 1)

The Central Africans own 40 percent of CETAC and Meerapfel's Swiss-based tobacco company, M. Meerapfel Sohne, controls the rest. "We employ nearly 5,000 people in the region and feed close to 100,000 people due to the employment here," adds Nokombo. "We are very popular. We have the support from everyone living in this part of Central African Republic. We have the people behind us and nothing will stop us now."

The goodwill of CETAC is more than evident while visiting the region around the company's processing plant in Gamboula, Central African Republic. Everyone from soldier to local farmer seems to recognize the various turbo-charged Mitsubishi four-wheel-drive pickups the management uses for transportation. A large smile and enthusiastic wave is the usual greeting. Meerapfel seems to know just about every local policeman, military officer, government official and any other kind of local dignitary. When he is in town, they all come to visit. "We have to know these people," Meerapfel says. "We need them as much as they need us."

Perhaps the most striking illustration of CETAC's goodwill is the relationship between Meerapfel and the key management, who are all Africans. The team spirit is extremely strong. When Meerapfel is in town, everyone spends time together from dawn to midnight, whether reviewing the progress of a pile of fermenting tobacco or sharing a bottle of South African wine during dinner. "It's a wonderful feeling here," Meerapfel says during one such dinner at the Gamboula plant with several of the CETAC managers. The friendly conversation, hearty food, South African wine and local beer were flowing freely, not to mention the constant rhythm of rock and roll from Zaire. "We are like brothers," says Meerapfel. "We have lots of laughs together. But when it comes to work, we are all very serious."

Says Raymond Fembieta, manager of the Gamboula plant: "There is nothing like this in the rest of the Central African Republic. Other companies are either owned by the French or the local government. We are all working together here. It is so different. It is much better now than under the French. Before, the French gave us orders. We did what they said and they took everything. It was a master-servant relationship."

Nonetheless, there never would have been premium wrapper tobacco in Central Africa without the French. It all began in the late 1950s when the French tobacco monopoly SEITA sent a top tobacco expert named Jean Masseron to Cameroon to establish plantations. He quickly developed a thriving tobacco business, developing new varieties of plants as well as teaching the locals the intricacies of growing and processing tobacco. By the 1960s, Central African tobacco, particularly wrapper from Cameroon, started to become popular, especially in the United States with American Brands Inc. (ABI), which had Anthony y Cleopatra, and Bayuk, which owned Garcia y Vega and Phillies. SEITA was also a big user, as were key European manufacturers of small machine-made cigars such as Henri Winterman's, Agio and Noble.

The main problem with the tobacco from Central Africa was the method in which the French sold it. Everything was done by silent bidding in Paris, mostly in SEITA's warehouse in Nanterre, a Paris suburb. Buyers were given a catalog of lots of tobacco for sale, which included samples, but the actual bales were never seen before bidding, because they lay in warehouses in Le Havre, France. Bids were in written form and submitted to SEITA in a closed envelope. Buyers had three chances to bid on each lot and all bidding was conducted through brokers in Paris. Buyers often complained that they didn't get the best quality tobacco--which the French kept for themselves--and that the prices they paid were too high.

In the end, the bidding system led to too many difficulties in purchasing the tobacco, and big cigar producers who needed hundreds of bales of tobacco per year began to drop out by the early 1980s. They simply couldn't guarantee quality or prices under such conditions. When the auction started losing large companies, it became less and less important in the industry, and soon the demand for tobacco from Central Africa became very limited. By 1990, only a few major bidders existed. In addition, the crops in Cameroon and the Central Africa Republic had become smaller and the quality had deteriorated. In a last-ditch effort, SEITA stopped holding auctions and sold the crop "by invitation" from its offices. Invitations were limited to manufacturers. "It was the beginning of the end," says Meerapfel, who started financing crops in the region at that time.

M. Meerapfel Sohne, which also has offices in Germany and Belgium, has been trading in tobacco for more than 120 years. The Meerapfel family has a long tradition of working with Central African wrapper. Until a few years ago, they bought the tobacco from the French government, which for decades monopolized the crop from Cameroon and the Central African Republic through operations controlled by SEITA. The French ceased operation in Central Africa in 1993, claiming there was no longer demand for the tobacco and that the enterprise no longer fit within SEITA's goals. "I will never forget it," recalls Fembieta. "One day we came to work and the doors were locked. The French never even told us that they were going and they never said why--even after working directly with them for six years."

The French tell another story. According to Patrice Hirschfeld of SEITA, who worked many years in Central Africa, the Africans were the ones who spoiled the business. He said that SEITA's tobacco operations were totally controlled by the French until the 1960s, when the Carmeroonians began taking a financial interest in the company, Société Franco-Camourounese des Tabacs (SFCT). By the 1970s, the Africans had an 85 percent interest in SFCT and ran the company as they wanted. "From then on, things turned sour and the company finally went bankrupt," he says. "We finally decided to completely stop since the quality of the tobacco was going downhill and their techniques were no longer good. It was an impossible situation."

Meerapfel had known that the French were pulling out of Central Africa, since he had been financing crops there for some time. He was in Cameroon when the French put the final locks on the doors of the operation. He had come in hopes of assuring the final delivery of his tobacco. It was at this time that the Central Africans came to him for help, and he decided, with some reservations, to try to do something. "If you told me even five years ago that I would have my own growing operation in Central Africa, I would have thought you were crazy. But here I am," says Meerapfel, who adds that he would have never done it without the urging of his father, Heller, one of the world's most knowledgeable tobacco men. The project has been completely underwritten by the family business and, although Meerapfel would not give an exact figure, he says millions of dollars have been invested.

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