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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

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"We are building something brick by brick...slowly but surely," he adds. "The bank isn't going to give us money for this. We are building it ourselves with the help of the Africans. We don't want to be the biggest, just the best. We are beating people at their own game. This area has never made better wrapper tobacco. Before, you had to buy the tobacco from Central Africa at auction. It's all different now."

Just about every other week, Meerapfel or his colleague, Spaniard Javier Carrasco, 35, boards a Sabena Airbus from Brussels for the nine-hour flight to Yaounde. He used to fly to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, but it is now too dangerous. Even Meerapfel's African colleagues refuse to go to Bangui for fear of losing their lives. Arriving in the evening in Yaounde, Meerapfel stays overnight at the Hilton and rises at dawn for a hellish 11- to 13-hour journey by four-wheel drive over some of the worst dirt roads in Africa--more than 300 miles' worth. Not only are the driving conditions incredibly poor due to massive ruts in the road surface, dust as thick as cotton and the occasional overturned lumber truck or bush bus, but the police manning the various roadblocks are just as menacing, toting loaded automatic weapons and regularly demanding $20 to $30 bribes. "This is Africa," Nokombo says when asked about the perils of transportation. "What more can I say?"

However, everyone at CETAC says it's worth it. The results already have been extraordinary, especially in view of the quality of this year's crop. A large portion of the 1997 harvest was in fermentation bulks in Gamboula and Berberati by September, and the partially fermented tobacco leaves were beautiful. Not only were they large; their texture and color were near perfection. "Look at the quality of this tobacco," exclaims Meerapfel during one of many visits to the processing plant in Gamboula. He holds up an oval tobacco leaf 21 inches long, with its oily brown color reflecting the bright morning light. He wears a huge grin. "That's good-tasting tobacco! Look at the teeth! Look at the open grain! Look at the oil! They never had such quality tobacco here!

"For years people complained that they couldn't get big-sized wrapper from Central Africa," he continues. "Well, here it is. Look at this. It's unbelievable. It's beautiful and it feels as soft and fine as a woman's thigh. Also, they used to say that Central African wrapper was flaky and brittle; but now it's elastic and gorgeous."

Adds Oscar Salouk, a Cameroonise who worked in tobacco under the French for decades before CETAC was established, "I have 37 years here in the tobacco business and I have never seen such quality. We have been really selective. We have done everything necessary. Meerapfel told us that if we didn't go for the best quality then it really wasn't worth doing. We understood right away what he said, and now look at the quality."

Meerapfel has revamped the way Central Africans grow and process their tobacco, literally from the ground up. The growers are now using specially selected tobacco seeds and are given advice and resources throughout the growing season. They are closely monitored by CETAC representatives, who regularly visit them by four-wheel drive, moped or foot. Some growers are in such isolated areas in the rain forest that it may take three or four hours to reach them by hiking on narrow trails. One CETAC monitor was attacked by a leopard last year, escaping only when he managed to kill the cat with his hunting knife. In all, CETAC works with about 3,000 farmers, most of whom own just one or two acres of land for tobacco. The cultivation and harvesting is done by hand and almost entirely by women. The tobacco drying is also done by the farmer.

Once the cured tobacco arrives at central weighing stations in various places throughout the region, it is picked up by massive four-wheel-drive trucks and transported to processing plants in Gamboula, Berberati and Abba, all in the Central African Republic. Another plant may be built in the village of Nokombo, and discussions are underway with Cameroon officials for others near the eastern town of Batouri. "There's a passion here," says Meerapfel, on a visit to a small grower near Gamboula. He hiked about 30 minutes (similar treks of three or four hours are more common) in the hot midday sun through the rain forest on a tiny path to reach the grower, whose farming operation consisted of a family of about one dozen people, three mud huts, a tobacco drying hut and a few acres of tobacco. "Everyone is involved here, from the smallest grower to the managing director," he says. "Growers come to me and say that they have never seen their tobacco look so good. That means a lot to me."

All the tobacco is sun-grown, which is unusual for wrapper tobacco. Most other top-quality wrapper, such as Cuban and Connecticut, is grown underneath cloth tarps, or tapados, which diffuse the sunlight, giving a more uniform texture and color to the leafs. The climate in Central Africa is less variable than in other areas, and the light is more even because of the consistent cloud cover during the tobacco-growing season, which makes tarps unnecessary. "I believe that we have some of the most natural tobacco in the world," says Meerapfel. "We don't even have to use fertilizer. The land is very rich. Our main problem with sun-grown is to grow something that tastes very good as well as being as presentable as possible."

When the tobacco arrives at a processing plant, a preliminary sorting is done according to the size, texture and richness of the leaf, which is usually a question of where the leaf was picked from the plant, or the "priming." The leaves are then placed in piles or "bulks," usually measuring about 6 feet high by 12 feet to 9 feet square. One of several fermentations then takes place--depending on the texture and strength of the tobacco. The process reduces impurities and other organic compounds in the tobacco. After the fermentation, the tobacco is again sorted, primarily by size, and placed in bales of about 78 kilos (about 170 pounds) before being wrapped in burlap. The leaves are shipped to the Netherlands later in the year and then sent on to various customers.

The operations at the Gamboula and Berberati processing plants bear a close resemblance to that of tobacco processors in Cuba. Meerapfel admits to closely following "Cuban methods" for processing the tobacco. He spent close to a year in the late 1970s in Cuba's Vuelta Abajo learning the methodology; his family was one of the biggest buyers of tobacco from the country during that period. His father is credited with buying almost the entire Cuban tobacco crop in 1959, just after the Revolution.

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