C'est L'Afrique: Cameroon Wrapper Leaf

Tobacco Scion Rick Meerapfel and Associates Are Raising Quality Wrapper in central Africa
| By James Suckling | From 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."

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.

"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.

"People working here used to throw the tobacco everywhere and take poor care of what they were doing," says Meerapfel, after checking a handful of fermenting bulks and confirming with the Africans when to rotate them. "Now, they take great care with every leaf. They know how and when to do things. It's amazing. I am so very proud. They are doing it. I am teaching them, but they are doing it all on their own."

It's difficult to grasp the amazing success of Meerapfel and the rest of the people of CETAC. A visit to the town of Nokombo illustrates the daily hardships in the name of fine Central African tobacco. Standing on a small mound in the middle of a grassy field on the outskirts of the village, Meerapfel and Yandji are peering over the area, holding an architect's plans and discussing the massive processing plant to be built here in the coming year. The only evidence of the forthcoming construction is a huge pile of boulders left at the site for the building's foundation.

The construction has been delayed for weeks since CETAC hasn't been able to get its bulldozer to Nokombo from Gamboula, a brutal 40-mile trip that takes about three hours by four-wheel drive. The bulldozer continues to break down as it is driven to the destination at about one mile per hour. New parts to fix the intermittent problems have been promised from Europe, but their arrival date is unknown. "People just have no idea what it takes to put up a building or anything else around here," says Meerapfel, shaking his head while discussing the bulldozer debacle. "It really is against all the odds. You have to be determined to do it. Otherwise, you will never succeed. However, should we fail, there will be no more wrapper coming from Central Africa. So I am not going to fail. I don't want to let the Africans down, either."

He stops for a moment, pausing before taking another puff on his cigar. "I wonder if some banker in New York, smoking his cigar with Central African wrapper and with a glass of fine Scotch, has any idea what it takes to get tobacco out of here? He probably doesn't care. But I wouldn't want to be in his shoes. I love it here doing this; and in the end, we both love cigars and we love what we do." *

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