Mosi oa Tunya Cigars, which launched in the country in May is offering a product that is unique in Zimbabwe. It is offering hand-rolled cigars. The company decided to set up shop despite the deepening economic crisis afflicting the country. Acting business editor Kudzai Kuwaza (KK) caught up with Musi Oa Tunya chief executive Shepherd Mafundikwa (SM, pictured) to talk about his company. Below are excerpts of the interview:
KK: Why the name Mosi oa Tunya?
SM: Our company name, Mosi oa Tunya Cigars, embraces the myth and the legend of the mighty Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the world perched on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia.
We needed a name that smokers, both at home and abroad, would connect with immediately. It felt natural and organic to have in our name Mosi oa Tunya, the indigenous name of the Victoria Falls that translates to the smoke that thunders. We are bringing to the world cigars with a smoke that thunders.
KK: Why did you decide to enter the Zimbabwean market?
SM: Across Africa, one of the greatest unresolved challenges facing the agribusiness sector is the lack of value addition. Zimbabwe’s tobacco is recognised worldwide for its quality but almost always, it is exported in its raw form. I thought making hand-rolled cigars, a first for Zimbabwe, was one way to add value to our tobacco.
The other pull factor was the desire to come back home after 15 years in the diaspora. I could not imagine myself working for someone. I needed to be creative in a way that would hopefully secure my retirement and in my small way contribute to improving Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product.
I am convinced this will be an exciting and profitable venture.
KK: What is your target market?
SM: When the idea to set up a cigar rolling shop in Zimbabwe was conceptualised, I had the export market in mind. I was amazed to learn about Zimbabwe’s cigar smoking community. With our Mosi oa Tunya brand we want to capture and grow that market.
The global cigar market is projected to grow at the rate of 8,1% during the forecast period 2018-2023. We are confident we have a product that competes with established well known international brands. Give us a few more months as we make our presence known as Mosi oa Tunya Cigars.
KK: What challenges have you faced since you entered the Zimbabwe market?
SM: Setting up a business in any sector is always a challenge. As a start-up and being the first company to make hand-rolled cigars, we had no template to follow. There was no shop we could walk in and buy some of the basics we need in a cigar factory.
Our benches had to be custom made, there was nothing like that on the market. We took a little longer than we had planned to set up the factory.
There was no local expertise to tap into for cigar rolling. Setting up the factory involved traveling to Cuba and to the Dominican Republic on a scouting mission for a cigar maestro. We were lucky we found one with over 30 years of experience in the industry.
Then we had to deal with the government bureaucracies around bringing in an expatriate. I must say our experience with the Department of Immigration was very smooth, when we applied for work authorisation for the Dominican maestro. The staff was very supportive and made the whole process seamless.
We are also dealing with the country’s own challenges of hyperinflation, an unstable exchange rate and the lack of information.
KK: You employ women for the hand rolling process as part of gender empowerment. How many women do you employ and how has this empowered them?
SM: At Mosi oa Tunya Cigars we made a deliberate decision to hire an all women team of cigar rollers. We believe women empowerment is one of the most important issues in the present day of the world. The involvement of women in income related activities increases the level of empowerment. An empowered woman can exercise her power in her own choice in making household decision, contribution to household income, and control over resources. They say “educate a girl and you educate a nation” and for us at Mosi oa Tunya it’s “empower a woman and you empower a nation”.
Almost every one of the eight women on the team were unemployed. Now they not only have a salary, but a unique skill — hand-rolling cigars. They are now able to provide for their families.
A workforce of eight cigars rollers is about 50% of our factory capacity. During this Covid-19 era this has allowed us to, without infrastructural changes, maintain the recommended social distance on our shop floor.
KK: What has been the impact of Covid-19 on your operations?
SM: The global pandemic set us back several months. Just as we started training the cigars rollers the first round of the two weeks mandatory lockdown was announced. We had to close shop. Cigar rolling is an intricate art so when businesses opened, we had to take time going back to what was covered prior to lockdown. The pandemic also disrupted the supply chain. Most of our imports did not make it in the anticipated time.
KK: What in your view should be done by government to improve your operations in the country?
SM: The role of government is to facilitate business, and the government must assist in improving the value chain on the supply side and the exporting side, taxation, timely availability of export information, provide support to companies during this pandemic, assist businesses involved in exports by removing bottlenecks. Provision of pre and post-shipment offshore financial facilities to support the financing of export businesses.
KK: Where are you going to export your cigars?
SM: Since we launched in May, we have received order inquiries from many countries among them South Africa, Angola, Zambia, Dubai, China, Romania, Vietnam, Greece and the United States. Our orders to South Africa, for instance, are on hold because the country has temporary banned sale of tobacco products because of Covid-19. As soon as that ban is lifted the shipment will be on its way there.
Mosi oa Tunya Cigars marketing is also ready to hit the road and attend as many international cigar trade shows as possible to introduce our brand and expand our export markets.
KK: Where do you see the company five years from now?
SM: A while ago, I came across this saying which unfortunately, I don’t remember who said it, but it has stuck with me: “There are people less qualified than you, doing things you want to do, simply because they decided to believe in themselves.”
I believe the market has for a very long time been waiting for a quality and authentically African cigar. We could not have come on the scene at a better time. In five years our proudly Zimbabwean Mosi oa Tunya hand-rolled cigars will be among the top 10 international brands.
Domestically, Mosi oa Tunya Cigars will grow its exports, earning the country the much-needed foreign currency and expand its workforce, creating more jobs.