His Valentine’s: Bongani, luxury cigar made in Africa

Bongani cigars are made in Maputo and set to be sold in Kenya. PHOTO | COURTESY
Bongani cigars are made in Maputo and set to be sold in Kenya. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Winston Churchill smoked one. Fidel Castro smoked one too. And at least a few Kenyan guys, like Jeff Koinange, occasionally smoke a cigar as well.

So now that Africa’s first luxury cigar, the Bongani was just launched this past week at the Fairmont Norfolk Hotel, it’s likely that quite a few more Kenyan men— and maybe a few women — will also take up this stylist (non-inhaling) smokers’ habit.

“Some people say it’s for people who like to look like millionaires,” says Kamal Moukheiber, an ex-investment banker who’s backing the Bongani brand.

“Bongani means ‘be grateful’ in Zulu,” says Kamal who takes some pride in bringing Africa’s first luxury cigar—which coincidentally is also the region’s first home-grown and hand-rolled tobacco leaf — to Kenya.

“We are already in South Africa and in Mozambique which is where the Bongani was born,” says the man who’s lived and worked in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

The Bongani brand was launched a little more than a year ago in Maputo where Kamal says he received endorsements from President Filipe Nyusi as well as some of Southern Africa’s top musicians.

But it was well before the official launch that Kamal came up with the dream of creating the continent’s first luxury cigar.

“I read the biography of Robert Mondavi, the man who established the first high-quality wineries in the US. He brought seeds from the best French vineyards and planted them in the Napa Valley, in California,” says Kamal who recalls that in the 60s, French wines were considered the only ones worth drinking.

But after Mondavi established his winery in 1966, perceptions of world-class wines began to change.

The Lebanese-born businessman imagined that he could take Mondavi as a model. But rather than planting grapes, he’d go for tobacco. He brought the best tobacco leaves used to roll the finest cigars from the Dominican Republic.

And rather than build a world-class business on Napa Valley wines (which are now consumed as readily as any French wine, he says), he’d go for cultivating Africa’s first (and only) luxury cigar.

So while Mondavi revolutionised the world’s perspective on wines, Kamal hopes to do the same for Africa’s first home-grown cigar.

Noting that Mozambique and Malawi have been a tobacco-growing region for many years, Kamal didn’t just bring high-quality tobacco seeds from Dominican Republic. He also brought several of that country’s best cigar-rollers to Maputo so they could train Kenyans in the fine art of shaping and rolling cigars.

Delighted to be advancing South-South trade relations, the CEO of Bongani Kenya says he also imports the special tobacco that serves as the cigar’s outer wrapper from Cameroon.

Wherever cigars are made, he says, be it in Cuba (where cigar production is said to have gone done since the death of Fidel), Nicaragua or Dominican Republic, all of those producers import their outer wrapper from Cameroon.

Underscoring the point that cigar-smoking is different from smoking a cigarette, Kamal says having a cigarette is like having a ‘quick fix’ whereas smoking a cigar is reflective of a leisurely luxury lifestyle.

‘’There’s more of a ritual involved in having a cigar,’’ he says.

It’s more of a social event and a way of bonding with friends. It’s also something of a status symbol since you may not yet afford a Mercedes or a Lamborghini, but you can treat yourself to a cigar.

The Bongani got launched just in time for Valentine’s Day when many women will be scratching their heads, wondering what new item to give their sweetheart for the big day. Why not get a box of 20 cigars which is specially lined in cedar wood to keep the tobacco moist.

“We are also selling them one by one in a specially sealed glass tube,” adds Kamal who already has leading hotels and restaurants in Nairobi supplied with the Bongani.

So while he knows he’s introducing not just a new brand of tobacco to Kenya but also a bit of luxury culture to the town, Kamal sees Nairobi like Maputo as an emerging global city with multicultural and international tastes.

“We were thrilled to learn the American magazine ‘Cigar Aficionado’ just named our Cameroon tobacco [wrap] the one used by this year’s number one cigar in the world,” he says.