Early last October, a new pastel-hued ice cream shop opened its doors to the Liberian public in Monrovia, the nation’s capital.
Nice Cream’s modern decor and impressive variety of 30 creative flavors made it an instant hit.
But the new shop hasn’t put smiles on everyone’s faces. Instead, it’s provoked a debate in Liberia over who controls the local economy. It’s also exposing the frosty relationship between some local entrepreneurs and foreign investors who run lucrative businesses in the tiny country.
Situated in the corner of a busy gas station in Monrovia, Nice Cream is the newest franchise in a chain — it has other shops in Cameroon, Congo and Cote D’Ivoire. The Liberian branch is owned by Mohamed Shaiki, a Lebanese businessman.
Eyvonne Bright-Harding was far from thrilled by Nice Cream’s opening. She owns Shark’s Ice Cream, a long-running local business down the road from the new enterprise. On Nice Cream’s opening weekend, Harding saw a $300 drop in her sales. When she scouted out the shop and noticed the staff working behind the counter was Lebanese, she decided to fight back.
In the 1940s, Liberian president William Tubman, a flamboyant figure known as the father of modern Liberia, instituted what he called an “open door policy.” In simple terms, the policy meant the country was open for business. The idea was to attract foreign investment. But his successor, William Tolbert, worried that Liberians were being crowded out of their own economy. So in 1973 he passed a “Liberianization” policy that protected some industries from foreign competition.
One of those industries is ice cream manufacturing — along with bakeries, poultry production and commercial printing.
As of 2010, a foreigner would have to invest $300,000 to open a venture in one of these areas.
Harding took a look around Nice Cream and decided there was no way that amount had been spent. So she complained to the government ministry in charge of commerce. A few days, later word came down to the owner of Nice Cream: The government said it would shut the shop down.
“The only fight over Liberianization right now is the fight over ice cream,” Harding says. “It’s important to me, and I’ve put a lot into it.”
Harding founded Shark’s in 1991, just over a year after the start of a brutal civil war that would last another 12 years. She started by selling beer and fish out of a small stall but decided she needed to do something to stand out.
Eventually, she settled on ice cream. When she told a friend about her idea, the response wasn’t what she’d hoped. “She said, ‘Who’s eating ice cream during a war?'” Harding recalls, laughing.
In 1992, Harding was forced to flee Liberia when heavy fighting hit Monrovia. When she returned a few months later, she had to buy her ice-cream maker back from a rebel group for $400. She implemented a strict “no weapons” policy at the shop — and business took off.
By the late 1990s Shark’s had become something akin to a national institution.
Though there are a few other local ice cream shops, Harding owns the most recognizable ice-cream brand in Monrovia. Pushcarts with hand-painted Shark’s logos appear in front of churches on Sundays, and what was once a tiny shop has become a large bar and restaurant. On weekends, Nigerian pop hits blare from the speakers while children eat ice cream and play.
But Harding’s happiness at hearing the government would shut Nice Cream was short-lived. A court reversed the Ministry of Commerce’s decision to close Nice Cream on what Harding says is a suspicious technicality. Regulatory politics in Liberia are notoriously unpredictable, and the court told Commerce that it would have to formally investigate and revoke Nice Cream’s business documents if it wanted the shop shut down.
Raising Harding’s ire, the ministry still hasn’t carried out that investigation, allowing Nice Cream to continue operating. As soon as it reopened, its sales picked right back up. On a typical weekend, the lines are long, and most customers don’t seem to care that the owner isn’t Liberian.
Franklin Dolo, walking out of Nice Cream with his children, scoffed at Harding’s case. “Shark’s has existed for I don’t know how many years and there’s no improvement. If a foreigner is doing something that’s serving the Liberian people, he should do it! This is solid gold ice cream here, I don’t want to believe it will be shut down.”
Inside Shark’s, sitting with her two daughters and enjoying a beer, Melody Daweh says that she appreciates Harding but doesn’t feel bound to support her. “Everybody comes here for the atmosphere. The ice cream is nice and they don’t play rude music.”
But, she adds, “As Liberians we appreciate good things. We don’t discriminate. Whether Lebanese, Chinese, Dutch, if it’s tasty we’ll go after it.”
Harding has fought, and won, against a few other Lebanese-run businesses. But she denies being afraid of competition and points to the empowering role that Liberian women have historically played in ice-cream manufacturing, saying she just wants the law enforced.
“We need to create a vibrant middle class here so politics can be truly shaped by Liberians. People have virtually nothing. When will Liberians become employers and not employees? I think it’s very important,” she says.
The Lebanese business community has its own set of frustrations. Many families have roots in Liberia that stretch across decades, but a clause in the Liberian constitution limits citizenship to those of “negro descent.” The controversial clause will be included in an upcoming national constitutional referendum. If it’s changed, members of the country’s powerful Lebanese and South Asian communities will, for the first time, be permitted to become full Liberian citizens.
Thousands of Lebanese and South Asians live in Liberia, where they’ve opened shops and and started industrial endeavors.
Despite the limitations of non-citizenship, Lebanese investors are often able to mobilize large sums of capital to finance businesses in the country, controlling everything from high-end hotels to the import of rice, Liberia’s staple food. Liberians often grumble about the Lebanese community’s economic power and the practice of “fronting” — putting a Liberian name on the registration documents of a Lebanese business.
Mohamed Shaiki is the manager of Nice Cream, and is listed on its registration documents as the owner. He’s worked in the franchise’s other locations across Africa.
“I didn’t read the law exactly but they told me that ice cream should be for Liberian people, not for people like us, Lebanese or Americans,” he says.
Shaiki says that his trouble with the law was addressed when he brought a Liberian businessman in as a partner and admits being frustrated by Harding’s attack on the shop.
“If you want, ask people about my ice cream,” he says. “All the people like it. We have two, three, four dollar cups. The poor can buy it, the rich man can buy it. Everybody can buy it. This is our purpose, you know?”
Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Liberian academic based at the University of Oxford, acknowledges that the Lebanese community has contributed to Liberia’s economy, but she sympathizes with Harding.
“The bottom line is we don’t have the luxury of neglecting Liberian small- to medium-sized enterprises. I think if we were a middle-income country that hadn’t had a war for 14 years we could say, ‘Yes, let’s open up and let the market take its course,'” she says. “But even countries that preach laissez-faire economics protect certain industries and give subsidies to their farmers.”
For her part, Harding says that if the government continues to waffle on about Liberianization without upholding the law, it could freeze Liberians out of other protected industries.
“They’re not Liberians,” she says when asked how she feels about the dominant role of outsiders in the country’s economy. Pointing to the effect of the war on Liberians across the world, she adds, “Whether you were in the diaspora or here, you felt it. Watching people walk until they couldn’t walk any more because they were hungry and fell in the sand, I’ve seen that. I would hold a Liberian’s hand and say, let’s do the ice cream business.”
For now, Nice Cream and Sharks both remain open, competing for the same sun-scorched clientele’s refreshment budget. But if the dispute is any indication, entrepreneurs like Harding are likely to face a rocky road to Liberia enforcing its ice cream laws.