Battle for Control of Ice Cream Business Reaches New Frontier

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There has been much ado over the past decade about government’s Liberianization policy and the drive to make it work meaningfully for Liberian businesses. The policy aims in part to create exclusive space in the private sector for certain business categories to be owned by Liberians and enabled to thrive without competitive interference from foreign-owned businesses.

Among the 16 business categories that the policy declares should be owned and operated exclusively by Liberians, one key business – local production of ice cream – has had some foreign business people up in arms for the right to play. However, as long as Liberian ice cream entrepreneur Eyvonne Bright-Harding has breath to scream for the exclusive rights of Liberians to conduct ice cream business, the foreign counterparts have an uphill task.

So far, Harding and others have won the support of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MOCI) in defending the exclusive right for Liberians to locally produce ice cream in Liberia. In some cases, where foreign players took great risks to invest in local production with the hope of securing leniency to operate from the powers that be, the answer from MOCI was a resounding “‘NO.”

But Bright-Harding, who is the largest producer of ice cream in Liberia, believes the battle is far from over. In her view, where foreigners have been successfully barred from producing the product, their (foreigners’) next best option is to import ice cream at a scale that would keep prices low enough to compete with the locally made product, thus challenging the intent of the Liberianization policy.

Madam Eyvonne Bright-Harding is chief executive officer (CEO) of Shark’s Ice Cream & Catering, located on the James Spriggs Airfield road on the edge of Sinkor. Shark’s has established outlets in central Monrovia and other parts of the city. However, efforts to have Shark’s Ice Cream sold at supermarkets have been undermined by biased placement of her product in favor or imported alternatives. And then, with a new foreign owned ice cream shop sneaking onto the scene Shark’s and other Liberian ice cream producers consider the situation a checkmate of the Liberianization of ice-cream business.

Speaking to this newspaper on October 8, Madam Bright-Harding, said a newly established ice cream shop on 9th Street, Sinkor, owned and operated by foreign nationals, undermines her protection in the business. Though the 9th Street shop is open and operational, it has no name and its operators remain mute about their status.

She said she walked into the shop and saw foreigners claiming ownership of the business entity, but as they went further into conversation, the foreign nationals changed their story that they purchased their products from a Liberian business entrepreneur.

She said this business venture allegedly carried out by foreign nationals contravenes the Liberianization policy that sets ice cream making aside among other businesses only for Liberians.

Madam Bright-Harding firstly commended the Ministry of Commerce for steps taken earlier to halt previous violators, including ERA Supermarket, from venturing into locally-made ice cream business. She, however, indicated that the current operation allegedly carried out by some foreign nationals on 9th Street is not without consent of some officials of the Ministry.

She argued that importing materials for such a business into the country requires having an Import Permit Document (IPD) from the Ministry of Commerce, and those operators of the ice cream shop might have gotten the permit from there to import the materials.

“We filed our complaint about these people’s plan of operation since June, and the ministry said it was going to look into it. But what happened that they are in full swing operating this business they are prohibited from doing under our law, is my concern,” Bright-Harding argued.

In spite of the prevailing circumstance, she said she will constructively engage the Ministry of Commerce to seek redress; building her hope on past record that MOCI halted ERA Supermarket on similar grounds from operating the same business.

As the argument ensues, progress has been made with Liberia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and under the WTO protocol, all businesses are allowed to competitively operate under free and safe environment.

Reacting to this concept, Madam Bright-Harding said there are still protected businesses for citizens of WTO member countries.

“We are not asking for favors, but we want the law to be upheld, and are looking up to the Ministry of Commerce to implement it,” she said.

She maintained that since the ice cream business is set aside only for Liberians and there are Liberian manufacturers supplying supermarkets, the law should protect manufacturers by compelling foreign nationals to purchase from them instead of importing it to Liberia.

The Liberian businesswoman said her business is an “infant” that needs protection from government under the law, considering that she has to repay her invested loan and to pay her workers.

Madam Bright-Harding also blamed some Liberians for fronting for foreigners, a situation she said sometimes “ties the hands of the Ministry of Commerce” to take the appropriate action against violators of the law.

She called for passage of a law against fronting for foreigners in Liberia in order to help prevent circumventing the “Liberianization policy.” She did not, however, proffer an example of how such an anti-fronting law would play out.

Foreigners venturing into businesses only operated by Liberians under the law have to invest not less than US$500,000, while foreigners partnering with Liberians are obliged to invest at least US$300,000.

It is yet unclear whether any of these conditions was met to grant the foreign nationals the opportunity to operate the ice cream business on 9th Street.

When visited over the weekend at the ice cream shop housed by the SP Gas Station at the corner of 9th street and Tubman Boulevard, an operator identified as Mohammed refrained from commenting on excuse that customers were pouring in and he was busy serving them.

An official of the Ministry of Commerce & Industry also told the Daily Observer via mobile phone that they will comment on the issue in subsequent time.

Meanwhile, during a dinner symposium at the beginning of his tenure in 2013, Commerce & Industry Minister Axel M. Addy promised members of the Liberia Chamber of Commerce to fully enforce the Liberianization Law that sets aside 16 businesses only for Liberians.

He reiterated his vow in early 2015 at another dinner organized by the Chamber of Commerce at that organization’s headquarters in Monrovia.

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