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Elias Nassief: A role model in local industry

By Gabriel Christian
May 17, 2012 7:30 A.M.

elias nassief
Elias Nassief a business legend.
Roseau, Dominica (TDN) -- In Elias Nassief – Triumph over Tragedy (Pont Casse Press, 2012) Dr. Irving W. André has once again accomplished a first, by taking us through the intricate life of one of Dominica's business legends – Elias Nassief.

To my knowledge it is the first book by a Dominican historian about the life of a Lebanese-Dominican industrialist and his contribution to value added industrial processing on-island.

Such value adding is Elias Nassief’s greatest legacy, in that he broke the mold of the old merchant class which primarily engaged in wholesale/retail trade. Nassief’s genius was – at a time of war - to find a solution to the problem of soap scarcity by using rudimentary scientific technique to create something new from a local raw material: in this case the production of soap from coconut oil.

Elias Nassief was born in Lebanon on March 3, 1904. Andre is at his descriptive best in providing some background on his subject. We are told that Nassief’s birthplace of Bazhoun was a Maronite Christian village of cedar trees next to modest homes, surrounded by well terraced slopes lined with pear and grape orchards.

And from atop the hills which loomed in the distance, shepherds watched their flocks of sheep by night. That Christian village, with Muslim habitations not far off, sat astride well worn trading routes where the commerce intensive culture of the Levant thrived.

The Levant is that area of the world where east meets west; the area of the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa which had seen Roman Legions, Mohammedans and Crusaders clash, while ordinary people went about their lives best they could, bartering, buying and selling.

The same area Christopher Columbus sought to avoid, in his quest to find another path to the riches of the east, and in so doing stumbled upon the New World.

The book is at its historical best where it outlines the history of Dominica’s depressed economy in the 1930s. We get a glimpse of the quest for adult suffrage by Dominicans, and insight into the history of Grandbay and its roots in plantation agriculture.

While Dominicans are seeking to better life for themselves, Nassief seeks fortune abroad. He travels to Suriname and works with his older brother Joe’s general store in Paramaribo. Soon, however, he comes to Dominica – an event foretold in a dream in which he had seen water issuing from the sides of a mountain. While Nassief is new to the island, he makes a courageous go at it; trading is in his blood, it would seem.

He plunges into the commercial milieu to make a living, using all the advantages and technique inherent to his origins and cultural conditioning. A man of charm and some wit, he befriends people. He gives to charity, while developing a loyal work force which serves him well to the end. He understands trading; he can approach a bank.

He knows how to make small loans to those who need it and so earn a profit. He knows how to price khaki cloth, an enamel plate or pair of tennis shoes he imports from Japan or further afield, to suit a modest purse.

Nassief’s early forays into business are successful where he builds close alliances with locals such as J.R. Ralph Casimir. Casimir, a well respected writer and an eminent Garveyite, will later eulogize Nassief as one who was, “born and raised a Lebanese, but toiled and died a Dominican.”

With his generosity and easy credit to the less fortunate, Nassief quickly builds dominance in commerce which eventually allows him to build the big general store next to old market.

He acquires Geneva Estate and establishes a coconut fiber mattress factory there. He plants vanillas and raises pigs; he buys more real estate to include land at Belfast. However, it is his experimentation with making soap which was to consolidate his legacy as Dominica’s preeminent industrialist of the 20th Century.

With the difficult war years, throngs of French refugees crowding Roseau and ships carrying manufactured goods to the island’s shores often falling victim to marauding German submarines, soap was in short supply. What should be done?

Nassief decides to meet a dire need and seizes the opportunity to act with a degree of innovation. To make soap, one needs fat. But where can one find fat? The island’s livestock holdings are too few.

The few pigs and cattle on-island are speedily disappearing onto the plates of locals and French war refugees, as imports dry up. But there is oil hidden in every coconut tree.

The coconut heated in an oven dries up and turns into what is called copra; as copra, the fat in the nut is even more concentrated. That copra will turn out to be Nassief’s good fortune, in years to come.

He quickly produces coconut oil from copra and with a few buckets at the back of his home; he boils the oil and mixes it with caustic soda in a process called saponification. First, Nassief makes crude laundry soap. However, by 1945 the Dominica Chronicle proudly announced that Nassief was in the business of producing soap for the local market.

In time to come, and with support of the local government eager to protect a pioneering industry, Dominica Coconut Products (DCP) is born and grows. The return of Elias’ son, Phillip Nassief, from chemical engineering school at Canada’s McGill University improves the new Belfast factory’s operations.

With Phillip’s competence added to the process, Refresh soap and related products become Dominica’s best known manufactured export. The success of DCP is best exemplified by the fact that in the 1990s I found a tastefully packaged translucent soap at a hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey marked “Dominica Coconut Products.”

Elias Nassief – Triumph over Tragedy reveals that the 1970s were a time of political and social upheaval on Dominica and little was left untouched. In 1974 Nassief lost his flagship store next to the Roseau market to arson.

This is the time of the Geneva uprising at Grandbay when the estate’s storehouse is burnt, livestock driven off and coconut trees felled. The government declares a state of emergency at Grandbay and the Dominica Defense Force is called in to protect the estate. Soon, the troubles abate when police arrest “Unicef,” leader of the uprising.

The estate at Geneva is later bought by government to address the needs of the Grandbay community. Andre reveals the fact that Geneva was even by then a losing proposition; a failing estate. That Nassief had offered to sell it. It is noted by Andre that much of the social discord had deep roots dating from the inequalities born of slavery.

In places such as Grandbay local government- since- then have been slow in meaningfully cultivating an ethic of industrial enterprise. Grandbay’s experience teaches that there is still need to creatively address the land question, and that a people must be taught to master technology, without which they cannot successfully wield the levers of economic power.

The best of intentions, or nice words, will never erase the mental conditioning that blind our people to the opportunities at our door, which others may see but locals cannot seem to find.

Andre’s work makes an astute observation about the insurgent nationalism of the 1970s: it was often blind to values such as thrift, industry and discipline without which a society cannot rise or long endure. That, indeed, it is easier to destroy in one night what took a generation to build.

Nassief died on September 30, 1987. His success was a team effort; his wife of more than fifty years, Marie and his children George, Usief, Michel, Phillip, Rosa, Juliette and Tony provided the support necessary to thrive.

Dedicated employees such as Joey Astaphan, Audrey Thomas and Max Karam provided the staffing upon which the manufacturing at Belfast Estate took off. In death, his legacy lives on in the Elias Nassief Foundation, a private charity which quietly donates thousands of dollars each year to the Mahaut Day Care, Portsmouth Daycare, and the Dominica Infirmary among others. In 1995 DCP was sold to Colgate-Palmolive.

However, as of 2012, the factory still hums along. Copra farmers and DCP employees owe their livelihoods to a company that –at forty plus years and counting-remains at the helm of Dominica’s manufacturing sector. Truly, Elias Nassief should be remembered for his dedication and sense of innovation.

His spirit lives on in other family members, such as his grandsons Yvor and Carl Nassief. Both are well known in business and thrive on the foundation laid by their grandfather. Elias Nassief occupies the commanding heights alongside those locals whose contribution to our island’s commercial sector warrants mention: John Baptiste “JB” Charles, O.D. Brisbane, Robert “RBD” Douglas, Frank Baron, CG Phillip, Pat Rolle, P.W. Bellot of Bello and Co., and Leopold “Money God” Emmanuel.

Andre’s work here takes the wraps off an eminent Dominican about whom little is recorded; whose work still lives with us, and who made our country more productive.

His story needed telling and Andre has told it well, with solid facts, statistics and photographs of the man and the family behind the achievements. Andre’s narrative style makes for an easy going and informative read; one which will attract both the casual reader and the history scholar.

At a time of great flux and uncertainty in the global economy, may our young take courage from those like Elias Nassief who went on before, and strive to make an equal- if not greater - contribution to national progress. In the words of JR Ralph Casimir who knew him for more than fifty years: In word and deed, with much compassion, he played his part in building our nation.

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