THE 61st edition of the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) which ended today pales into insignificance when compared to yesteryear fairs, prompting the organisers to start scouting for partners to transform the exhibition centre into a world-class multi-purpose facility.
ZITF, once a dominant force in international trade exhibitions in Africa and beyond, has over the years lost its lustre due to the country’s long-running economic problems and this year’s showcase mirrored the state of the economy.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019 also worsened the situation, as many companies, particularly from the private sector, could not manage to participate at this year’s trade showcase owing to viability challenges.
The annual trade and investment exhibition was last year postponed twice before being finally suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
A total of 357 direct exhibitors participated at this year’s fair and, of these, 11% were first-time participants.
In terms of geographical mix, 62% of local exhibitors were from Harare, 25% were from Bulawayo, 10% from other towns and 3% were foreign.
A total of 10 countries participated, namely Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania.
China, which used to take up vast exhibition space, was absent this year.
In 2019, there were 456 direct exhibitors and 17 countries.
This year’s fair ran from September 21 to September 24 under the theme: Showcasing the New Normal for Business and Industry: Realities and Opportunities.
Loss-making parastatals, government departments, local authorities and civil society exhibited in large numbers, dwarfing manufacturing companies, which are the real measure of a successful trade fair and barometer of industrialisation.
These include Hwange Colliery Company, Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority, National Railways of Zimbabwe, NetOne, TelOne, Environmental Management Agency, Zimbabwe Revenue Authority, Zimbabwe Investment Development Agency, Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe, Agricultural and Rural Development Authority, Bulawayo City Council, Harare City Council, Political Actors Dialogue, Zimbabwe Media Commission, National Social Security Authority, to mention a few.
The ruling party Zanu PF occupied the entire Hall 5 while some stands in Hall 4 were empty. Hall 4 was dominated by small and medium sized enterprises.
A significant number of manufacturing companies abandoned their pavilions, which are now part of the permanent feature at the exhibition centre, choosing either not to exhibit or to take up smaller space in the halls.
These include some of yesteryear’s big companies such as National Blankets and Ziscosteel, which have been struggling to stay afloat or have effectively gone under.
Other traditionally big companies such as the late former President Robert Mugabe’s Alpha Omega Dairy, Datlabs, Makomo Resources, Bata, Blue Ribbon Industries and Astra Paints, among others, also abandoned their pavilions, an indication that the country’s once-vibrant manufacturing sector is in the doldrums.
Notable companies from the private sector that exhibited included United Refineries Limited, Econet, Turnall, PPC, Ingwebu, Delta Corporation, Mimosa Mining Company, Old Mutual, among others, while Schweppes focused on selling its products.
Economic analyst Stevenson Dhlamini said the low turnout of private companies reflects low capacity utilisation in industry, consistent with the fact that most companies are operating below full capacity.
“Their focus currently is staying afloat,” he said.
The latest data released by the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) shows that Zimbabwe’s capacity utilisation in 2020 came in at 47% and, while this was an improvement on the 2019 levels, it still remained below 50%, a gross underperformance for any serious economy.
“Also, it is evidence that parastatals are restructuring and are becoming more competitive and being run in a competitive manner which is consistent with the mantra of the government being open for business,” Dhlamini said.
“If you look at the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange, for example, this time it came with greater infrastructure to the trade fair than before and showing the drive of the economy. It’s going towards openness of businesses and ease of doing business.”
Some analysts argue that parastatals’ participation at the ZITF does not inspire confidence as they were doing it out of duty.
But Dhlamini said: “Parastatals have always been mandated to do so (to exhibit at ZITF) but, well, we can’t deny credit where it is due when we look at the reforms that are taking place. They might be doing it for duty, but it still spells out that Zimbabwe is making efforts to improve the ease of doing business.”
“Parastatals have often been cited as a hindrance towards the ease of doing business in Zimbabwe. So it’s a good message in an event such as ZITF to see their presence, giving the public an opportunity to inquire and get transparency from them — straight from the sources,” he said.
On the question of whether the ZITF is still relevant or not, Dhlamini said: “It is still relevant. I think back then, it used to be dominated by international companies or multi-national companies who would come here to market and tap new markets.”
“But I think now the theme has changed and now attracts more local exhibitors. It’s now emphasising on creating networks and business connections rather than entertaining the general public. The ZITF used to be more of a funfair for entertaining the public but is now moving towards businesses interconnecting during ZITF, creating business networks,” he said.
“That’s why business days are now more than public days. Public days are fewer. So it has reduced that funfair effect, but it’s now emphasising on businesses creating linkages more than just a source of entertainment or a funfair.”
This year, the first three days were reserved for business and one day for the public.
Exhibitors who spoke to The NewsHawks said the Trade Fair presented them with a good opportunity to showcase their products.
“This is the first time attending ZITF and we decided to come to Bulawayo because it’s a remote market to us. In Harare I think everybody knows us. So we thought by coming this side, we are hoping to forge new networks and new clientele and gain a wider market,” West Property Zimbabwe chief marketing officer Marilyn Mosha said.
In a bid to save the fair from total collapse, ZITF Company board chairperson Busisa Moyo said they were scouting for partners to transform the Zimbabwe International Exhibition Centre (ZIEC) into a world-class multi-purpose facility.
Moyo said such a major facelift can only be feasible with the help of partners.
“I intend to draw on the support of the government as enunciated in the National Development Strategy-1 (NDS 1), our stellar team at the ZITF Company, colleagues from the Bulawayo Agricultural Society and other stakeholders,” Moyo said through the ZITF Company’s special bulletin.
“This will result in the Zimbabwe International Exhibition Centre housing conferences, four to five-star lodging, limited high-end shopping, high-end office space, theme parks and sport facilities.”
“I am aware of the expectations of colleagues in the private sector and business member organisations to have access to modern facilities, relevant trade shows and other curated engagements that further the cause of expansion, re-tooling, investment, innovation and market access,” he said.
Moyo said his unfettered dream and desire was to see the ZIEC becoming the “Davos” (World Economic Forum) of trade, innovation, investment and government-private sector engagement in Africa where key innovations are discussed and showcased. The expansion of the exhibition centre will enable the ZITF to be the centre of government-private sector engagement in Africa and thus give impetus to the country’s drive to have an upper middle-income economy by 2030.
This will further enable the ZITF Company to not just provide a platform to showcase products, services and new technologies but to also promote rich conversations on sustainable economic development.
In the same manner, Moyo said this year’s fair promoted deliberations by the government and industry to drive sustainable economic development. This, he said, was achieved through platforms such as the inaugural Diplomats Forum, held in conjunction with the ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and the Zimbabwe Investment Development Agency.
Moyo said the expansion of ZIEC would further promote the growth of domestic tourism in line with NDS 1, which emphasises promoting meetings, incentive, conferences and exhibition (MICE) tourism.
“In order to achieve the foregoing, ZITF Company must build a world-class facility that has the capacity to host regional, continental and international shows,” he said.
It will also give the organisation an upper hand to bid for international conferences and conventions, thus attracting international business tourists to the country.
Industry and Commerce minister Sekai Nzenza said local industries continued to show resilience in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and ZITF 2021 was an “excellent way to create brand relevance, raise brand value and generate awareness for the exhibiting companies.”
To remain afloat, she said some companies shifted their production capacity to produce personal protective equipment, which are crucial in the management of the spread of the pandemic.