A number of factors stick out from this year’s fair: The return of key European economies, Germany and Italy, plus former Eastern European counterpart Poland; the absence of two major emerging Bric economies, Russia and India; the heavy presence of the third Bric, China, and the wary attempt by South Africa–a member of the expanded Brics group-to maintain its grip on its traditional backyard export market Zimbabwe.
From the Zimbabwean side,the glaring phenomenon is the absence of Bulawayo corporates, and their replacement by small- to- medium enterprises. The return of Germany, Europe’s largest economy and the 5th largest in the world, might be interpreted as indicating renewed interest in the region by the EU. However, this is not necessarily so. There may be good reason for Germany to be one of the few EU countries at the expo, given its continued dominance of engineering products, automobile sector through Mercedes Benz, BMW, Audi and VW. The absence of India and Russia, key Brics members, may suggest that the Look East policy , may not necessarily be the way the economy should go.
While Brazil is a major player, its brand presence has not been consolidated in spite of it exporting to this country engineering products such as the Marco Polo range of bodies for buses, whose engines are mainly from the EU, and its export of chickens when GMO rules are relaxed. As for South Africa, no one can doubt what has been dubbed the re-colonisation of Africa via this southern neighbour of Zimbabwe. Given its proximity to the country and links that extend to historical and cultural spheres, South Africa’s strong presence is to be expected.
However, the most aggressive presence at this year’s showcase has been by China. It appears the “Look East” policy pursued by the government following the imposition of targeted sanctions by the United States and the EU was actually a “Look to China policy”. There are 40 Chinese companies and a 200-strong business delegation.
Given the Red Dragon’s dominance this year, visitors might be forgiven for thinking that they were at a trade show in Shanghai. What the general presence at this year’s showcase indicates is that every market counts, even little Zimbabwe. Exhibiting countries are all trying to secure more markets. Sadly, the importance of this marketing platform is lost only to the hosts themselves.
That many marketing officers for Zimbabwean exhibitors have been quoted as saying they only attended the fair as a tradition is a serious indictment on our business acumen as a nation.
Ideally a trade show matches buyers and sellers and therefore it is an important promotional vehicle. A fair such as ZITF is particularly important for local exhibitors as it brings potential partners from all over the world home, cutting down marketing costs in terms of travel and subsistence. However, an unlikely section has taken advantage of the fair, it is the local SMEs.
So heavy was their presence that some have suggested that the organisers of this event re-invented and rebranded it as an SME’s event. The SME’s sector in Zimbabwe is largely ignored, yet it accounts for a significant portion of GDP. Though not much has been realised yet, for Zimbabwe the future lies here.
The SMEs must be more aggressive at the fair to obtain manufacturing licences for the small components that the big exhibitors find cumbersome to make. One must not forget that a trade fair is not only a showcase but is a window through which potential investors look into a country by assessing the local environment on the ground.
At such platforms foreign participants seek, apart from local distributors of their products , potential local partners. Instead of waiting for Dimaf, companies in Bulawayo and indeed Harare, should take the opportunity to show the diverse foreign exhibitors local opportunities. To an entrepreneur, these are opportunities.
The biggest threat, however, to investment in this country remains the hostile business environment, political uncertainty and policy inconsistencies.