THE Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF), which started on Tuesday and ends tomorrow, reflects shifting economic trends and trade patterns amid a growing presence of poor Chinese exhibitors and technically insolvent parastatals and other public enterprises, characterised by a conspicuous absence of indigenous-owned companies.
Nqobani Ndlovu and Nqobile Bhebhe
Despite traditionally being the largest intra-regional trade fair south of the Sahara, the ZITF — held in Zimbabwe’s second largest city of Bulawayo whose economy has been decimated by deindustrialisation and collapse of meaningful economic activities — has over the years deteriorated in terms of the proportions and quality of exhibitors, reflecting Zimbabwe’s parlous state of the economy.
From being a serious exhibition in quantitive and qualitative terms which offered exposure to both trade and public visitors, the multi-sectoral and multi-national expo has now been reduced to a large flea market where some exhibitors literally want to sell their products instead of showcasing them as originally envisaged.
One of the latest trends at the ZITF observed this week was that the Chinese have moved in a big way, while parastatals and other public enterprises also had a strong presence.
South African companies maintained a presence, while Zimbabwean indigenous entities were conspicuous by their absence, showing that government’s indigenisation programme — which some analysts have described as “racketeering by regulation” — largely exists at the level of rhetoric, not reality.
China — now Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner — took up the highest exhibition space at the 55th edition of the ZITF although not a single world-class company from there took part.
The world’s second largest economy took up more than 1000 square metres against second placed South Africa with 800 square metres in an extensive 17-hectare permanent exhibition centre which offers over 58 000 square metres of developed exhibition space.
However, large companies or renowned corporates from China were conspicuous by their absence as most of the space was occupied by small Chinese businesses — small-to-medium enterprises.
Under the theme “New ideas to New Heights”, the ZITF 2014 has been running between April 22–26 as the 55th consecutive trade fair to be held at the Zimbabwe International Exhibition Centre. In May 1960 the first “Central Africa Trade Fair” was launched at the site used as a venue for trade shows since 1899.
Basically, a trade fair or expo is an exhibition for companies in a specific sector of the economy or industry to showcase and demonstrate their latest products, services, study activities of competitors and examine recent markets trends and opportunities.
While the latest expo showed an increasing presence of poor quality exhibitors and falling standards at the show partly as a result of the deterioration of the local economy, ZITF general manager, Bekithemba Nkomo, said the annual event was growing as shown by the presence of the Chinese entities occupying the largest space.
Trade between China and Zimbabwe now scales more than US$1,1 billion, showing a huge explosion of business between the two countries even though that did not show in qualitative terms.
From US$310 million in 2003, trade between Harare and Beijing is now overtaking Zimbabwe’s trade with its traditional European and South African trading partners.
According to statistics from China, bilateral trade between the two countries has reached US$1,102 billion as of last year, representing an 8,53% growth compared to the previous year. Zimbabwean exports were worth US$688 million and imports US$414 million.
However, Nkomo told reporters on Tuesday that exhibiting Chinese were largely from one province even though he still thought it was a success.
“The Chinese exhibitors present responded to our marketing campaigns and they are from one province basically,” he said. “We are confident that once again the exhibition will be fruitful. There is so much enthusiasm from both the exhibitors and business visitors.”
But some company executives and visitors say the annual event is fast degenerating into huge “flea market” rather an occasion for serious companies to showcase their products and explore new market opportunities.
As if to underscore the idea of ZITF becoming a flea market, Chinese exhibitors’ were seen selling their wares at the exhibition grounds. In the last edition of the show, ZITF officials clashed with Chinese exhibitors who were selling their products directly to the public from their stands during the business days.
A circular warning the culprits had to be sent around to restore order.
According to ZITF’s long-standing regulations, exhibitors are only allowed to sell from their stands on the last day of business days.
Struggling state enterprises were also dominant at the ZITF, overshadowing private companies — most of who failed to exhibit — showing the state of the comatose economy.
The only prominent indigenous-owned entity present was President Robert Mugabe’s family business, Alpha Omega
Dairy which made a debut appearance.