WALKING through the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) grounds last week, one could not help but notice that the country’s annual trade showcase was now a pale shadow of its former self.
Although this year’s fair, which ran from April 26 to April 30 under the theme “Innovate-Integrate-Industrialise” was the 57th edition, the quality of exhibits and space taken did not reflect an event with such a strong tradition and history.
Some exhibition space, such as Hall 2, which is normally the home of the Chinese exhibitors, were closed while many pavilions were locked.
The hustle and bustle, which was common in yesteryear’s fairs, which sadly though often resulted in children getting lost, was also non-existent, perhaps a reflection that the public too is losing interest in what is supposed to be the country’s premier trade showcase.
Whereas in the past, big corporates dominated the trade fair, which they used as an opportunity to market their goods locally and internationally, this year’s exhibition resembled a giant flea market due to the dominance of small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs). Loss-making parastatals, government departments and civil society also exhibited in large numbers, dwarfing manufacturing companies, which are the real measure of a successful trade fair and barometer of industrialisation.
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 yesteryear’s big companies such as National Blankets and Ziscosteel, which have been struggling to stay afloat or effectively gone under.
Other traditionally big companies such as 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.
ZITF general manager Nomathemba Ndlovu said this year’s edition attracted 386 direct exhibitors, compared to 387 last year. The figure included 28 direct foreign exhibitors, down from 32 in 2015.
South Africa was the biggest foreign exhibitor with 32 companies.
ZITF chairman Bekithemba Nkomo, however, said only 25% of exhibitors were manufacturers. Service provider organisations dominated the fair accounting for 41% of the exhibits, while 13% of the exhibitors were distributors.
Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) president Busisa Moyo attributed the low turnout of manufacturing giants to the viability problems many companies werefacing due to lack of cheap funding and their failure to retool.
A 2015 CZI Manufacturing Sector Survey indicates that capacity utilisation within the manufacturing sector declined by 2,2 percentage points to 34,3% this year, from 36,5% in 2014.
While in the past, ZITF used to be seen as a good opportunity to expand business both locally and internationally, Moyo said some companies now viewed the fair as an expense rather than an opportunity.
“The ZITF can be a costly exercise for companies that are struggling and a lot of them are therefore relinquishing their pavilions and moving into halls,” he said.
Moyo said a high presence of state-owned enterprises and parastatals was a reflection of de-industrialisation or low private sector activity.
He was also quoted in the media this week calling for the government to improve the business environment. He said the country would only benefit from ZITF if buyers sought to purchase Zimbabwean goods.
While local companies complained about low business, it was not rosy either for international exhibitors.
“We did not sign any concrete deals. We had visitors to our stand but no concrete orders of our products were made.
We hope the situation will be better next year,” Winston Wong, a representative of the China-based Tianjin RJH Metal products factory said in an interview.
Tianjin manufactures common nails, fences, concrete nails and other metal products.
Economist John Robertson said Zimbabwe does not have a conducive business operating environment key to attracting quality local and foreign companies to the ZITF, hence this year’s annual showcase was also snubbed by China.
“Zimbabwe has spoiled its own chances of being a big supplier of most consumer goods now because it has turned itself into a high producer cost country. Whatever the cost of making something in Zimbabwe, imported equivalents can be imported for lower prices which mean that Zimbabwe has priced itself out of its own market,” said Robertson.
“That means that we have also priced ourselves out of export markets. To impress the visitors who we need to attract, Zimbabwe has to rebuild its investment climate to help the manufacturers to become more confident that they can compete again for the markets they have lost.”
A strong US dollar against regional currencies, he said, has not helped matters, making locally-produced goods uncompetitive compared to imports.
Robertson said ZITF will only become a success if government attends to the ease of doing business and lowers the cost of doing business.
“The ZITF is obviously all about trade, but because Zimbabwe has severely diminished its range of exportable products, most of the trade dealt with at ZITF has to be the foreign goods that foreign exporters hope to sell to us,” he said.
“Unfortunately, by reducing the number of goods we can make, we have sharply reduced the number of jobs that exist in the country, so we have reduced the buying power of the population. That makes Zimbabwe a rather poor market for all but the essentials, but essentials like mealie-meal do not make very good exhibition items.”
A 2015 World Bank report ranked Zimbabwe 155th out of 189 countries on the ease of doing business.
Chief Secretary in the Office of the President and Cabinet, Misheck Sibanda, said Zimbabwe is seized with ensuring the ease of doing business is improved with the promulgation of about 13 laws by June. The OPC was exhibiting at the ZITF to publicise the ease of doing reforms taking place.
“We have 13 pieces of legislation that have gone through cabinet, which we hope will be promulgated by June and this will see Zimbabwe improving on the ease of doing business index. The ease of doing business reforms also include public procurement reform geared at transforming the State Procurement Board into a regulatory authority, with procurement of goods and services being centralised to ministries, departments and agencies,” Sibanda said during a cocktail organised by his office at the ZITF.
Despite the 2016 ZITF being a pale shadow of previous events, Ndlovu said it was a success after a 40% rise in business visitors.