The Zimbabwe International Trade Fair next week, even with Covid-19 restrictions, still has major relevance and importance although the limits on crowds and the growing use of virtual meetings means that it is returning to its core function, the interaction between traders and businesses.
Despite the rise of the world wide web and just about every business now having an on line presence, the physical exhibition at a trade fair is still vital. It is all very well seeing pictures and specifications of products or of suppliers of parts and equipment, but in the end many want to actually see the physical product, get their head under the hood to use the American expression, and be able to talk to someone knowledgeable about the product and even inquire about potential changes.
Even when the ZITF started, as the Central African Trade Fair, in 1960 there were plenty of printed directories and brochures but the reason for a dedicated trade exhibition was to show the actual products that Zimbabwean, Zambian and Malawian factories were making in the then Federation.
Just as important was the gathering of the serious people who mattered, the owners and top managers of the companies that were doing the making and those that were looking at buying or at least wanting to see what was available. And while everyone who matters can now sit at a desk, or even lounge in a chair outside, and set the search engine to work, those two functions are still vital.
Allowing the general public to come in, later, and have a look around was a bonus, especially for those making consumer goods, and the admission fees certainly helped boost the finances of the organisers of the trade fair, but was not really one of the core purposes of having a physical product sitting there that could be examined and having the opportunity to meet serious potential suppliers and customers.
So the hybrid version of the fair and the systems in place to control access and have as much of the interaction as possible in a virtual world are not particularly damaging.
The question of the advantages of foreign exhibitors tends to be overdone. It seems to be given that they are desirable and in fact in some circles measure the strength of the trade fair. This seems, on reflection, to be odd. The main purpose of the fair should be to show what Zimbabweans make and do. Yes, we would like foreign buyers to drop by, but foreign salespeople seem less necessary.
The strength of the trade fair should be measured by the percentage of the total number of Zimbabwean made products that are physically available on the stands. If the percentage is high then the fair is doing a very good job indeed. Foreign exhibitors are still desirable, but more effort needs to be put into getting the right exhibitors, those who have products that are needed in Zimbabwe but which are not made here.
Even the number of visitors needs to be measured better. The critical test is the number of serious trading visitors, rather than the mass crowd, and this year allows for some far better statistics in this regard.
Over the decades the trade fair has adapted and grown in different directions. And it needs to continue doing this and others need to come in.
Two of the biggest problems for any business are finding your potential suppliers and finding your potential customers. A short stroll around any industrial area in Zimbabwe, or any commercial area – and these days there are so many specialist businesses alongside main roads or even hidden away in back suburban roads – will reveal the extremely wide range of businesses in the country.
It was a lot easier half a century ago when so much less was happening and the business world was a lot simpler, tending to be dominated on the manufacturing side by a modest number of larger companies. Now we have thousands and the trend to move away from the old Anglo-American model of fewer giant companies to a myriad of smaller more specialised concerns makes it ever harder to figure out who is there, what they are offering and who might want to buy from you.
Zimbabwe is not unique. A lot of German and Italian manufacturing, for example, is built around a vast number of small and medium businesses rather than concentrated in few industrial giants, although these do exist and flourish.
Again while these all have an online presence, and hopefully have their web sites well designed so that search engines can find them easily, they also retain and expand the specialist trade exhibitions, limited to a particular sub-sector of a sector of their industrial base. You can attend fairs in Italy where specialist paper makers are the only exhibitors, or fairs in Germany where only makers of the equipment that you use to make tools are there.
These help solve that eternal and growing problem of finding the right supplier and finding the appropriate customers. And if you are a newcomer into the business this becomes even more important since you are not in the contact books of those people you really do need to talk to.
One area where the modern world does so poorly compared to the old days before the internet is having directories. People used to print business directories with a lot of indexing by product, service and location. If you wanted to find someone who made, just for example, teddy bears, you could find quite quickly the three or four potential suppliers in your area.
Modern directories should be internet based of course, but should still exist and allow burrowing and tunnelling down. These would help overcome some of the problems of using search engines, and would help get round the flood of advertising content that does not add much to the need for product information.
Such neutral websites could be set up by the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries and by other trade associations. First these would treat all potential suppliers and customers the same, rather than grade them according to how good their web designer was and how cler that person was in loading the necessary tags to bring your site to the top of the list, or even get it onto a list in the first place.
One interesting curiosity is the reason why a growing number of third party suppliers pay the fees to get on the Amazon web site. While using the Amazon ordering and payment system can bring extra business, the main gain is getting into the data base of a web site that allows a great deal of neutral product searching.
Searchers can then go the actual manufacturer’s web site to gain more information, and frequently find a physical retailer near where they live who stocks the product so they can go and have a look at it.
There have been Zimbabwean attempts to set up an online yellow pages, which lists advertisements from potential suppliers, but these have achieved only modest success at best. Few people use them is one major problem.
But the random searching does not work very well either and so there is this information mismatch between the people who have the product and the people who would at least like to look at the product.
What appears to be needed is something that looks more like an Amazon website for Zimbabwean products and products available in Zimbabwe. The database and the application server holding the images would be huge, but at least the thing would be there indexed by product, manufacturer, supplier and retailer.
This would have to have the backing of the major trade associations, and the fees could even be included in the membership fees as part of the new benefits being offered, so we would get another major upgrade in that CZI and others would stop relying almost solely on the members who have been with them forever but would also start picking up the myriads of newcomers who never even think of joining.
That would also need a structure that could incorporate the giants, the big people, the medium businesses and the growing number of smaller businesses, but if fees were related to products then there would be a large sorting out with the person making five things paying a lot less than the person making hundreds of products.
And we would still need the trade shows and trade fairs, to be able to look at the physical product.