30 December 2012

Ethiopia: Same Old Faces, Same Old Goods

At the opening day of the Christmas trade fair, taking place from December 22 to January 6, Zewge Jemane, manager and owner of century promotions and Nuredin Mohammad, License and Registration directorate director and advisor for the state minister, visited the booths of exhibitors to see what they had to offer.

Frequent visitors to trade fairs in the capital will have no trouble finding familiar faces, at the Addis Abeba Exhibition Centre & Market Development Enterprise (AAECMDE).

All the regular vendors have decked out their recognisable wares, starting from December 22, for the holiday exhibition, organised under the theme 'The Grand Trade Fair and Christmas Festival", until January 6, 2013.

Even the spots these regulars hold are the same. Near the main gate, the colourful banners of Obama Midija, a small stove accessorised with energy saving coal, a staple at these exhibitions, greets entrants. Tej vendors, as always, have occupied the key spots behind the entertainment stage outside.

Meko Safi, a Syrian businessman who sells vegetable slicers, is still drawing attention near the entrance, inside Hall I. He has perfected his hasty demonstration of the power of his tools, which can reduce a whole onion, or potato, into thin slices, within just seconds.

Out of the 330 businesses that participated in the fair, 138 are repeat customers. Most, like Meko, have in fact been attending regularly, for eight to nine years. He is an experienced participant of exhibitions, held not only here, but also inTanzania,GhanaandUganda. This business season, however, is sad for Meko, as his factory has been closed, due to the political instability inSyria.

Another exhibition veteran is Anish Ahmed, an Indian, well versed in arithmetic tricks, who instructs impressed visitors in simple calculation methods, equipped with a microphone and a blackboard. In between the short lectures, he can be found soliciting the large crowd that gathers around his booth to buy his CDs, for 120Br.

This is Ahmed's fifth time at the Trade Fair, selling under the banner 'Play with Math Like a Football'.

The reaction to such a repetition of businesses is not seen in a fair light by all.

"Its all the same, we do not see new things," a visitor of the Trade Fair, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Fortune. "The purpose of a trade fair is to see something new."

The visitor who has been to similar exhibitions inChina, during his business travels, stated that trade fairs there involved a lot of manufacturers, who sell new items at factory prices.

"Here most of the participants are retailers that normally operate a shop in Merkato," he complained. "In addition, the same participants are here and the items are also the same, leaving no room for anything different."

Manufacturers are indeed limited, accounting for only 35pc of the participants. Retailers account for 25pc, and the remainder are agents, according to Zewge Jemaneh, the owner and manager of Century Promotions.

"The problem is awareness," Zewge said. "Businesses still do not see the big advantage of promoting their goods. It is only through time they are realising it is important."

Even then, it is the ones that have participated before that know of the benefits and still participate in the Exhibition, according to Zewge. Soliciting new customers has always been the intention, and the number of manufacturers has also increased, he says.

There have been improvements, especially in the textile, leather, food and beverage sectors.

One such new-comer was tucked away in a booth by the main entrance. The colourful banners placed on top, advertise a product, with the statement 'Sega Lemene', roughly translated as 'what do I need meat for?'

The product, called tasty soya pieces, contains dried cubes made out of soy to serve in lieu of meat. Made by an Indian company, which has opened a factory in Debre Zeit, 40Km east of Addis Abeba, tasty soya pieces made their debut at the exhibition.

"Tastes just like meat," is a sales pitch heard from four of the sales people surrounding the booth. The texture and nutritional content of the food is also like meat, according to the sales people. The package for the product is the size of Indomie noodles and sells for just four Birr.

The booth is decorated with photos of the soya pieces used in several traditional Ethiopian dishes, including; tibs (grilled 'meat'), firfir and Key Wot (stew).

"Before we agreed to sell the product at the exhibition, all of us were asked to sample some of it," Tsion Assefa, a sales person for the company told Fortune, explaining that the pictures posted above were of the resulting sample dishes.

The new product has caught the eye of many, and salespeople were busy explaining, when Fortune visited the fair, on Wednesday afternoon.

One of those gathered around Sega Lemene's booth was Eseyte-Mariam Dadi, a 46-year old mother from Dire-Dawa, located 515Km east of Addis Abeba. Eseyete has never been to a trade fair, in Addis Abeba, so all the vendors that are old news to others, are new for her. Sega Lemene, however, especially grabbed her attention.

"It's something new, and I want to take it home to Dire Dawa for my family to taste," she told Fortune. The product works out especially well for her since she is currently observing the Orthodox Christian pre-Christmas fasting period, and therefore, has to abstain from eating meat.

As for the general atmosphere of the trade fair, Eseyte says she likes it.

"I am just returning fromDubaiand making a trip home to Dire," she explained. "Even though I have shopped inDubai, there were still some items that attracted me enough to make a purchase."

She has spent all of the 1,000 Br she came with to the trade fair. Aside from clothes and jewellery, she also bought Dent-plus, a mouthwash and teeth whitening product she says is necessary for her khat chewing relatives, in Dire Dawa.

Still, there are other visitors who are not new to the holiday trade fairs, but also not disenchanted by the repetition of items. They like that some products are consistently available for them to buy, whenever they need them, just like in a permanent market.

The fact that Mohammed Mamoun, another Syrian veteran of the trade-fair, has returned with his bejewelled wedding gowns, for the sixth time this Christmas, for instance, has boded well for Genet Woldekiros, 25.

She and her partner of seven years, Yohannes Alamerew, decided a year ago to get married, but it was only recently that they opted for a wedding ceremony, ahead of quietly tying the knot. Having set the date of the wedding, for January 27, they are now busy preparing for it.

Genet, who does not usually miss holiday exhibitions, had seen Mamoun's wedding dresses displayed at the New Year trade fair, in September. Now she has come prepared and ready to buy the one she likes.

Sure enough, she found the gown that she liked. Prices have risen by as much as a 1,000 Br, this time around, however. The wedding gown, along with the veil and train, will now cost her 7,000Br.

Mamoun, who was selling a wedding gown to an engaged couple, when Fortune talked to him last year, says that the price hike for this season is due to higher taxes and an increase in rental prices.

The going rate for a square meter base ranges from 77Br to 100Br, per day, inclusive of VAT, according to Zewge. Most of the booths, which are 9sqm, cost around 17,000 Br, according to several vendors Fortune surveyed.

Little of the chaotic shopping scene at Christmas Trade Fair is observes new things. Yet, even the few new exhibitors attract huge crowds of shoppers that crave for new goods and experiences.

Unlike the wedding gown Genet bought, most clothing items are on sale this year. Shirts and trousers have shown a decrease in price, of at least 50 Br, when compared to the outside market.

Christmas lights and decorations, however, come at a pricier rate than in Merkato, considering that most items sold at exhibitions are priced at a discount. A 10 Br difference was observed, across the board, for all the artificial Christmas trees, when compared to the outside market. The smallest, a 1.2m tall tree costs 185 Br, whilst the tallest, at 2.1m, is 1,400Br.

Participation was mediocre in the first week of the two week event. The normally congested halls are freer and visitors can move from place to place easily. The room also feels cooler, since it is not packed with quite so many people.

"We are hoping more will come as the time for Christmas nears," Emebet Kidane, 23, part of the sales team, at the Sarem Food Complex booth, told Fortune.

She is not the only one crossing her fingers.

Vendors, especially the ones that were there for the Ethiopian New Year, in September, are concerned about the decrease in the number of visitors.

The death of Meles Zenawi, in August, had dampened trading activity then. An additional six days were added to the fair to bring in more customers. Still, by the end of it, Century Promotion declared that it made no profit. Current trends show that profits from a single fair can reach up to 400,000Br.

Participating businesses had also experienced a similar fate.

"I hope this time it will be different," a business owner who sells locally made photo frames and religious artefacts, told Fortune, requesting anonymity.

As of this week, the number of entrants to the trade fair is 7,000 per day.

"We are hoping this number will reach 15,000 to 20,000 very soon," Zewge told Fortune.

The New Year Trade Fair in 2011/12, organised by Afro Dan, had a different story. The 16-day exhibition attracted 30,000 to 70,000 visitors a day, each paying 10 Br entrance fee, and the organiser had collected a profit of approximately 10 millionBr.

The company, which has been organising such fairs for the past 12 years, has won the bid to organise all three holiday trade fairs, for 2012/13, at a total cost of 12 millionBr.This is one more event than it had last year, when it organised the Christmas and Easter fairs, but missed out on the New Year fair.

There is still time left for an improvement in visitor levels, up until the closing day, on January 6th. For future events, however, perhaps an increase in the volume of new traders would also see more buyers attracted to the fair.

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