ZIMBABWEAN private companies are struggling to find their feet owing to a harsh operating economic environment which has seen just a few local firms exhibiting at the country's premier trade showcase, the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF), currently underway in Bulawayo.
This is in contrast to the trade fair's theme aimed at showcasing industrialisation.
Twenty-five percent of the exhibiting companies are from Bulawayo, with 15% coming from other towns and 55% from Harare, according to statistics provided by the ZITF.
The majority of companies in Zimbabwe are buckling under the weight of mounting economic problems, in addition to a volatile exchange rate risk triggered by the local Real-Time Gross Settlement dollar losing value against the United States dollar.
The exchange rate risk is threatening to sink companies, especially those with foreign exchange debts and other liabilities. Companies are downsizing and closing down due to the current economic situation.
Forex shortages have limited the companies' capacity to procure raw materials from foreign markets.
Those exhibiting at the 2019 ZITF are a few private companies such as Datlabs, United Refineries and TV Sales and Home.
A lot of space has been taken up by struggling parastatals and state-aligned enterprises like the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ), Grain Marketing Board (GMB) and Hwange Colliery Company Limited (HCCL) while local authorities, universities, colleges and even government departments have their own fair share of space in a clear exposition of the economy's sorry state.
In a first, women from rural Matabeleland have attracted attention by showcasing locally produced goods like grass brooms, handcrafted baskets and curios, among other artefacts, in a project supported by chiefs and Homelink. They occupy sizeable exhibition space at the ZITF's Hall 4.
Last year, sex workers and the lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex community (LHBTI) hit the headlines, but there is no sign of them at this year's event after their previous act courted national controversy as critics claimed their participation promoted moral decadence.
The agricultural section recorded a 20% drop in individual and commercial entries, Bulawayo Agricultural Society (BAS) administrative officer Natalie Adlam said, as the sector struggles to find its feet after agrarian reforms at the turn of the millennium.
According to ZITF Company board chairperson Ruth Ncube, this year's trade fair has been over-subscribed with 100% exhibition space taken. She said a further 5% additional space was availed to accommodate the overflow.
"Consequently, the exhibition has registered tremendous growth. The exhibition has continued to register over 90% consumer satisfaction rating on service delivery and in turn, ZITF has consolidated its position as the country's leading exhibition," Ncube said. "By linking business with potential investors and financiers, ZITF 2019 provides a platform to explore and cement synergies that promote trade and investment. The ZITF is an important stage to engage the international community in efforts to strengthen linkages, which are pivotal to achieving desired economic growth."
However, a visit to the ZITF showed a different picture with traditional exhibitors such as parastatals,
universities and other government departments maintaining a strong presence to sell.
The 60th edition of the ZITF is held under the theme "Propagating Industrial Growth Through Trade and Investment".
Industry minister Mangaliso Ndlovu said the theme "dovetails with the government's thrust to transform Zimbabwe into a middle-income country by 2030 through implementation of policies and strategies that support the industrialisation agenda".
Sixteen countries, including the United States, which makes a comeback after a three-year absence, are participating compared to 17 registered last year.
China and South Africa, the country's largest trading partner, did not take up large exhibition space as in previous years. The two countries were represented by a few individual companies.
African countries participating at the fair, but with small stands, include Nigeria, Namibia, Botswana and Ethiopia. Uganda, whose President Yoweri Museveni officially opens the 60th edition today, had its stand deserted on Tuesday and Wednesday.
In 2016, the South African government's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) said it secured 431 trade leads and 21 Zimbabwean agents were appointed, showing the scale of the loss Zimbabwe could have suffered since there were only a few companies.
The DTI said it had recorded export sales of R10 million during that trade fair period.
Belarus, Zimbabwe's newfound friend, did not disappoint in its first-ever participation at the ZITF as its flagship companies BELAZ, Minsk Tractor Works, SOHRA Overseas FZE and CHEFI showcased various products.
SOHRA Overseas FZE is the official representative of Belarussian manufacturers in African and Persian Gulf markets, according to Slava Shevchuk, a senior specialist for foreign exhibitions in the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce Industry.
The Belarus Pavilion showcased medical products, machinery such as motor blocks and mini tractors, heavy duty vehicles, mining dump trucks, high-tech specialised vehicles, tyres, gauze wads among others.
Analysts say ZITF mirrors the current economic situation.
"It can only serve its purpose if there are big industrial exhibitors, but on a quick walk around, one sees mostly quasi-government and government department occupying the stands. On hardly sees yesteryear industrial giants. It now appears to be routine than just being a trade exhibition extravaganza," analyst Michael Ndiweni said.
Economic commentator Reginald Shoko added: "Going forward, one will wish to see more sector-driven exhibitions like Mine Entra that would help the development of our industry and at the same time utilising the available space at the exhibition centre rather than having those two annual shows ... but the issue is still debatable if this translates to business volumes."
However, Bulawayo mayor Solomon Mguni said the 2019 ZITF could not have come at a better time than now when the city has been declared a Special Economic Zone (SEZ).
Industry deputy minister Raji Modi said declaring Bulawayo an SEZ is part of government efforts to turnaround the city -- once the industrial hub of the country.
"We recognise the need to revive our industries. It is because of this recognition that our exhibition theme this year is 'City of Bulawayo -- Pioneering Industrial Growth Through Trade and Investment'," Modi said.