From 1987, Malawi has been holding international trade fairs, attracting local and foreign exhibitors. This year’s 26th Malawi International Trade Fair (Mitf) is no exception.
What has impressed me in recent years is the fact that each year, organisers of Mitf, the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI), come up with beautiful themes mostly bordering on growing businesses, especially the manufacturing sector, and the economy at large.
From previous trade fairs, serious exhibitors have clinched deals to export their products to international markets. Several others are struggling to fulfil their contracts.
Ideally, trade fairs are supposed to provide a forum where manufacturers and other service providers showcase how they go about their businesses. They are supposed to be fun as well. For instance, in an era when there was hardly no pay television let alone public TV in Malawi,
trade fairs provided a forum where many of us could watch recorded matches of many years back on those pavilions that had “videos” as we used to call television sets then.
I recall, as a young boy in the early 1990s, going to the Chichiri Trade Fair Grounds and appreciating how several products were made. Most manufacturers then used to have sample production chin processes. It was exciting.
For example, the Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (Admarc) pavilion was popular with one ‘Mr. Kachimanga’. Those firms that could not do the sample production processes at the trade fair used to show patrons video recordings of how they do it.
In the mid-2000s, there used to be an Egyptian exhibitor who also used to attract patrons with his demonstration of several kitchen utensils for processing vegetables. The man was simply a marvel to watch.
However, several years ago, some elements crept in and threatened the objectives and relevance of Mitf. Whereas in the past exhibitors would only sell products on the last day or based on orders, some exhibitors turned the event into a flea market.
I am glad that over the years, it appears most companies and exhibitors in general have come to appreciate the importance of trade fairs. That they are platforms to network and strike business deals.
I am particularly impressed with the service providers, notably financial service providers, especially commercial banks. It was refreshing to undertake banking transactions right within the Chichiri Trade Fair Grounds through National Bank of Malawi who have a bank within the complex and indeed Indebank which has a mobile banking van taking care of customers’ banking needs.
And, as if that was not enough, the Blantyre Water Board (BWB) is another show-stopper as, besides being told how processing of water from Walker’s Ferry to our homes or offices is undertaken, one is able to pay water bills or make any enquiry and get instant feedback.
However, from the look of things, it seems foreign exhibitors are having less interest in our Mitf. In the past, we used to have close to 10 countries
participating, but this time around only two, Zimbabwe and Kenya have some presence.
Back to the theme ‘Productivity: A key to exploiting export opportunities’. How much have we done to transform this economy from a predominantly importing and consuming country to a producing and exporting nation?
This was the vision of former president the late Bingu wa Mutharika back in 2004. During the opening of this year’s fair, President Peter Mutharika said that was the agenda of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
It is easier said than done. I believe Malawi can indeed transform itself with political will. MCCCI has always cried for a good business environment. Government is at the centre of creating such an environment through, for example, improving infrastructure such as roads and the railway connectivity for easy transportation of goods.
Erratic supply of water and electricity are other factors negatively affecting businesses. Besides, Malawi has very high lending rates which make it difficult for many companies to borrow money and meaningfully grow their businesses.
Trade and economic commentators have argued that to reap more from international trade, it is high time African countries walked the talk on value-addition to the predominantly ‘raw’ or ‘semi-processed’ agricultural exports.
Malawi and many African countries have failed to exploit export opportunities largely because they rely on primary agricultural products which are not attractive and do not fetch high prices. It is important for government to invest in value addition by putting in place deliberate policies, including capacity building of small and medium scale manufacturers.
Intra-Africa trade is already very low at 12 percent and sub-Saharan Africa’s contribution to global trade is a disappointing and unbelievable three percent!
Time has come to act more and talk less.