A subdued trade fair reflects the state of the country

An old Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) flag flies at the entrance outside the Bulawayo Exhibition Center. The sunburned and worn flag has clearly seen better days and perhaps should have been replaced years ago.

Yet it is ready to welcome visitors, real and virtual, to Zimbabwe’s premier trade show, its window to the world. It offers a window into how things have deteriorated in this land that once flowed with milk and honey. It’s not business as usual anymore.

The tough closures last year forced authorities to cancel the important retail showcase for the first time.

While the show kicked off yesterday, the majority of exhibitors had yet to set up their booths, many affected by a late decision to host the show after the lockdown was reduced to level 2.

Some booths were unoccupied while others were still closed, meaning companies were not attending.

Only 25% of Bulawayo businesses exhibit at the fair, demonstrating how hard the pandemic has hit remaining businesses in a town once billed as Zimbabwe’s industrial hub.

Those in attendance included Zimbabwe National Railways and Boustead Beef, which failed to reopen the Cold Storage Company, further indication that the economic situation remains difficult.

That’s not all, even South Africa – Zimbabwe’s biggest trading partner – hasn’t occupied a large exhibition space this year.

China too, which for years dominated the ZITF, occupying large exhibition spaces, apparently has a low-key representation.

Only 10 countries participate in total, namely Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania, but in smaller scale.

In 2019, the exhibition attracted 17 countries.

The pandemic has affected all countries and all businesses.

And making the trip to Bulawayo this year hasn’t been as easy as it always has been, with intensified checks at airports to make sure those infected don’t travel.

These developments indicate how the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping everything, including the future of major exhibitions.

Maybe it’s time for companies to look for new ways to present their products.

With the pandemic likely to plague the world for some time, the rate at which physical exposure takes place will remain moderate.

In these circumstances, marketing and technology campaigns will be essential to supplement the reduced physical exposures.

This will likely be the new normal until economies reopen as the pandemic wanes.

For Zimbabwe, however, the vigorous efforts to secure this year’s edition of ZITF are a good start in the country’s drive to rebuild the economy.

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