Dhaka hosts two month-long fairs annually in successive months. If the January trade fair has become a regular feature on the country's economic calendar, it is followed by a culturally more satisfying book fair the spirit of which is tinged with love for language and a heightened consciousness of national identity. Yet neither of the fairs seems to have attained the levels they were supposed to do by this time.
This article focuses on the Dhaka International Trade Fair (DITF) now being held at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar. The book fair will be dealt separately in another article. This year the 21st edition of the trade fair is being held. By this time it should have earned global recognition if it really had the characteristics of one such event. Unfortunately, the DITF has till date remained more a local event than a rendezvous of businesspeople and manufacturers from home and abroad.
The picture it presents is one where local customers visit for a stroll or purchase of mainly kitchen utensils and household gadgets -electronic and other types -usually on the false impression that those would be cheaper there. Children and women are particularly enthusiastic buyers of an array of high performing toys and perfume, make-up items and imitation jewellery respectively. Young men on the other hand are interested in the brand apparel stores or pavilions. Clearly, it is an extended, better arranged and sophisticated version of the annual village fair of the past.
Although claims are made that the fair offers an opportunity to rural artisans and craft makers to display their products at the venue in order to draw attention of customers from home and abroad, the claim proves rather tall. The reason cited for their non-participation in international trade fairs is their lack of financial strength. Is it any different for the majority of them at this venue as well? Unless a non-government patron or their own associations back them, it is impossible for them to participate in DITF individually.
There is no doubt that many handicrafts including decoration pieces or handloom items bear signature marks of a region, a tradition and culture aesthetically appealing to all, but their promotion has been made possible courtesy of different non-government organisations (NGOs). Government patronage has been of little use mostly because the local administration has either no time or simply is no connoisseur of such art and craft. If the purpose is to exhibit those before foreign clientele, it should be an exclusive exercise under another name. In fact, so crowded is the venue that such crafts get hardly noticed.
Better it would be to focus on the industrial and manufacturing sector where the country is on ground-breaking path. The policy should be to target markets item-wise. For example, the plastic industry with enough potential can only get better if a few regional markets are targeted. The process of communication channels with the relevant countries should be opened immediately after the fair concludes so that traders from the countries concerned can visit the next year's DITF and sign contract for import from this end.
As for the participation of foreign businesspeople or manufacturing houses, the same is true. The regular participants are some neighbouring countries which also compete mostly with similar products of local origin. Hardly do they put on display their exclusive items. Actually, this is low-profile representation of a country. Cosmetics and household commodities cannot give a trade fair its international character.
But the organisers are more interested in pulling crowds and low-end customers than businesspeople and manufacturers. What happens is more retail sale than furnishing business deals capable of spurring industrial growth in the long run. This cannot and should not be the objective of a trade fair of international order.
It is because of this, a rearrangement of the pavilions and stalls can be given a serious thought to. Pavilions of all local brands capable of exporting their products and foreign companies can be housed in an exclusive zone, where no retail sale will take place. They can exhibit some of their special items but will definitely have catalogues and brochures in order to show and explain why their products enjoy an edge over their rivals. Also power-point display is a more effective way of doing the job. If this is done, general consumers will feel little urge to visit such stalls or pavilions. But businesspeople will have a very good time to spare for their counterparts. This is exactly what should be the objective of an international trade fair.
By the way what has happened to the permanent venue for the international trade fair? Has it been stalled? Ideas were soaring about the future use of the permanently constructed facilities. Sure enough, those ideas were not bad either. But the more difficult part is to shape policies into practice.
It is time the entire idea of an international trade fair were reassessed for giving it a deserving shape. The country is poised for its economic take-off. Fittingly, its industrial journey must gather steam now in order to provide momentum to economic growth and improve living standard of the people.