If you find yourself somewhere between Ras Makonnen Street and Jomo Kenyatta Street in the heart of Addis Abeba, you cannot avoid the claustrophobic feeling of congestion. The scene is one of long queues waiting alongside long lines of taxis, and numerous displays of street vendors’ items on sidewalks that seem to be in a perpetual state of construction. To make matters worse, the outflow of water from the sewage system not only contributes to the competition for sidewalk space but the pungent smell pushes one to want to escape the area. The one thing that can offer virtual escape from all this, is the sight of colourful balloons on the horizon.
Since August 22nd the large, rainbow-coloured balloons floating above the entrance of the Addis Abeba Exhibition Centre, have served as a welcome diversion for many. Some even went to the extent of changing their minds and taking time out to have a quick closer look at the balloons and at the event, widely known as the ‘Exhibition’, taking place in the big compound.
Dereje Negatu, 30, has a long tradition of going to exhibitions organised in the lead up to major holidays. He managed to visit the New Year’s exhibition on September 1, 2015 but he was not satisfied with what he found.
“Reading a new name as the organising company and the new effort shown in attracting attention [the balloon decorations], I thought some changes and new things awaited me in the overall arrangement. But nothing has changed either in the products or exhibitors.” Dereje complained.
He and his girlfriend were looking forward to finding fashionable new arrivals for an “exhibition price” but they managed to buy only a pair of stockings for her. According to Dereje the price of the stockings was the same as the regular price that could be found anywhere and at anytime for that price, without the need to pay extra money as an entrance fee.
A similar sentiment was expressed by Abeba Tigabu 45, who visited the Exhibition with her teenage daughters. Having tirelessly convinced her to do so, they too were equally disappointed. Instead of the planned shopping for shoes for her daughters, they ended up buying and enjoying some snacks, just to deal with the disappointment of their visit that was in vain.
“The thing is that there is no supply alternative and even those that were availed failed to impress the teenagers. They are all available in any other market, and the few good quality items we found, are being sold for even higher prices, despite what I always heard in the advertisements that there were discounted prices and a wider variety.”
Despite these and similar other notes of dissatisfaction expressed by some who Fortune talked to, the exhibition centre welcomed an uninterrupted flow of people.
One reason mentioned by some exhibitors, for the lack of discounts and the higher prices, was the increased rent for a stand.
Tinsae Akiliu is one of the exhibitors in a far corner from the gate. Displaying student bags at the centre for the last four years, Tinsae faced a significantly increased cost for rent in the exhibition centre from last year, which was 35,000 Br per 16sqm to 54,000 Br this year, for the same space allocation.
Henok Assefa an exhibitor of sanitary items agrees with the high impact the escalated price brings to the nature of the exhibition.
“I paid 15,000 Br more from what I paid last year for the same location and size of stand, which cost me 45,000 Br…” The trend in the centre indicates a monopoly and monotony in the layout of the stands for displaying items with most of the exhibitors taking the stands ‘permanently’ having a preferential right. It is only after they decide to leave that the spot goes out for auction. There has been a change in the organiser from the longstanding Century Promotions to Habesha Weekly, but the preferential right for previous stand holders stays.
Henok considers himself lucky to find a rare chance of having a stand.
He obtained the stand through registration by the event organisers after other exhibitors left the stand. According to Henok a front, middle or back stand to some extent has an impact on the profitability of the exhibitor in addition to nature of the items displayed, but he never had the chance to pick the spot he thinks works fine. It was all about luck that he got his spot close to the front gate outside of the halls.
Displaying inside the hall or outside also makes a difference to the profitability of the exhibitors. Interior exhibits close at 8:00pm, while the outdoor ones remain open until 9:00pm.
According to another exhibitor, Hiwot Mamo, co-owner of Hiwot Tejj who has displayed her products in the middle area of the centre, the fact that an exhibitor displayed products in the front area or at the back does not really matter as in most cases what makes a difference in the profitability is if the exhibitor is bringing new and high quality items to the display.
“If your items are good, customers come looking for you, and make sure that they find you and get your stuff. I have customers who have consistently bought my tejj for the past ten years,” Hiwot, proudly told Fortune. She has never changed her spot in the last 10 years.
It is only in situation when the existing exhibitors abandon their stand and stop participating in the exhibition, that new entrants will be registered. We do not demand them to change as long as they are willing to pay. The organisers cannot force them to leave, and change by new participants, Getachew Kebede from the Finance Department in Habesha Weekly confirmed to Fortune adding that the organisers have no mandate to force the exhibitors to come up with innovative products other than renting the stands reminding all previous exhibitors every holiday to participate in the next exhibition.
We only have ultimate say on few things. This year’s new feature is bringing all artists who have released a new album in the same year and reserving a full hall exclusively for Syrian exhibitors, added Getachew, admitting the limitations of the organisers.
Most exhibitors in the centre seem not to give much concern for the uniqueness of the items exhibited. Henok, for example, introduced only two new products, vaccum cleaner and face wash, this year. “I have other items I sell in my regular business. Imagine if I bring a vacuum cleaner here. Nobody will buy such big item which is not convenient for visiting while carrying such big items” he elaborated.
“During previous times exhibition meant for me getting in touch with new and unique products as well as getting discounts for the products. Those days are gone. I stopped expecting special items and discounts. Exhibitions no more offer any benefits except convenience- getting different things in the same place,” said a 60 year old visitor, Zerihun Mekonen.
“The problem lies in the bidding offers. Whenever event organising bids are opened, winning organisers call higher prices and mitigate their cost by charging the exhibitor higher rental prices which will then be ultimately borne by the consumer. How could discounts be possible in the instance of higher rents?” Tinsae questioned.
“I prefer if the organisers could minimise the rental prices which will have an impact on the end prices of the items. Otherwise there will not any benefit in conducting bids and changing the organisers other than worsening the inflation in the items due to stiff competition between the bidders in auctions held every holiday.” He remarked.
Exhibitors who managed to find a spot and still do the business also have dissatisfaction. For Tinsae the entertainment component is a huge challenge for his work. “Visitors who come for shopping are usually attracted to the side entertainment once it starts, [around four in the afternoon].”
Who benefits from all this endeavour remains a question.
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