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Trade-show guru is bringing Africa back

Submitted by on Thursday, 7 October 2010No Comment

HOT on the heels of the world’s largest sporting event being held in SA comes the biggest offering of international business opportunities yet assembled on the continent.

From July 25 to 27, 600 companies from 35 countries will gather in Midrand, hoping to get a foothold in Africa’s increasingly attractive domestic markets. The almost expired Southern African International Trade Exhibition (Saitex) – in 2008 not enough participants could be found by the then owners of the trade show, Kagiso Media , to hold it that year – has resurrected itself under its new masters.

With the unemployment rate in SA at about 25% , an increasing number of individuals are turning to entrepreneurship to gain a foothold and make a mark in the business sector. And trade fairs are marvellous vehicles for these budding entrepreneurs to market their goods and services or to source new products.

Saitex presents business owners with a unique opportunity to meet hundreds of new suppliers and access new products from around the world, in one spot.

“We can quite categorically state,” says John Thomson, MD of Exhibition Management Services (EMS), which is putting on the trade show, “that there is no other platform on the continent that showcases so many international companies wanting to introduce their products into the African market. They want to do business; it’s now up to Africans to pick up that initiative. And from the feedback we have had from last year’s exhibition, it seems they are.”

Born in Malaysia and schooled in Britain, in 1974 Thomson, while doing a lot of overland travelling around the world, ended up in SA. Although scheduled to go on to Australia, he got a job as advertising manager for Staedtler and has been here ever since.


When I ask him what nationality he considers himself to be, his answer is “colonial”.

I push it and ask how he felt about England’s performance in the World Cup. In typical English understatement, he replies: “I think they could have done better.”

After Staedtler, Thomson joined Thomson Publications and ran a number of exhibitions for them. He found he enjoyed doing it and so set up his own company to run exhibitions and trade fairs.

Eventually the company he started was bought out by his erstwhile masters, the people at Thomson Publications, and for the next couple of years Thomson ran the business as a wholly owned subsidiary for them. In 1984 he started EMS.

I ask him how the credit crunch has affected trade shows and exhibitions. “You have to go back to when we started EMS. At that time we were also in a crunch situation, much like the current recession, because sanctions were really beginning to bite. So we moved into Africa. We set up a business in Botswana, and despite it being a frontline state , we moved South African products through that country into the rest of Africa.”

Thomson clearly remembers being in Zambia at the invitation of Kenneth Kaunda, where the Zambians he met were decrying the fact that, because they were also considered a frontline state, they were missing out on trade with SA. “All around us our brothers from the north are making sure they deal with you and we have not been involved,” said Joe Zulu, one of Kaunda’s cabinet ministers.

“Now the opposite is happening,” Thomson notes. “We are currently introducing a huge amount of African products and businesses into the South African and other markets. We are actually bringing our African customers back here. In effect, it is the reverse of the situation in 1984.” At the time, they also moved into Côte d’ Ivoire, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

“We still do a mining show in Ghana, which we have done for 14 years; we run a Telkom show in Nigeria, which we have done for 10 years; in fact we have been running shows on an ad hoc basis in 16 different African countries. Zimbabwe used to be our biggest trade fair, but sadly has now come to nothing. But that too will turn around.”

We return to EMS’s upcoming Saitex fair. “The previous owners ran it into the ground,” he says , “until it finally lost money and they abandoned it. So we bought the title.”

A vast array of products covering the full spectrum of retail goods will be represented. Everything from textiles, sports equipment and footwear to white goods, cookware, office furniture, cellular communications and home entertainment will be on display.


“Exhibitors will have access to more than 12000 agents, distributors, exporters, importers and retailers dealing through established trade networks in more than 40 countries in Africa and abroad,” he says.

This year Saitex will also place emphasis on the light industrial sector. Exhibitors will showcase do-it-yourself products and tools, welding equipment, plumbing supplies, engineering goods and services, carpentry, building and construction products, as well as manufacturing technologies and office equipment.

“Small and medium enterprises play a vital role in the growth of the South African economy,” says Thomson. “According to a report from the Reserve Bank, the total output from this sector comprises almost half the country’s gross domestic product, and employs more than 60% of the total active labour force. So it’s clear that the promotion of small and medium businesses can reduce unemployment.”

At a presidential summit on entrepreneurship in the US in April , the CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa , Stephen Hayes, said entrepreneurs were essential to Africa’s economic development and growth.

“The continent needs more midlevel entrepreneurs,” said Anthony Carroll, MD of Washington-based advisory company, Manchester Trade.

“These are the people who are going to be the engines of their economies because they can create jobs and wealth, and move the economies forward and hopefully be champions of good governance and transparency.”

Keith Boyd, director of the Africa Programme at the US Department of Commerce, says the key to economic growth is to have the private sector doing things. “It is often entrepreneurs who actually create jobs and stimulate growth across the continent. Entrepreneurship is not a destination; it is a journey.”

Last year, the attendance at the trade show was more than 12000 visitors from 40 countries. “Not quite the Fifa World Cup,” Thomson says, “but hugely impressive in terms of potential contacts and business generated.” He goes on to quote Richard Branson, billionaire founder of the Virgin Group: “Business opportunities are like buses – there’s always another one coming along.”

“When I started in 1975,” Thomson says, “there were three exhibition organisers. Now there are about 50 of them, who on average run about a trade show and a half each – whereas we do about six or seven exhibitions a year. On a personal basis, I am the longest-practising practitioner in the exhibition industry in this country. ”

Saitex also offers a free and, Thomson says, highly effective internet-based business matchmaking program – providing visitors with preprofiled, preselected and prescheduled matchmaking meetings. “The only thing it doesn’t provide,” he says with a smile, “is online dating.”

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