UMA trade fair battling the changing times

Students walk through UMA trade show grounds at Lugogo on Tuesday. Several people go for the trade fair to buy discounted items. Photos by Abubaker Lubowa.

What you need to know:

Business and fun. Merrymaking, catching up and a lot of giveaway-priced goods is what characterised the annual trade fair at Lugogo. Many Ugandans looked forward to buying good quality items on the cheap. Joseph Ssemutooke explores if it is still the same, two decades later

It is early Tuesday evening –to be more particular, at 4.30pm. In the sky, the sun has grossly cut the amount of heat it is pouring down, the temperature is soothing, and the setting is simply the kind that should favour every kind of outdoor activity.

We are at the UMA Showgrounds, Lugogo, where the 22nd edition of the annual UMA Trade Fair is underway –in fact one of the routine two weeks of the fair is already gone, and with only four days to go the trade fair is climbing towards its climax.

I take another sweeping look around me, and the trade show grounds are indeed a beehive of activity. Thousands of people are walking about the innumerable stalls, talking to the various exhibitors, buying from them and exchanging contacts.

Just as I conclude my survey of the panorama, for the umpteenth time, a voice inside me suggests the crowd I’m seeing at the venue is far smaller than it ought to be, and that as a consequence, even the amount of activity going on is far less.

Then I recall how back in the days when I was a little boy – I would come to this very place for the trade fair and almost every inch of space would be covered by a human frame. I also find myself recollecting how everyone in Kampala talked only about the trade fair when it came around.

This makes me realise I haven’t heard any one in my close social circles talking about the trade fair this year. At this moment, I’m already on my way to investigate what opinions other people hold about the way the trade show has changed through the years.

Lost pomp and hype?
“The fair has lost the carnival pomp it used to enjoy, and with it the hype,” says city businessman Matt Sserubidde, who last visited it more than two years ago. “In its best days, when the fair came around it was the major talking point of everyone, and you just couldn’t afford to miss it.” This view is shared by Brian Sseremba, a lawyer, who says the carnival pomp of old has now been replaced by more of “a robotic business-oriented ambience” which does not hold much attraction for the general public.

“So many people would come to the show every evening just to make merry; drink beer, watch musicians and dancers, play games, among other sorts of entertainment.”

Opinions like Sserubidde and Sseremba’s appear even more valid as you ask people when they last visited the annual fair and their answers are far-flung years like 2003, 2004 and 2006.

Alfred Muleme, a small-scale importer, who has exhibited at the fair for the last four years, calls upon the organisers to find ways of reviving the pomp and hype so they can exhibit their products to a wider audience, because for exhibitors big client numbers are the ultimate target.

“There is need for more creativity from the organisers, even from individual exhibitors, if the show has got to regain its pomp and popularity. There is need for more fun activities to bring back that carnival feel that attracts the crowd, need for more advertising of the event, among others,” Muleme says.

More exhibitors and products
On the side of exhibitors and products exhibited, official UMA statistics show that the total number of both has been going up with every passing year –for the most recent years moving from 995 in 2011 to 1,200 exhibitors in 2012, 2,000 exhibitors last year, and to more than 2200 exhibitors this year. The fair has been attracting more foreign exhibitors every year, and 395 of the exhibitors this year have come from a record 22 countries including USA, UK, South Africa, Kenya and Rwanda.

UMA says the consistent increase in number of exhibitors reflects that the fair is growing, because the major reason it was started is to give Ugandan manufacturers an avenue to showcase their products and encourage them by having them meet as many as possible of their clients in a free environment.

Revealing that the fairgrounds have now actually been expanded to almost double the size they were in 1992, UMA says it is also a reflection of how much the manufacturing industry has grown over the years.

Patrick Mande, a teacher from Kitintale, says he is happy with the variety of products on show at the fair.

“Having a chance to choose from an assortment of products that I can’t find anywhere else is my main attraction here,” Mande says. “It is what people who don’t come here miss out on.”

Less of factory and wholesale prices
While the increase in the number of exhibitors and variety of products is one customers laud, some customers are displeased with how prices of goods at the show have changed over the years.

Geoffrey Ssendi, who has this time around purchased cookware for his restaurant from the fair, says, “One of the most significant changes this trade fair has seen is the increasingly diminishing offer of goods at factory and wholesale price. We used to come here to buy items on the cheap; at factory or wholesale price. But now most of the exhibitors sell their products at almost the same price as outlets around town.”

Racheal Nisiima on her part says, with evident pain in his voice and eyes, that in the past she would save money all year-round so as to buy from the fair an assortment of things at low prices, but now she has abandoned that custom since the trade fair prices are same as ordinary market prices.

For Teddy Babirye, it is an unwelcome change that even the big beverage and food companies have long moved on from offering their products at half price. “At a fair makers of eats and drinks should sell them cheaply as a token to their clients,” Babirye says. “I understand that companies no longer give freebies. or free lunch.
Patrick Mande, expresses his discomfort with the entrance fee of Shs 4,000, saying it is astronomical, you wonder if even the entrance fee has moved from wholesale to retail price.

Changed crowd
Statistics from UMA indicate that the number of people who attend the annual fair has also increased over the years, from an average daily tally of about 10,000 daily visitors in the late 1990s to more than 20,000 daily visitors last year.

But Alfred Muleme says he is not sure that the increase in number of customers is significant if it is weighed against the increase in number of exhibitors to come up with a customer-exhibitor ratio increase. “If for, example, 10 years ago 500 traders had an average daily crowd of 10,000 customers, then there is no ratio increase if today 2,500 traders have an average daily crowd of about 20,000 customers,” Muleme says.

Away from Muleme’s maths, Richy Okello, a crafts exhibitor who first participated at the fair 15 years ago while he worked for Mukwano Group, laments a reduction in the number of people who go to the fair to buy products.

“Back then, you saw everyone who came here leave with a purchase, but now the people leaving with purchases are the rare sight and we don’t make many sales,” Okello says. The claim that there are few people who buy products at the fair is one echoed by Grish Kumar, a Pakistan national who this year has ventured in the fair to showcase and sell crafts from his country, says he is disappointed with the number of people buying because for him the reason for acquiring a stall was as much to sell as to exhibit.

Casting aside others’ opinions and observing for oneself at the trade fair, one should hardly fail to notice that a staggering number of students in all manner of school uniform floats about the fair like the sud on the White Nile.

A chat to the uniformed tourists at the fair reveals they still come for the same old reason as those who sat in class before them –a field study of the commercial world– but it is by all means a new scenario that school children should account for about two of every four people at the annual UMA trade fair at Lugogo.

But against these charges, UMA reckons that the show is not meant for traders to make sales rather for manufacturers and dealers to exhibit their products , to meet and hear from their customers, to make business conatcts for future use among others.
As I stood at the beer stalls and realised they were not as much of carnival venues, as I remember them from olden days,I wasoverpowered with a longing for the carnival fair of old.

Why you should not miss the trade show

There is a very wide variety of goods on display and on sale, wider than you can expect to find at any super market/shopping centre around. Especially as regards household utilities, the fair is simply one dream grocery store.

Even if you are not going to buy, checking out what is manufactured around the country and the world might come handy some time.

And you can be sure that you are not buying a ‘fake’ because it is the manufacturers themselves you get to buy from –in case of imported products, authorised agents. If it reads ‘Made in USA,’ you can be sure it is from there.

The party that goes on in the evenings, especially over the weekends, is one you should be a part of if you can. There’s much drama at the big stalls as people dance and do karaoke in order to win prizes, some big bring on performers…

You might actually also get to borrow an entrepreneurial idea from the fair. It could be an idea to start making a certain product you saw at a stall, or a marketing strategy, or a packaging style, name it.

If you see no reason whatsoever, what about just for the sake of patriotism? It’s high time we began supporting our own things, and the Lugogo trade fair is one of those bits of Uganda we can’t let to die.