On Thursday afternoon last, GuyExpo XV was declared open by President Donald Ramotar, who, along with the various other functionaries, said his piece about the event being billed as the country’s premier trade show. Politicians are practiced great exaggerators; still, GuyExpo has come to be seen as a trade fair and more.
On Saturday, after darkness fell, throngs of people descended on the Sophia Exhibition Site. There was no trace of
the ritual opening. The hype and hoopla had passed and the event was left to fend for itself. There has always been a foreboding wind hovering over GuyExpo that has to do with whether it fully serves its purpose as a trade fair or whether it is not simply one of those sideshows designed more or less for political bragging rights.
That episode passes, the façade of good order which the organisers seek to create disappears and GuyExpo breaks out at the Sophia Pavilion, like a rash. That is how it was on Saturday evening.
However much the authorities seek to fit the event into a clearly-defined cubicle, GuyExpo means different things to things people. For the major corporate players it is an opportunity to impress, to add a touch of sophistry to the trade fair. The country’s emerging information technology sector leads the way in that department. Much continues to be made of our manufacturing sector and if a biggish collection of value-added manufacturers seem impressive at first sight you cannot help but reflect on the fact that, on the whole, the sector is weak, in need of the kind of invigoration which GuyExpo, with its professed exposure to external markets can bring. The signs are that it works for some.
Then there are the small and medium-sized operators, hustlers rather than entrepreneurs, wise enough and sufficiently practical to recognise those four days at Sophia as the single biggest retail market of the year, in most instances Christmas included.
Then there is the role of GuyExpo as a ‘night out’ for families, couples and groups of youngsters. After dark, when they descend on Sophia in their hundreds the semblance of security and good order disappear and safety reposes in no more than a collective agreement among the visitors to behave themselves.
Those are the respective elements that characterize GuyExpo and no amount of state-driven exaggeration changes that.
It’s difficult to determine whether GuyExpo truly serves the purpose for which it was intended. Indeed, it’s difficult to define the real purpose.
Owners of the small booths that offer things like costume jewellery, leather goods, locally manufactured condiments and hand-sewn clothing for sale are dead certain about their reason for being there. An attractive and articulate seamstress says, “GuyExpo is the biggest one-off retail market for people like us.” It is a carefully thought-out definition that lays bare the reason why people like her go to GuyExpo – to take full advantage of a huge, captive retail market.
Nothing particularly different or spectacular caught the eye this year. The vendors did their best to make GuyExpo worth their while. The combination of indigenous food, craft and drink, value-added forestry sector producers, up-and-coming clothing designers, light manufacturers and jewellers combines to make an attractive setting. Visitors appeared to be making modest purchases – a dress here, a shirt there; a piece of costume jewellery or a jar of pepper sauce. There’s no shopping spree, but the vendors are driven by the view that it all adds up.
One clothing designer pointed out that it was the numbers of people that came to Sophia that mattered. “Every little adds up,” she says. The vendors have worked out that they can sell several items over a short period of time. “If you have a shop you have to wait for people to come in. The people are all here. We can talk with them. We can invite them to feel and touch what we have,” the designer told us. The vendors bank on return customers too. Most of them have stacks of calling cards and brochures.
After dark, Sophia is a cauldron. This year, as the throngs shuffled their way through the enclosures housing the exhibits from the manufacturing sector, they left little room for leisurely viewing of the exhibits. It was obvious from the tight knots in the crowds where the samples or ‘bargains’ were available. After a while people with triumphant expressions emerge from the crush with bags of free or ‘bargain’ acquisitions.
Among the manufactured items, those that had to do with houses and homes: windows, doors, cupboards, tables, chairs, beds and living room appurtenances appeared to attract the largest crowds. Still it was difficult to make any reliable assessment of the volume of business being done. Each booth had a number of assistants discussing the products with customers. From time to time money changed hands and some of the manufacturers discreetly conceded that it was the volume of small orders rather than the lucrative contracts that brought them to GuyExpo.
As the crowd grew denser, the aisles appeared to grow narrower, the booths seemed claustrophobic and customers cognisant of the distinct possibility of panic resulting from some unforeseen emergency booths would have instinctively sought out the clearly displayed signs marked EXIT in red.
As usual, the music was deafening, though the night air was comforting. Over the years there has been active debate on just what the loud music, the drink and the entertainment does for GuyExpo. The truth is that all of these elements belong together. GuyExpo is a mish-mash of entertainment and commerce that combine to make the event what it is. Some of the elements of a genuine trade fair are clearly missing but the truth is that without the drink bars, food stalls, music and the entertainment stages the volume of visitors would probably decline by as much as 60 per cent; retail sales would vanish and the huge bazaar that the event sometimes appears to be would probably disappear.
The fact that GuyExpo has never quite been what it ought to be is not reason for the authorities to be fretful. The more pertinent issues, perhaps, have to do with whether enough is being done to strengthen the manufacturing sector, to significantly reduce the number of imported products on display. It is not that GuyExpo should assume an anti-foreign posture. But on the other hand people have always had the idea that GuyExpo, for the most part, ought to be about providing an opportunity to showcase locally produced goods.
After the hype about the impact the Chinese exhibitors were expected to make, Saturday evening was a travesty, no less. After dark, the cavernous “Chinese pavilion” was virtually deserted, peopled only by a dozen or so disinterested-looking officials and security guards. The other contents of the pavilion included a three or four water pumps being offered at US$1000 each and scores of leaflets strewn on desks, chairs and on the floor. A flustered-looking female Chinese official was busy trying to tidy up.
Quite why the Chinese went to GuyExpo is a mystery. Perhaps it had to do with going through the motions of observing the lopsided trading relationship with Guyana, the foundation of which, it appears, has to do with the more global aspirations of the Chinese. In this instance it seems that the complete penetration of the Guyana market for cheap consumer goods is the sole motive of the prevailing Chinese assertiveness. A sense of puzzlement persists in some sections of the Guyanese business community about the presence of Chinese merchants. The government is affected by no such perplexity. It thoroughly embraces Chinese economic diplomacy.
Small-scale Amerindian businesses persist with GuyExpo. Like their urban counterparts they value the one-off market. For them, however, it is a sacrifice that is not always worth the while. Amerindian participants at GutExpo, mostly women, usually count the cost of participating in a national event that still does not do enough to grow their businesses. The distances from which they travel are too far-flung and there is little if any access to the funding, the technology and the markets that make a difference. Save and except for wild meat, a costly and expensive delicacy across the country, most products associated with the interior are regarded as curiosities.
Inside the booth hosting about seven or eight Amerindian stalls a woman was displaying a pile of huge cassava bread. We noted that visitors to the booth were curious about the giant cassava bread though it was unlikely that there would be any resulting growth of a huge and lucrative cassava bread market; at least for the foreseeable future.
If the Amerindian businesspeople – particularly those from the Rupununi – are to continue to be a part of GuyExpo it must make financial sense for them. Genuine official gestures by government – particularly to the women, some of whom must travel for several days to get to the city – could conceivably include free trading space.
One Amerindian woman, who is featured in Stabroek Business, said there ought to be some kind of mechanism to offset the significant costs associated with the participation in GuyExpo by Amerindians living in the interior.
The presence of the major commercial houses added to the colour of GuyExpo. They were there because that is part of their corporate duty. The telephone companies – GT&T and Digicel – as well as the various other IT goods and service providers had various offers. Cellular phones are excellent sellers as are various other tech gadgets. The IT companies were looking for the kind of patronage that follows GuyExpo.
There were the hidden elements too; like the visitors from the Caribbean Community territories hoping to break into the Guyana market with their various commodities including – of all things – rum. Then there were the various other sit-down deals that were struck, and perhaps modest export markets secured.
It was the throngs of people who dominated, however. They, in their numbers, made the market and the event and for all the fuss by the organisers about how much they put into GuyExpo, it was the visitors with their enthusiasm and their willingness to each part with modest amounts of cash, that made the event.