The Dhaka International Trade Fair has become an exposition for importers, not local manufacturers.
The country's biggest trade show that came to a close yesterday was meant to be an annual venue for local manufacturers to display a diverse array of products and help them network with buyers from overseas.
But it now seems to be a lost opportunity.
This year round, the DITF was infested with traders selling imported items and local substandard products.
Only 20 percent of the 471 stalls and pavilions at the fair showcased locally-made products with quality that can beat foreign brands. The rest were filled by importers, traders and distributors.
Participation of major local brands was limited to sectors such as furniture, kitchenware, foods and textiles.
A number of local garment traders and tailoring houses based in New Market, Chandni Chowk and Islampur rented stalls at the show. Nearly two dozens tailors from the capital's Elephant Road set up stalls to sell low-quality blazers, each selling for as low as Tk 1,300.
Vendors and hawkers occupied footpaths with makeshift shops that call to mind the scenes of roadside shopping seen across the city.
In association with the commerce ministry, the Export Promotion Bureau has been organising the month-long exhibition at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar since 1995.
Export orders at the show fell by a half to Tk 80.44 crore this year, compared to the previous edition, as political unrest kept foreign buyers at bay.
Its stated objective is to project quality exportable products of the country to the visitors from home and abroad.
Organisers say the fair aims to give scope to local producers in the remote areas, who do not have financial strength to participate in fairs abroad to display their products to international buyers.
In reality, the presence of local small-scale producers was confined only to three pavilions.
The pavilion of Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation allowed 18 small companies to set up stalls for selling paper products, garments, handicrafts, herbal items, jute products, leather items and home textiles.
Seven Hazaribagh-based leather product manufacturers set up eight stalls at the pavilion owned by Business Promotion Council of the commerce ministry.
About 20 jute product-makers displayed items made of the natural fibre at the pavilion of Jute Diversification Promotion Centre.
Seven cash-strapped women entrepreneurs took part in the fair in the same stall under the banner of Grassroots Women Entrepreneurs Society, as they could not afford to rent the space alone.
Shahnaz Begum, a woman entrepreneur, said she and several other small entrepreneurs came to the fair in hope of getting in touch with foreign buyers. "But we have failed to bag a single buyer as there was not so many of them."
Officials of FT Husain Tyre, a tyre-maker for medium-sized trucks, bikes and three-wheelers, said they had contacts with businessmen from Singapore and Canada during the fair, but no export deal was reached.
A number of entrepreneurs said the fair could not live up to the expectations if the objective was to promote local products and help them find overseas markets.
"Besides, the low quality products flooded the fair," said one of them. Entrepreneurs also termed the rent of the stalls huge.
"About half a dozen companies from Rangamati used to take part in the fair even five years ago, but only two of them took part this year. The rest might be unsure about the return on the investment," said Tansen Barua, an entrepreneur from the hill district.
The entrepreneurs said traders got the most space because of corruption on the part of the authorities. They also urged the EPB to separate out local producers from importers and traders.
Asif Ibrahim, a leading exporter in the country, said the DITF has not reached the international stature yet. As a result, there is a lack of interest among domestic manufacturers to utilise the fair effectively.
The former president of Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry called for setting up a permanent venue for the fair.
"In countries like China, they have permanent facilities at the fair venues. If we can't upgrade our facilities we won't be able to raise the standards of our DITF," he said.
Monowara Hakim Ali, first vice-president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said the EPB should sincerely look into the quality of products, both by local and foreign companies, to be displayed and sold at the fair.
Shubhashish Bose, vice-chairman of EPB, said the number of local manufacturers and entrepreneurs was not as high as expected, and the EPB could do very little in stopping importers and distributors.
"We give priority to manufacturers and entrepreneurs when we allot stalls and pavilions. We have allotted stalls to every local producer who has applied. If we don't get enough applications from them we can't do anything," he told The Daily Star.
He thinks the Tk 2 lakh rent for a stall is not too high, given the rising cost of operations.
About the thin presence of foreign companies, Shubhashish said international companies and participants are not generally interested in a lengthy event.