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“At 23:56 on 23rd October 1963, Zambians rose in reverence of the Union Jack, the de facto national flag of the United Kingdom, for the last time as it lowered, signifying the end of British rule in Zambia.”

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Growing the local meetings industry

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In the Zambian context, oftentimes when high level meetings, conferences and exhibitions are held it is not for the community that they are being held in. Developing countries routinely play little more than a scenic backdrop for richer and more exclusive participants to enjoy the unique experiences or natural attractions that are often missing in their part of the world. Granted, this may be a cynical view but also one with some basis. However, in recent years there has been a concerted effort for local content and participation. The business of conferencing and hosting is one that is proving to be lucrative. But is it one that has enough local participation and content to be truly reflective of the needs of the clients and that of the hosting countries?

When one looks at Zambia as a destination, clearly there are things about our country that are unique and appealing. Whether it be in the category of mining, energy, agriculture or tourism there is clearly a lot to be excited about when one looks at Zambia as a destination. But who are the local players setting the tone and what niche have they been able to find for themselves in what is a crowded space that is often dominated by the larger players located in major world cities.

One event that comes to mind that was hosted in Zambia and was a locally driven initiative is the 2014 Zambia Investment Conference, which was hosted by the Zambia Development Agency in partnership with Pangaea Securities. The focus of the event, as explained by Pangaea Securities CEO Ceaser Siwale, was to showcase the opportunities in consumer goods, telecommunications, media, technology, logistics, distribution, infrastructure, construction and agro-processing.

Mr Siwale emphasised the need for Zambia to move away from its overreliance on mining and set in motion the transformation of our economy in a way that would attract foreign direct investment and create job opportunities. Not only was there an emphasis on local participation, there was also a focus on foreign investors who were passionate about Africa. In this instance, Sir Richard Branson – although to date there is no visible Virgin presence in Zambia!

Zambian event companies are seeing that, with a well-planned strategy, money is to be made in this market. Local companies that have had a visible presence in the conferencing space include Rooney’s Hire, which originally started in Zimbabwe but opened their doors in Zambia in 2004. Both R&G Events and PR Girl Media have taken the younger crowd, making use of social media campaigns to get ahead.

As rightfully put by Mulemwa Moongwa, in the international conferencing space a country has to look at itself as a commodity. Mulemwa is an events coordinator and consultant with 15 years’ experience and she is one of the organisers of the upcoming CONFEX 2020 in Lusaka. She states that businesses globally are set up as market destinations and Zambia must look at itself as such. However, there has been a lack of cohesion and cooperation between Zambians in building brand Zambia. “The platforms that foreign entities use to sell their side of Zambia are available to Zambians to change the narrative, we all need to consciously decide it’s in our best interests to market the destination,” Mulemwa continues.

As with any developing country, the private sector is not as robust as in other markets and the cost of doing business is often restrictive. However, Mulemwa credits hotels such as Protea Group for their efforts in both providing the infrastructure and platform for both locals and international visitors. She contends that Zambia is able to compete on the international stage and notes a number of high profile events are held year round. A common theme, she says, is that Zambians are hospitable and have been known to leave a lasting impression on its visitors – something that we are not using to our advantage.

The Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) industry has seen clear growth over the past 15 years, though there is room for improvement and many more opportunities to be explored within the sector. Mulemwa argues that talent alone will only take you so far and that one must find a specialty to be successful and also remain ethical in all their dealings with clients and potential participants.

What does Mulemwa believe the future holds for the Zambian MICE sector? With the current fixtures of the tourism, housing, agricultural and mining indabas and the current provincial expos that are being held on an annual basis, there is a lot to look forward to in both the private and public sector. Mulemwa closes by saying that Zambia has many a diamond to be mined as we aim to develop and market ourselves as a destination for MICE and business tourism. She noted that the 2022 AU Heads of States Summit will be held in Zambia and poses a challenge to the country’s budding event organisers to seize this and many other upcoming opportunities in the Zambian events space. Before this, on 15 April 2020, Pinnacle Creations will host The Business of Events in Lusaka, bringing together various events professionals from Zambia and the region. It is one of a growing number of platforms for event professionals to network and hone their skills.

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