ZIBF a case of truth decay

ZIBF a case of truth decay Mr Stephen Chifunyise (right), one of the few decision-makers who came to the ZIBFA exhibition grounds, with children, who formed a large part of the audience
Mr Stephen Chifunyise (right), one of the few decision-makers who came to the ZIBFA exhibition grounds, with children, who formed  a large part of the audience

Mr Stephen Chifunyise (right), one of the few decision-makers who came to the ZIBFA exhibition grounds, with children, who formed a large part of the audience

Ignatius Mabasa Correspondent
FOR 10 years, I did monitoring and evaluation of British Council’s arts and culture programmes in Zimbabwe and southern Africa. One thing that I can share from my experiences is that, monitoring and evaluation are indispensable, not only in helping you tell your story, but also for you to know whether what you are doing is achieving your desired impact against set targets or not.

Ultimately, monitoring and evaluation tell you how you are performing, and the trends of your performance over a period of time. Monitoring and evaluation inform your decision making, planning and strategies.

The Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) is a vital national institution and I am not going to shut my mouth when there are things that need fixing.

I am, therefore, sharing my thoughts, so as to encourage progressive book-loving Zimbabweans to engage in rational disputation that will, hopefully, enable us to salvage something from the Fair’s imminent demise.

This year, I attended the ZIBF Indaba, the young persons Indaba and the public exhibitions in the Harare Gardens. The Indaba was well attended and had insightful presentations, unfortunately there was no time for meaningful discussions due to poor time keeping.

Also, there were just too many presenters, such that some of them were given as little as 10 minutes. That is not value for money, especially when one considers that some of the presenters had flown from Nigeria, Tanzania and South Africa.

On the other hand, the ZIBF public exhibition only had 50 exhibitors, and very few visitors, mainly made up of wandering school children.
While it may be good to look big, it is also a fact that egos are not reality.

This year, the ZIBF organisers unwittingly spread out the exhibition stands all over the grounds, giving the impression that the event is still big as it has always been. Unfortunately, the scattered stands made the exhibitors feel very isolated, making the spirit of the fair unfriendly.

From a design point of view, some stands looked like Grade Three classroom book corners. And, one of the few foreign exhibitors complained that the venue had no litter bins.

This is not how to run an international event. Such poor planning and organisation of events will bring the country’s name into disrepute.
We have so many capable Zimbabweans who are willing to brainstorm and help ZIBF get things right.
Let us get together and get to the bottom of the problem.

What happened to the ZIBF that used to attract even the head of state President Mugabe? This year, the only decision-makers that I saw at the exhibition grounds are Mr Stephen Chifunyise, Elvas Mari and Dr T. K. Tsodzo.

Visitors came and went without being counted. Under normal circumstances, ZIBF should have put a system in place to count and profile the visitors at the event. Those names and numbers are extremely important in telling the ZIBF story as well as acting as a warning indicator where interventions are needed.

Knowing distinguished visitors or decision-makers (named people who shape or influence public opinion and policy) helps when there is need to consult or lobby should the need arise.

ZIBF should have, most importantly, interviewed exhibitors (present and those that traditionally exhibit but were absent this year) asking questions ranging from their expectations, to what they think needs to be improved.

For me, the ZIBF public exhibition section is dead, and that demise has little to do with the economy. It has something to do with the new ZIBF structure that is not able to carry its weight.

ZIBF recently underwent a structural transformation — from ZIBF to ZIBFA.
The additional A stands for association. ZIBF is now an association of various stakeholders who elect members to a general council that in turn appoints and works with an executive board, but both the council and the executive board have different constitutions.

To my knowledge, an association represents individual membership societies. The power of associations lies in groups of like-minded people collaborating to achieve common goals.

In general, associations achieve these goals through the contribution of time, expertise, insight, and passion of volunteers. Associations are usually led by a board which, often in partnership with a paid staff, sets the strategic direction for the organisation and advances the association’s mission.

On the other hand, a fair, is a large show at which people who work in a particular industry meet, advertise and sell their products and has a very clear commercial focus. The idea of turning a fair into an association is retrogressive and anti-Zim-Asset. It removes a commercial mindset and replaces it with a casual approach.

The paradox is that associations usually grow, and as associations grow or as their needs change beyond what volunteers can handle, the board must hire an individual or a company to professionally and commercially manage the association.

Before ZIBF became ZIBFA, it was run by an executive director who reported to the board, but under the new structure, ZIBFA has gone back to using volunteers to “take ownership.”

The commitment and attention of volunteers cannot be equated to that of a full-time director who has clear deliverables and expected outcomes.
While ZIBFA may elect members from its various associations, those members may not have the time and the skills to make things work.

The majority of associations that form the ZIBFA are not dynamic and some of the appointees to councils and boards are likely to import some problems from their local association into the ZIBFA?

There is need to consider people with relevant competencies or to go the professional development route in order for the ZIBFA to deliver. Academics have little understanding of the commercial side of the book industry.

The ZIBF used to be as much a “trade fair” as it was a literary event and its structural change has weakened it.
Besides that, the book industry has changed significantly since the heydays of the ZIBF in the 1990s. Then, the Internet was in its infancy, there were no electronic books and kindles, there was no “social media.”

As a result, the ZIBFA needs to re-think why it is still there now. It cannot “go back” to being what it was, and neither can being an association that cannot carry its weight take it to the future.

It lost the opportunity to develop/change gradually along with the technologies because of the collapse of the economy and our “lost decade” in the new millennium.

The ZIBFA cannot just try to pick up from where it was at the end of the 1990s and do “the same old things” again. The world — and particularly the  book trade — has moved on.

ZIBFA should consider decentralising and parcelling out components of the fair to different capable managers who will plan, monitor, evaluate and even help with fundraising for the specific book fair activities.

I know a lot of such capable professionals — Roger Stringer, Virginia Phiri, Davison Maruziva, Jenny Yon, Chiedza Msengezi, Irene Staunton, Beatrice Sithole, Sekai Nzenza, Chirikure Chirikure, Jane Morris, Sekai Mpisaunga, Cde Fatso and Paul Brickhill, among others.

This way, ZIBFA will build a pool of professionals who will use their knowledge and contacts to grow and freshen up the event, making it exciting and relevant.

Besides surviving on donor money, ZIBFA must seriously explore ways of becoming sustainable. These days, even the so-called donors are getting tired of partners who view them as donors.

Instead, funding organisations are looking for dynamic partners that think outside the “donor culture” model.
The main idea being to establish a clear and sustainable relationship, based upon equality and not upon post and neo-colonial concepts of “donor and recipient.” ZIBFA must invest the right amounts of time in building relationships with the corporate world and Government. Funding organisations are looking for local partners who are good prospects for future investment.

They are encouraging an atmosphere where local partners pro-actively seek them out as a partner.
ZIBFA, urgently needs to evaluate the impact of its new structure, of the fair and all its components — from the Indabas, exhibitions up to the workshops.

It must do a reality check and not cling on to past glory? It must be able to tell Government what is still international about it? It must convincingly tell its story supported with statistics.

It must say what contribution it is making to the GDP? Why it should it be supported and what its strategy is?
What are its short and long-term outcomes? Where is it taking the book sector in Zimbabwe?

Ignatius T. Mabasa is a language consultant, translator, novelist and storyteller.

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