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Design Indaba founder shifts focus in a bid to revive cultural showcase

2015-08-04 12:45

Is the country's design industry in trouble? One of our most prestigious cultural showcases, the internationally acclaimed Design Indaba, is scaling back. Despite claiming a R2.1 billion gross domestic product contribution over the past seven years, the event has cancelled the important trade show of its annual festival. 

Known as the Design Indaba Expo, the trade fair has shown a sharp decline in visitors since its record-breaking 63 560 during the World Design Capital 2014, to 49 523 in 2015 – figures so low they were last seen in 2009.

Despite reduced visitors, trade sales and exports showed only a small decrease from R201.9 million to R195 million, emphasising that the actual value of the event lies not in the eye of the domestic consumer. For both buyers and exhibitors, trade shows are widely considered to be the most time- and cost-efficient way of making big business deals across the globe. 

The conference, which will be relocating from the Cape Town International Convention Centre to Artscape, will soon announce a new date, no longer the usual last weekend of February, says founder Ravi Naidoo. 

The expo was founded in 2004 when “the Woodstock Exchange didn’t exist, the Biscuit Mill didn’t exist, Watershed didn’t exist, SAM on Bree Street didn’t exist”. 

Naidoo denies the event is in trouble. He says he preferred to innovate with the times along the lines of the London Design Festival and Milan Furniture Fair, where the truly progressive work is showcased across the city. 

Nonetheless, both these festivals have a trade-orientated anchor event. Naidoo felt that this sector contribution should no longer be the responsibility of his “small, private company of 30”, when the City of Cape Town and Western Cape Government had their own priorities in terms of investing in special purpose vehicles. 

“Maybe there’s a savvy entrepreneur who can go in and fill that gap, and maybe the City will support it, and maybe they’re not of a dusky hue like me and they’ll get better endorsed by the province,” said Naidoo after bemoaning that the company has not once presented to the Mayoral Committee despite its GDP contribution.

He also bemoaned the fact that the convention centre’s economic model and price points were orientated towards international events. 

Naidoo wanted to refocus Design Indaba along “a more distributed nationwide platform”, expanding nationally into Maboneng in Joburg and Florida Road in Durban, and even internationally. 

A big push remains the Indaba’s online magazine, which now attracts more than 100 000 unique visitors a month. The brand is no longer concerned with being a mega-event, but “morphing into other spaces locally and internationally … that operates 365 days a year”. 

About the art and design side events that have cropped up around the same time as Design Indaba, Naidoo is equally indifferent. 

“Most of them have not come over to us to collaborate or coordinate, they just happened. So maybe they’ll just have to happen when we happen.”

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