Damascus fair encourages people to ‘buy Syrian’

Syria’s exports have plunged from $11.3 billion in 2010 to only $1.8 billion last year

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Syria’s entrepreneurs, suffering from crippling losses after four years of civil war, have launched a drive to encourage consumers hit by burgeoning inflation and a shortage of imports to “buy Syrian.”

A first installment of the “Made in Syria” fair in Damascus this month attracted around 60 local companies to showcase products that are both easier to acquire and far cheaper than whatever imports are available.

Fuad Adam is sales director at kitchenware company Heart, whose factory in Douma, near the capital, was destroyed by months of fighting.

But he is at the fair anyway, offering whatever wares could be saved before the plant was reduced to rubble.

“We’re participating in this exhibition to keep our brand alive in the minds of consumers,” he explains, as shoppers make their way through what looks like a makeshift hypermarket set up in a sports complex in the Mazzeh residential district.

Organized by the Damascus Chamber of Industry, the fair aims to “promote our industry and encourage people to buy Syrian products, which are half as expensive as imported goods,” says chamber official Mohammed Omar.

This first event was such a success that organizers are planning monthly fairs, not only in the capital, but also in other areas under government control, including one in the western province of Tartus in May.

They could be a major boon for Syrian consumers, whose purchasing power has been devastated as the economy has crumbled amid the fighting.

Millions of Syrians have been driven into exile by a war that has killed more than 220,000 people, and the United Nations estimates that four out of five of those who remain are living below the poverty line.

Dania, 30, says she came to the fair just “to walk around.”

But she ends up with such a load of cleaning products, milk, cheese and even thyme, all of which were discounted to encourage spending, that her husband has to carry the bag for her.

“It’s worth it,” she says. “It’s half the price of the store.”

For Dania, like many other Syrians, buying imported products has become nearly impossible.

Syria’s currency has plunged since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, dropping from 50 pounds to the dollar to 300 pounds this year.

To limit the damage caused by a foreign currency shortage, authorities are curbing imports while trying to promote exports, according to Fares Shehabi, president of the Syrian Federation of Chambers of Industry.

“Whatever we can produce here will no longer be imported. We will be able to provide the market with many products,” he says.

But boosting exports will be difficult for a country where many companies and businessmen have been under international sanctions since 2012.

Syria’s exports have plunged from $11.3 billion in 2010 to only $1.8 billion last year, according to pro-government newspaper Al-Watan.

Sanctions and loss of government control over many border areas have made it difficult to bring in goods, cutting the export-import ratio from 82.7 percent in 2010 to 29.7 percent in 2014.

The family-owned Halwani company is one of Syria’s most important producers of halwa -- a sweet made of sesame, almonds, and honey. It has seen sales plummet by 60 percent over the past four years.

“There were so many customers for us throughout Syria, and now we have lost that market,” says owner Louay Halwani.

Communication lines between provinces have been cut, and suburbs around the capital are either besieged by the regime or have been destroyed by battles, he adds.

To offset its drop in sales, the company wants to use the new fair “to approach consumers directly, without going through intermediaries,” Halwani says, determined to save the company founded by his great-grandfather 185 years ago.

Ahmad has a factory that produces pret-a-porter clothing and lingerie, and says sales have dropped 50 percent since the war’s outbreak, explaining that consumers are no longer buying “non-essential items.”

Speaking to a young customer who picked out a counterfeit “Chanel” T-shirt adorned with sequins, Ahmad emphasizes the bargains to be had.

“We have new skirts in different colors for only 2,000 pounds ($7),” he says. “It’s really nothing!”

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