The trade and industry department has hit back at criticism that it did not fund a South African stand at the world's largest information technology trade fair this year, saying that if a company could not afford to pay its own way it was too small to chase export business anyway.

Ten companies expecting to attend the CeBIT show in Hannover this month had to scrap their plans when the department chose not to fund their participation.

That did not reflect a lack of government support, but arose from the need to allocate resources more carefully, said the department's director of export promotion, Christian Saaiman. "If a company is too small to pay for an exhibition, are they large enough to take on the export market? If they can't pay R70000 to go to a show what happens if they win an export order -- will they be able to fulfil it?"

Instead of supporting CeBIT the department is funding a national pavilion at Dubai's Gitex technology show in November. It has a budget of R2m for Gitex and can sponsor about 10 companies. "The Gitex applications are coming in now and it will cost them nothing," Saaiman said. "We buy the space, build a stand, pay for a plane ticket and give them a daily allowance."

Gitex is viewed as the gateway to the Middle East, with more than 1200 exhibitors from 61 countries participating last year. "Gitex caters for a different niche," said Saaiman. "Europe is an established market for us. We need to explore new markets like the Middle East and Asia and that's Gitex." The department came under fire for not supporting CeBIT from the Cape IT Initiative (Citi), which was finalising the attendance details when it realised there was no budget for a national pavilion.

Citi said SA needed a continuous presence at CeBIT to prove it was not a technology fly-by-night. Saaiman agreed, but said that did not mean the department always had to fund a national stand.

"CeBIT is an important trade fair and we agree that people need to be there all the time. If companies have been at an exhibition for four or five years in a row they should have established a foothold in the market and made a name for themselves or appointed an agent. Our role is to assist companies until they are established and then we move away. But they can still continue to be there, because EMIA (the Export Marketing and Investment Assistance programme) will refund them for their individual stands."

The 10 companies that pulled out could have covered their own costs up front and applied for a refund from EMIA. Companies ready to export could also apply for grants to conduct market research or join an international trade mission, he said.

The Export Council and sector specialists had to decide which events offered the best platform for showcasing local products, Saaiman said. CeBIT was taken off this year so SA's exposure in the IT industry could be expanded to Gitex and the London Call Centre show instead.

The decision was also influenced by a "battle" to find companies wanting to take advantage of its funding for CeBIT in 2005, Saaiman said. This year the department will spend R60m on national pavilions at 38 international trade fairs. Since 2003 it has paid for 145 IT companies to exhibit on national pavilions at a cost of R21,1m.

Business Day