The business of festivals' not music to the ears of organisers

Thursday May 05 2022
Nyege Nyege Festival.

Revelers have fun in the rain at the 2015 Nyege Nyege festival. PHOTO | FILE


When Busara Promotions, the organisers of the Sauti za Busara International Music Festival, Zanzibar’s premier music festival, announced on March 23 that this year’s edition of the annual extravaganza was to be the last for a lack of funding, it was proof of the financial burden of organising music and other festivals in the region, where long-term local financing is hard to come by across all sectors.

In 2016, Busara Promotions cancelled the festival because they could not pay to hold the event.

The chief executive officer and Busara festival director, Yusuf Mahmoud, said: “Without funds to run office operations, pay salaries and other expenses, Sauti za Busara would no longer be able to continue.”

Sauti za Busara.

Ison Mistari aka Zenji Boy (Zanzibar) at Sauti za Busara 2021 PHOTO | COURTESY

According to Mahmoud, the decision to shut down the festival was prompted by the expiry in March 2022 of the contractual support of the Norwegian embassy that covered most of Busara Promotions’ costs since 2009.

Fortunately for Busara, one week after the declaration, Blue Amber Zanzibar came to the rescue and on March 29, Pennyroyal Ltd, the developers of Blue Amber Zanzibar, and Busara Promotions signed a three-year sponsorship deal to the tune of $120,000 that will see the festival’s continuity and sustainability.


Mahmoud said only a few African governments invest in the creative industries, saying in South Africa and Morocco, festival organisers can apply for funding from their municipal, regional or national authorities. None of the East African countries has such a policy.

He added that, “In Europe, infrastructure is in place. Travel is easier, financial transactions operate smoothly. Many festival promoters collaborate and share costs. It is possible for one group to perform 16 or more shows in a month in different cities and festivals across Europe.”


A DJ on the turntables. PHOTO | FILE

Nyege Nyege International Music Festival, Uganda’s premiere entertainment event since 2015 is in the same boat.

“In its five years of existence, Nyege Nyege is yet to make a profit,” says co-director, Derek Debru.

“The ticket collections come in late and sponsors often pay very close to the event or even after the event, but there are a lot of expenses that must be covered early such as booking flights, hotels, setting infrastructure,” he said.

“Plus, you need to keep the ticket affordable because there are additional costs to the attendees such as travel, accommodation, drinks and food,” Debru says.

“Foreign aid often comes in the form of grants, which can be extremely time consuming in terms of reporting,” says Debru adding that “relying on it too much is risky because the funders can always pull out.”

Mahmoud admits that it has not been easy for Busara Promotions to reduce foreign donor dependence and look into local financial support.

A DJ on the turntables.

Revelers at a past festival. PHOTO | FILE

According to Mahmoud, the first editions of Sauti za Busara from 2004 were almost entirely funded by foreign donors such as the Ford Foundation, Hivos and Africalia. He however said that for sustainability and independence, “we have to remain creative, generate our own revenues, build and strengthen partnerships with public and private sectors in our localities.”

“Knowing that the Norwegian embassy support was about to expire, Busara Promotions spent the past year lobbying donors, sponsors and government leaders to invest in the organisation, seemingly to no success. At the last minute, when we had almost prepared to close shop, Blue Amber Zanzibar offered to cover our operational expenses for the next three years,” Mahmoud said.

He said they always ensure the tickets are affordable for the community.

“Our policy has always been to keep the festival events affordable for the local people. Ticket prices vary, with generous concessions for all Tanzanians, EAC residents and African passport-holders.

''For example, at this year’s Sauti za Busara this February, with seven acts performing on the main stage each day, ticket prices were Tsh90,000 ($39) for international visitors, Tsh45,000 ($19.50) for EAC and African nationals, and Tsh6,000 ($2.60) for Tanzanians.”

Revelers at a past festival.

Revelers at a past festival. PHOTO | FILE

Revenue from ticket sales is however not dependable and Mahmoud says the best year in terms of attendance was 2020, where ticket sales brought in about 25 per cent of festival expenditure.

Pre-pandemic editions were attracting 8,000 people per day, from all over the world. Numbers were lower the past two editions, with attendance in 2022 dropping to 4,000 people per day. We are hopeful numbers will improve especially as we celebrate 20 years in 2023.”

Mahmoud singles out expenditure on artistes as the most expensive financial.

Others include performance fees and costs for local transport and accommodation.

According to Unesco, in any community, festivals are an important showcase of culture and creativity, and the cornerstone of economic development strategies to attract tourists.

African governments have come under criticism for not supporting the cultural and creative industries preferring to concentrate on other development priorities.

“Festivals and the arts can bring massive benefits, such as destination marketing, economic boosts, cultural pride, social cohesion and cross border solidary. Impact assessment surveys are mostly conducted in the global North, showing how cultural and creative industries contribute millions to their economies,” Mahmoud says.

“In East Africa, political leaders have yet to understand the enormous economic impact of festivals. Nyege Nyege alone brings in an estimated $3 million to the economy, directly and indirectly.

''Countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and Egypt have a history of supporting the arts and that is why we see the creative industries being much more developed there,” Debru says.

Revelers at a past festival.

Revelers at a past festival. PHOTO | FILE

Mahmoud says Busara pays the equivalent of $80,000 to the governments of Zanzibar and United Republic of Tanzania, in taxes, licenses and permits, hiring of venues and so on, but some costs were offset in recent years. For example, foreign artistes pay the tourist visa rate of $50 instead of the $250 business visa.

Mahmoud says they hope to see more support from local authorities, even if it is in the form of reduced costs on marketing and promotion, venues and technical equipment, audience health and safety procedures or related services.

He is advocating for public-private partnerships for sustainability.

“Twenty-five years organising festivals in Africa has taught me to be patient, to persevere, to listen, to be open, to be flexible but also to keep focus. We have a mission and a vision. Not everyone understands the subtleties, but festivals certainly offer plenty of opportunities for win-win partnerships, with many direct and indirect beneficiaries.”

“Travellers are looking for unique cultural experiences. The tourism industry needs to incentivise festivals by offering flights tickets, hotel rooms and commissions, while governments should show more solidarity,” Mahmoud adds.

Debru says it would be great for organisers to own their own land, develop infrastructure and do more than one event a year. Nyege Nyege is hosted in the outdoors in Jinja.

“In our case, the festival is part of a larger ecosystem that supports emerging artists.

''By inviting over 40 festival programmers and bookers from all around the world, we guarantee artists a level of opportunity that other smaller events cannot offer. This way, we are able to utilise the festival as a launch platform for artistes,” Debru adds.

He says preparations for this year’s Nyege Nyege edition are underway and will be held between September 15 and 18.

The line-up will showcase the most exciting East African acts, along a pan- African line-up of the highest standard.

Busara Promotions is calling on musicians to submit applications for the Sauti za Busara festival in Stone Town, Zanzibar, set for February 9 - 12, 2023.