OPINION: Make November National Arts and Culture Month.
There is a widely held belief that Kampala never sleeps, and many across the world who have visited have crowned it as the night city of East Africa. Uganda, particularly Kampala, has arguably been the launchpad for many popular African artists, including Wiz Kid, Davido, Burnaboy, Rema, Tems, and more. Some even joke that success on the continent requires the blessings of Ugandans in Kampala. However, for some reason, we seem not to be exploiting this unique aspect of the city for larger economic gains.
I have a proposal—why not create an entire month dedicated to enjoyment?
Hear me out; there is actually a lot to gain with a well-planned and organized National Arts and Culture Month. Imagine a month marketed as hosting the Nyege Nyege Festival, Kampala International Theatre Festival, Uganda Film Festival, and Kampala City Carnival.
This is already happening, but in a more disorganized manner than it could be if there were a higher planning entity responsible for making it more successful. For instance, at the beginning of November, we had Nyege Nyege in Jinja. In the same month, we had the Euro Uganda Film Festival (which was later canceled), the Kampala International Theatre Festival, and performances by numerous continental and international music artists in Uganda.
That's just November; as I mentioned earlier, Kampala never sleeps, with artists performing every week, and concerts are frequently successful.
Here’s my plan:
- Bring Back Kampala City Festival:
According to Sebata Emmanuel’s report the Festival before it was stopped had “helped Uganda meet the current-trend needs of tourism diversification and desire for stronger fresh businesses and markets. This has acted as an economic engine for organizations to grow, network, and prosper. It has also boosted a gracious-rapid development of tourism.” He also noted that since 2011 when the festival began, the period around September and October had seen an increase in the number of inbound tourists in Uganda’s capital of Kampala. That was according to the data by the Uganda Tourism Board (2013
This is not surprising, as festivals worldwide have had a positive economic impact on hosting communities. A simple example is the Caribbean festivals that attract tourists from around the world during the summer, contributing significantly to the economies of Caribbean countries.
The Coachella festival, which happens every April in Indio, California, creates about $704 million in economic activity, including consumer spending, with $106 million in Indio alone. This brings me to the next part of the plan.
- Back and Support Nyege Nyege Festival:
The Nyege Nyege Festival has encountered numerous challenges from various government administrators, religious leaders, and moralists in the country, accusing it of being a satanic event. The festival was even banned in 2018 by the late then Minister of Ethics and Integrity, Fr. Simon Lokodo, for allegedly "promoting homosexuality".
This witch hunt has created a negative perception of Nyege Nyege. Even now, attending the event is considered a sin by moralists and many Ugandans, supported by the president. This has not halted the event, but it has significantly impacted attendance. The 2023 edition was one of the least attended, partly due to other factors such as “security concerns” leading the American and British embassies to warn their citizens against attending, the establishment of another Nyege Nyege festival in Kenya, organizational mistakes, and more.
It appears that the festival is facing a slow death, and reviving it will require considerable effort. The public sector needs to spearhead this effort, as it is the largest tourist-attracting event in the Busoga Region. Restoring the festival would not only boost the regional economy but also contribute to the country's foreign exchange earnings, given the yearly influx of over 5,000+ international attendees.
- Fund and Improve Hosting Spaces.
Regarding the Nyege Nyege Festival, there is a need to enhance the venue where this event takes place. I know individuals who attended Nyege Nyege last year but chose not to attend this year due to the poor condition of roads, inadequate shelter, and various other factors that made the overall experience uncomfortable.
Unless the challenging conditions become a unique selling point, similar to the Burning Man Festival, attracting more people could be achieved by providing better facilities at Itanda. Maybe the funds earmarked for the Formula One track can do something.
The National Theatre also requires some enhancements to make it a more appealing venue for film screenings or theatrical performances. For many, the current atmosphere feels akin to watching a movie at home or seeing your child perform in front of you. The ambiance is an essential aspect that should be highlighted in promoting the arts.
Several other artistic venues can be upgraded, including Bat Valley Theatre, Theatre Labonita, Ndere Centre, and more. An arena is also needed for larger events, with the proposed Lugogo Arena on the way, we can hope it will fill that void.
Finally, with the necessary infrastructure in place, the remaining efforts should focus on effectively marketing the month. Introduce a dedicated portal (website) that consolidates all the activities of the month, complete with schedules, allowing the private sector to take charge of the organization. The public sector can contribute by allocating funds for marketing, such as running ads on airplanes, online platforms, TV commercials, and more.
Promoting a month filled with diverse events can be more efficiently accomplished through centralized marketing efforts than if private entities were to market independently. Private entities can then actively compete for a share of the already available audience, comprising both Ugandans and non-Ugandans.
a) Foster the growth of the creative and arts sector. Ugandans will become more engaged with the work of local creatives, spanning across theatre, film, music, poetry, fashion, culture, fine arts, and more. The same theme will resonate with foreign audiences attending events throughout the month.
b) Contribute to the generation of foreign exchange for the government, as the influx of foreigners attending the festivities will boost the local economy through spending on various goods and services, including accommodations, transportation, and entertainment.
c) Lead to increased tax revenue for the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA). There has been a notable plea from the URA regarding the limited contributions from the creative sector. This improvement will facilitate the taxation of creatives by enabling easier tracking of performances and creative output during the specified month.
What might be the financial cost of this initiative, one may ask?
The Kampala City Festival, before its discontinuation, incurred costs of close to 900 million Uganda shillings for the organization. In this idea, the government's major expenditure will be on the singular large-scale event – the Kampala City Festival (excluding the initial investment in improving art infrastructure). All other events will be privately organized.
Another expenditure will be allocated to marketing, constituting the most substantial spending on this idea. To put it in perspective, the supplementary budget for the financial year 2023/2024 included a 13 billion Uganda shillings allocation for the artists' SACCO. In the same budget, 1 billion was earmarked for the rehabilitation of the Uganda Museum. This implies that the 13 billion could be utilized to enhance more than 10 art structures.
Considering the considerable funds allocated by the government to some dubious stuff every financial year, like the recent 3 billion Uganda shillings purchase of cars for the former Speakers, a yearly allocation of 20 billion could be designated for the National Arts and Culture Month, and it could have an even bigger return on investment. As a nation known for our partying spirit, it would only be fair if we (with the help of the government) capitalized on that to grow our arts sector and tourism.
November should be the month.
This choice is strategic, as the month already hosts several events that the initiative can leverage to enhance its appeal. Additionally, data indicates that a significant number of Europeans, part of the target audience for this initiative, tend to travel more between November and February. They could first party in Uganda before heading to other destinations.
“In 2022, nonprofit arts and culture organizations in the USA and their audiences generated $151.7 billion in economic activity—$73.3 billion in spending by the organizations, which leveraged an additional $78.4 billion in event-related spending by their audiences supporting 2.6 million jobs, generating $29.1 billion in tax revenue, and providing $101 billion in personal income to residents.”
This is of course, minus the for-profit companies in the arts business that generated over $1.02 trillion accounting for 4.4 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the US in 2021 alone.
I would say the government is sleeping on Uganda's potential as a party country and I believe a National Arts and Culture Month could be an accelerator to get the best out of it.
By Martin Kabagambe