Dar es Salaam. The 2018 edition of the Sauti za Busara festival in Zanzibar was dubbed by organisers as one of their best, drawing over 10,000 attendances at the Old Fort in Stone Town.
The ATM machines across town perhaps tell a better story as they were all empty by Saturday morning given the amount of withdrawals that were made on Friday night.
The reviews have been great with the feedback very encouraging, many of the visitors are promising to come back next February for the 2019 edition of the festival.
According to artists and organisers, the festival has become a career launch pad for many local artistes towards international fame as they aspire to take their music to the global stage.
But don’t let these glamorous tales and figures fool you. The festival has been going through tumultuous times financially, working with a shoestring budget to make ends meet.
The festival remains dependant on fundraising as their major source of funding because ticket sales only meet 30 per cent of the ever growing budget.
For much of the 15 years it has been a lonely walk and in 2016 the financial strain took its toll as the festival had to be cancelled, much to the disappointment of many who depend on it.
However, after several years there seems to be some silver lining in the clouds after a parliamentary committee from the House of Representatives and the Zanzibar National Arts Council paid a courtesy call to Busara Promotions.
The objective of their visit was to get first-hand information on how the festival operates and to learn of some of the issues and challenges that plague their operations. Chief on the table was the issue of funding.
There was plenty on the table for the high profile guests to discuss but chief of all was the request that government should chip in.
The festival organisers asked the government to help with funding the budget which is estimated to be around $300,000 and to waive visa fees for the artistes who come to perform at the festival.
Busara Promotions also proposed that the government start up a cultural fund that will be transparent and accountable, through which all festivals can submit requests for funding.
They also suggested that since the hotels are major beneficiaries of the high tourist season created by Sauti za Busara, they should each be required to contribute a paltry $500 towards the festival’s organisation annually.
Organisers also seek waivers on venues and other costs such as artists permits and poster fees which are some of the current requirements that organisers have to foot.
The festival’s budget by international standards makes Sauti za Busara one of the low-cost festivals across the world, yet it is acclaimed as one of the seven best on the African continent.
Busara’s request to the government isn’t farfetched; the Ivory Coast government injects more than $2,000,000 into the Masa festival with governments of Morocco, South Africa and elsewhere extending similar financial support to local festivals.
Because of the festival’s prominence, February has become a high tourist season on the Spice Islands with conservative figures estimating that the festival has injected over $70 million into the Zanzibar economy since its inception some 15 years ago.
Organisers say cultural tourism like what Busara offers alters the nature of the visitor’s experience and makes its local impact more positive.
On the contrary the Zanzibar government has concentrated its efforts on up market forms of tourism which are more resource intensive, therefore favouring large scale investors and worse still, the profits usually don’t trickle down to the local people.
“The cultural tourism that Sauti za Busara supports attracts visitors motivated by more than just the sun, safari and beaches of Zanzibar,” says festival director Yusuf Mahmoud.
According to him, though the visitors may not be high end in terms of expenditure, they tend to stay longer, have closer interactions with Zanzibaris and spend more money locally.
“Busara brings tourists into the streets of Stone Town where they spend in ways that benefit an array of local people,” he says.
He adds: Rather than the simple stereotypes that most tourists expect, here they experience Tanzanians who are technologically savvy; rather than incapacity they see Tanzanians as agents who are organised and run things including a complicated festival professionally and on time.
For the past two years the festival has depended on the intervention of the Busara Chairman Simai Mohammed with the co-operation of the office of the 2nd Vice President to deal with the tourist visa which was pegged at $50 for each of the visiting musicians, instead of the required $250 for business visa.
It is for these reasons and many more that makes the organisers believe that government intervention would make the festival even better and with great returns on investment.