Zanzibar counts its losses without busara

Friday January 29 2016

Sauti Za Busara 2013

Sauti Za Busara 2013 

By Paul Owere

It is a few days to February and there is very little activity around the Ngome Kongwe (Old Fort), an area that has been home to the Sauti Za Busara festivals.

Apart from the few visitors arriving at the Forodhani Food Market to sample some of the Zanzibari delicacies there is not much going on.

The air of anticipation that used to fill the place breathing life into business  is all gone.

For the past 12 years in Zanzibar, February was famously known as Busara month, with visitors from all corners of the world flocking to Stone Town to witness the magic and excitement of Sauti za Busara. 

Busara music festival is believed to be one of the best seven African festivals which, according to the BBC, is Africa’s best.

During the week-long event, the historic Stone Town bursts into life with the blossoming of activities as the cosmopolitan population makes its way to the Old Fort and its environs.  


Entertainment takes centre stage in the Spice Island as over 400 artistes from the whole continent rally to entertain an equally diverse audience in attendance.

This, in return exposes the island to the international arena, therefore, adding value to the island which is endowed with great wealth of history that stretches to 900 AD.

According to statistics from the Zanzibar Commission for Tourism, the number of visitors to the island during February increased every year, from 3,000 during 2004 to 40,000 in recent years.

The source of their origins is as varied as their delicate taste for music, with 70 per cent East African audiences and the rest being visitors from across Africa, Europe, America, the Middle East and Asia. 

Hoteliers, restaurant managers, taxi drivers and traders confirm that Busara week has been their busiest time yearly. 

It, however, remains an interesting prospect whether these arrivals and businesses will continue booming without the festival.

In August Busara Promotions, the organisers of the music festival, announced cancellation of Sauti za Busara 2016 due to lack of sponsorship. 

According to festival director Yusuf Mahmoud, selling tickets was never a problem, but that only covered 30 per cent of the costs. 

“For Sauti za Busara to continue sustainably, we need to develop long-term partnerships with the government, international donors and business sponsors who share our vision.”

Sauti za Busara has in the past featured 300 groups over the years, including 200 from East Africa and more from across the continent: from Mali to Madagascar, Algeria to Zimbabwe. 

The festival organisers put the attendance numbers at over 20,000 people who attend the extravaganza during the four days.

Busara Promotions say the festival provided employment annually for 400 artistes and 150 production crew with an estimated further 2,000 jobs created indirectly for Tanzania’s wider tourism sector.

Maryam Hamdani, the celebrated song writer, musician and leader of Zanzibar’s Tausi Women’s Taarab group,  a group that has performed in almost all the editions was perhaps the worst hit.

  “I received the information about this cancellation with great sorrow. Sauti za Busara is very important to us as musicians as well as music lovers. Over the years Busara has promoted us and made us stronger as we get to show our abilities. We learnt a lot from meeting different musicians,” she says.

Adding:  We gained a lot from the various workshops and encounters with musicians and journalists from all over the world. It’s really a pity and we shall miss all these important activities in 2016. I pray funders will reconsider and Busara will resume in 2017.”

Sauti za Busara put Zanzibar on the map as a leading global destination for cultural tourism. 

Even conservative estimates suggest that since 2004 the event has generated $ 70 million in revenue for the island. 

Julia Bishop, a Matemwe hotelier and ex-director of Zanzibar Association of Tourism Investors believes most of the hotel rooms will remain vacant during this period.

 “It’s tragic that an event that brings so much to the culture and people of Zanzibar has to be cancelled because of lack of a relatively small amount of financial sponsorship.”

He adds:  Where are the governments, companies and organisations who say they care about development, and who need a high profile marketing platform? 

This is the single most successful long-standing event in Zanzibar, showcasing musical talent from all over Africa and beyond.

 Throughout the year, Busara Promotions invites artistes to other international events and facilitates skills-building for local artistes and festival crews, through exchanges and training in arts management, media and technical skills.

 The organisers believe that after the break, the festival will comeback even stronger than before, some believe that the hiatus will make the island see the importance of what they have always taken for granted.

“Sometimes it’s necessary to take one step back, before continuing to move forward. We shall be working hard over the coming months, to ensure the festival resumes stronger than ever from 2017.”

But this means taking some radical measures which would possibly mean moving location from its traditional home, or making it a biennial event.

But how did this festival get here? Three years ago there were fears that the festival was on the verge of collapse.

As part of the reason for the lack of funding is the fact that organisers have stuck with less diversified sources of sponsorship which means alcoholic brands cannot sponsor the festival.