After deferring the MTN Bushfire Festival 2020 due to the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) increasing in Southern Africa and across the globe, the 14th edition will be held from 28-30 May, 2021. The socially conscious and conscientious festival prioritized the health, safety and security of the Eswatini community, the festival staff and guests. It believes that this is the responsible decision to make in recognition of these extraordinary circumstances. The festival management and stakeholders including sponsors and government agencies, partners and other relevant parties, acknowledges the massive economic and cultural impact that the festival has for local creatives and traders, and the region as a whole. Discussions and the ultimate decision to postpone last year’s festival were guided by a collective priority for the safety of the people of Eswatini, festival guests and staff members. To find out more, our journalist, Martin Chemhere talks to Jiggs Thorne, Director, MTN Bushfire Festival in this exclusive interview.
Nomad Africa: The 14th edition of MTN Bushfire Festival 2021 was postponed to this month of May 2021, tell us how its delayed return has impacted the festival brand?
Jiggs Thorne: The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic hit us in March 2020, a little less than three months before the festival was due to start. We created and aired our first-ever digital festival within a couple of months, and raised some much-needed funds for our festival beneficiaries who support vulnerable women and children in Eswatini.
We had to postpone the in-person festival again this year, but we are confident we will be able to hold MTN Bushfire again in 2022, as the Kingdom started rolling out its vaccination campaign at the beginning of the year.
Fortunately, brand impact has been minimal. We are lucky to have a large dedicated following of fans who have been very supportive over the last year. We’ve been keeping our brand visible with our online activities, and this year we are moving into the digital space in a big way with our new MTN Bushfire 2021 Digital Series of events, using new digital platforms we’ve been creating in the meantime. Our philosophy is to always look for opportunities when faced with challenges, and the opportunity in the pandemic situation has been the massive increase in online and broadcast consumption of content. Developing complementary digital platforms for the festival is something we’ve been planning to do for a while, and this past year has given us the chance to make it happen.
Nomad Africa: How many tourists per year and how much revenue does it bring to Eswatini’s economy?
Jiggs Thorne: Our last statistics are from the 2019 festival, before the pandemic, and we were fortunate that the North-West University (NWU) in South Africa had requested to conduct an independent economic impact survey. That year, MTN Bushfire generated over SZL 45 million for the economy, outside of the actual festival. About 55% of our festival-goers came from other countries, the majority of them from Southern Africa.
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Nomad Africa: How important is it to the country’s tourism industry?
Jiggs Thorne: We’ve completely sold out in advance of the festival for the last six consecutive years. As the only large music and arts festival with a strong, established, international footprint, MTN Bushfire is an important fixture in the Eswatini calendar. May is considered “Bushfire month” and we sort of take over the country – there’s literally no accommodation to be found in the country during the MTN Bushfire festival weekend. Festival-goers start booking rooms as soon as the festival dates for the next year are announced, which is usually 10 or so months before the next edition. That’s not counting the 4,000 or so people who camp on-site every year. So it’s a pretty big deal.
Nomad Africa: Roughly how many people have been affected by the ban of Bushfire?
Jiggs Thorne: That’s very difficult to say, but it’s a lot. Apart from the thousands of disappointed festival-goers, many others benefit economically from the festival. As mentioned, almost the entire hospitality industry in the Ezulwini and Malkerns valleys, were affected. Many tourists come for the festival and then stay an extra few day to explore the country, too.
We directly employ 900 extra staff for the three days of the festival, mostly from our neighbouring community in Mahlanya, and the NWU economic impact survey established that another 900 people in the general economy were employed just for the weekend in 2019. The informal vendors and market-sellers in Mahlanya also rely heavily on the crowds drawn by the festival, so it’s hard to measure accurately. It was a big loss to all of us.
Please note that MTN Bushfire wasn’t banned. In fact, we were the first large event in the country to decide to postpone due to the emerging Covid-19 threat.
Nomad Africa: Some have called governments to allow them to host music festival events for limited number of people, to ensure just a lifeline for the sector, what do you say about this?
Jiggs Thorne: Our first priority has always been the safety of our festival-goers, staff and all the other people who make MTN Bushfire the amazing event that it is. If the possibility exists for us to host small numbers of people in carefully-controlled environments, with all Covid safety protocols in place, then we will certainly consider doing so as a complement to our Digital Series events. The trick is to balance what can be managed safely with the typically high costs of holding events.
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Nomad Africa: How prepared is the Bushfire for a return to physical performances?
Jiggs Thorne : We’re ready. Many of the performers we contacted for 2020 will be available and our infrastructure is largely in place. In fact, we’ve taken this opportunity to revamp and renovate the host venue space, House On Fire, so we’ll be able to offer a broader range of experiences and improved facilities. Our long-standing partners have been very supportive of us, for which we are extremely grateful, and we have forged new relationships too. They can’t wait for the return of MTN Bushfire in all its glory either. We work year-round to prepare MTN Bushfire – we have 14 years of experience doing it – so we just need to hit the ‘go’ button when we feel the time is right.
Nomad Africa: Many festivals have responded to the new normal with new innovations, tell us if the same is the case with Bushfire and how?
Jiggs Thorne: Well, we’re moving into the digital space in a really big way. We had our first-ever digital festival in 2020, the #KEEPTHEFIREBURNING digital festival, which you can watch on our YouTube channel. This year, we are innovating new content and launching our MTN Bushfire 2021 Digital Series, for which we’ve been creating new digital platforms. We’ll be launching the series at the end of April, but we can tell you that this year we’ll be introducing a brand-new website and our first mobile festival app, as well as launching our own content platform – Bushfire TV! We’re also forging relationships with trans-national broadcast partners so that our content can reach people throughout the region. All of our new platforms and content packages will complement the traditional-style festival, they’re not once-off replacements during the pandemic, so the MTN Bushfire experience will be significantly expanded and enhanced. We’re really taking it to the next level this year!
Nomad Africa: Given the current situation is unpredictable especially with new variants and new cases rising in Europe and the Indian region, what are the prospects like for the major music festival community in Africa?
Jiggs Thorne: It’s critical that we plan for the long-term and aren’t short-sighted by planning on returning to the pre-Covid festival format. The development in the digital space needs to complement the live experience when we open up again.
We need to have a long-term policy approach to Covid and how we stage festivals on the African continent. It’s crucial for us to be relevant beyond our borders. The overarching policy should be to keep developing our digital platforms, so that we can continue to engage consumers in a relevant way, both domestically and internationally, sustain our brands and remain relevant to our partner and sponsor brands so that they continue to support the arts industry in Africa.
There is a real need for good-quality high-value content in the world, and the African music and arts industry can supply that.
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