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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cashing in on arts, cultural opportunities

House of Talent East Africa’s chief executive officer is a performing arts entrepreneur who is making money by nurturing creativity to preserve Uganda’s cultural heritage. He also wants to ensure the transfer of cultural assets and values from one generation to another through expressive cultural arts such as storytelling, writes DENNIS D. MUHUMUZA.

For many would-be entrepreneurs, finding the true profession occurs in the hour of need.
Andrew Lwanga Ssebaggala had never appreciated those words until December 2008 when the donor-funded projects he had been managing under the Uganda Theatre Network (UTN) ended their lifecycle.

Ssebaggala shows off the Award he scooped after his business proposal was voted the best business plan by Private Sector Foundation. Photo by Rachel Mabala.
Instead of pushing the panic button, Ssebaggala established House of Talent East Africa (HOT)—a cultural and performing arts company to create employment and enhance the appreciation of the role of culture in national development.

“I started in January 2009 with about Shs1.2 million which was part of my savings. I used this to hire working space, and buy cultural instruments like a set of drums, xylophone, shakers and a few costumes,” he says.

Ssebaggala then combed for multitalented youths: actors, dancers, instrumentalists, singers, writers, poets, producers and motivational speakers because he was determined to make HOT a one-stop shop for all live arts with tailor-made services where a client would walk in and have all their entertainment needs met. This quickly gave HOT an edge over the competition.

The 33-year-old who holds a Makerere University diploma in Music, Dance and Drama, and a Human Resource Management degree from Makerere University Business School (MUBS) is a city-born whose first job was a bar attendant.

While at Makerere University, he worked as a freelance reporter for Sanyu FM and Radio Maria. He also worked as a general manager for Kingdom FM. He also performed with Abu Kawenja’s Adzido Performers, and taught music, dance and drama in primary and secondary schools during his vacations – which all combined to refine his management and communication skills, giving him vast knowledge of the arts and culture sector.

With that diverse experience and professional expertise, it did not take long for Ssebaggala to win credibility as an arts manager and entrepreneur. He was the manager of this year’s arts projects UMOJA Cultural Flying Carpet Uganda, NUVO Arts Festival and Alfajiri Productions’ Silent Voices.

HOT employs 34 artists who have performed at State, corporate and private functions. This year, the ensemble was the key performer at the National Heroes celebrations in Nakaseke. This elicited a standing ovation, handshake and an ‘envelope’ from President Yoweri Museveni. The group has also performed at local and foreign festivals alongside live bands and world music artistes like Ndere Troupe and Joel Sebunjo, hypnotising foreign and local audiences with live cultural music played on traditional instruments, accompanied by the dances and songs.

Alongside the provision of a complete cultural package from all regions of Uganda, HOT also offers short training in music, dance, drama to individuals, organisations and schools. It has public address/music systems for hire and offers audio and video production services that continue to attract clients in entertainment circles.

 “Today, our business is worth more than Shs300 million as per our latest balanced sheet. Talking of the balance sheet may sound surprising in the arts business, but we audit our books to be professional in all we do,” says Ssebaggala.

Turning point
Ssebaggala’s dictum is ‘Good art makes good money and good money makes good art.’

“So, I always encourage my team to be innovative but remain true to our cultural expectation and authenticity. Quality matters in this business as in any other. We package our artistic products professionally,”
Ssebaggala says. It is no wonder that organisations such as the Certified Public Accountants of Uganda, ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, State House, Office of the President, Lions Club International, the Cross Cultural Foundation of Uganda, and the Uganda Coffee Federation, among others, have engaged their services for more than three times because they get value for money.

Ssebaggala’s real turning point was when he won the 2010 Start-Your-Business competition organised by the Private Sector Foundation of Uganda. His business proposal was voted the Best Business Plan and won him about Shs126 million ($50,000) which he injected back into HOT.

A year later, HOT got another award during a cultural gala organised by the Uganda National Cultural Centre as the best performing group and the best arts and culture service provider.

Future prospects
Determined to avoid the fate of business founders whose businesses die with them, Ssebaggala sold some shares in his company, but retains the title of chairman and executive director of HOT. He says, “HOT is not a one-man show like other arts organisations, but has shareholders who are directors.”

He shares the model that his company has adopted, “We have devised a robust system and management to operationalise the strategic and business plan of the company. We have a formidable system and clarity of where we want HOT to be and who is responsible for what.”

He is optimistic that in the next seven years (2014 to 2020), the company will have an “artistic centre with professional facilities including a 2,500-seater auditorium, dance studio, art gallery, audio-visual studio, cultural arts library, training rooms, gym, open-air theatre, and housing for resident performers and staff.”
The company will also have the capacity to fully employ at least 50 artistically talented youth as full arts professionals with salaries and not just allowances, well trained in both technical aspects of the arts and business operations.

“We shall also start the plan of opening HOT Centres in the Northern, Eastern, Western and South western parts of Uganda, and finally be among the top 100 tax payers – which will be a wake-up call to government to prioritise arts and culture and invest in it.”

The potential of Uganda’s arts and cultural industry
According to the Ugandan Constitution, the country has 65 tribes to draw from yet Ssebaggala says not even an eighth of these have been tapped. The industry has more than 100 cultural troupes and drama groups, each comprising more than 20 artists, more than 50 direct cultural institutions, many musicians, bands, events companies, production studios, fine artists and craft makers, music, dance and drama teachers.

“This is a big constituency that one cannot take for granted. Cultural industries have the potential to greatly reduce the unemployment problem in Uganda, and improve the livelihood of the marginalised, the poor and the vulnerable,” Ssebaggala says. “Cultural artists also promote all the aspects of our cultural heritage that attract tourists and widen our revenue base. They also play the educational and sensitisation role as they facilitate community action against practices that impinge on human dignity.”

Yet the industry is still beset by insufficient skills especially in management and marketing of artistic and entertainment services; lack of all required music equipment, training facilities and transport means plus limited exchange with other professional entertainment groups outside Uganda.

Others include limited access to professional venues for artistic performances; many unregulated entertainment groups; little interest from private business sector; limited access to information on the industry; few theatre schools for further training; non-operational cultural policy and copyright law; insufficient funds allocated for the arts and culture sector all compounded by the poor perceptions on arts and entertainment as a profession.

But who is to blame for the industry’s negative perception? “All the unprofessional acts are rooted in the fact that there is nobody setting the standard for us to follow, strategise and plan for the industry to become robust with well-trained and disciplined artists who respect professional ethics and earn well from the industry,” says Ssebaggala. “We need to know the exact number of the players so that the relevant bodies can plan for the industry.”

Ssebaggala is already setting the precedent for professionalism at HOT by implementing what he describes as “Continuous Professional Development – an important concept in the arts and culture realm.”

It is because of his faith in Uganda’s arts and culture industry and the lack of professional arts managers that Ssebaggala is pursuing a Masters degree in Business Administration (MBA), positioning himself as a professional arts manager.

“I also do a lot of self-education with the bias in the arts and culture since I am now confident that this is my calling and purpose for living,” he says. “All our efforts should revolve around the need to have a higher rank for culture on the national agenda."

--Daily Monitor, Tuesday, November 12, 2013