Jiggs Thorne On The Success Of The MTN Bushfire Festival, Being Part Of A Family Business, Entrepreneurship, And His Love For Philanthropy

Interview by: Ntokozo Nkambule

Q. When people think of you, the first thing that pops into their mind is House on Fire and the MTN Bushfire festival. So, who is Jiggs Thorne? How and where did you grow up?

The name ‘Jiggs’ comes from my nickname ‘Mjikaphansi’. I was born and raised in Eswatini; born in Manzini and raised in Mahlanya. I would describe myself as a passionate, creative, and driven individual who has been inspired by our amazing family, culture, and opportunities here in eSwatini.  I have always felt at home here. Our family has been fortunate to have this amazing space here at Malandela’s to realize our dreams and share them with others.

I grew up here on the farm and as a youngster football was everything – I remember sitting under the shade of a big tree with the other Mahlanya kids after most Saturday afternoon matches, listening to the weekend fixture on a radio and watching the buses race down the road towards Malkerns. We would play football barefoot until it got dark and climb into bed with feet red from the soil.

My parents, Peter and Jenny Thorne, were very independent minded and forward thinking, larger-than-life characters who did not feel they had to conform. They were very real and authentic in the way in which they approached relationships, including business. They believed that business was about developing people and about relationships with your community and the world at large, and they instilled a powerful sense of responsibility to contribute positively to the world around us. Their philosophy has certainly been a guiding light which we, their children, have manifested in a variety of ways.

Q: Where does the love for the arts come from?

Osmosis! Our parents were extremely creative. My father built the restaurant Malandela’s, which was his nick-name – Peter “Malandela” Thorne – and my mother founded Gone Rural. Both were entrepreneurs who exposed us to limitless possibilities. Their inspiration can be found in everything we do.

Q: You are the co-director of the entertainment venue and eventing company House on Fire, along with your brother Sholto. What sparked the idea for House on Fire?

Upon completing my Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Kwazulu Natal in Drama and Politics, I went to live in Johannesburg for a while and worked at the Market Theatre. When the Market Theatre closed at the end of the evening’s programme, I would then go next door to the iconic jazz club Kippie’s. Basically, I had a front row seat to some of the finest music and theatre in Africa at the time, which gave me an early sense of top-quality composition and content in the arts industry.

I clearly remember one cold winter night finding myself stranded outside Kippie’s during a sold-out show. I could only peer through the condensation on the club windows and vaguely make out a figure on the stage who was creating such a storm – it turned out to be Zimbabwean great Oliver Mtukudzi! I met him many years later, and it became the beginning of a long-standing relationship which saw him coming to perform in eSwatini on over 10 different occasions.

My creative studies and early work experience in Johannesburg gave me the appreciation and impetus to come back to eSwatini and develop the arts here, which ultimately resulted in House on Fire being founded in 2000 which I set up with my brother and co-director, Sholto Thorne.

Q: So, where does the name House on Fire come from?

The name ‘House on Fire’ comes from a song by Sankomota, released in 1983, which I heard one morning when thinking up a name for the venue. It had many resonations – I also liked the wordplay of ‘getting on like a house on fire’!

Q: How important is the arts sector for the local economy?

Well, how much do you think Jamaica has benefited from exporting Reggae? This is a sector with huge potential to generate incomes. As an example, an independent study conducted in 2019 by North-West University, a public research institution in South Africa, revealed that MTN Bushfire generated around E50 million for the broader economy of the Kingdom, in sectors such as tourism, hospitality, transport and so on. This is a prime example of how a well-packaged creative product can inspire the economy at large.

Q: Eswatini has a number of highly talented people in the art space, from music artists to actors, among others. What could we be doing better as a country?

We need more support for the arts in Eswatini. Talent doesn’t develop in isolation. Potential needs to be nurtured if the creative economy is to thrive – and then the opportunities are endless, particularly for the youth! We have a living cultural tradition here in Eswatini which could be better packaged and marketed to the world, but there needs to be a well-structured and intentional strategy from local stakeholders on how to develop the local arts space. The arts cannot grow without significant funding pumped into the sector, and unfortunately support for the arts remains low on the government budget.

From a content perspective, this industry is all about the stories we tell, and we need to tell our own stories. This is a country where people live their culture – people need to be able to tell their own stories to remain authentic, the stories that are our own “Unique Selling Points”. It’s about bringing the old and the new together and sharing ideas. This is crucial.

Our authenticity is what will set us apart and give us a competitive advantage. Our small population also means that we need to start thinking of international markets. The question is; how do we get our artists to perform internationally on a more consistent basis?

Q: The MTN Bushfire Festival has undoubtedly been a huge success. How did you conceptualize this idea?

A young business needs to expand and develop its market. After 7 years of running creative programmes at House on Fire, when we had established a quality product and a market for it, we appreciated that eventing could be taken to the next level and fortunately we had this amazing space to grow into on the farm.

Of importance to us was the” why”. Why have a festival in the first place? What did we want to achieve with Bushfire? The answer was our inspirational call to action, “Bring Your Fire”, a very deliberate attempt to use the immersive festival environment and transformative power of the arts to engage in a range of themes which would in turn promote participation and awareness around pressing societal issues. Bring Your Fire is essentially a call for positive social change.

The inspiration behind the festival comes from my parent’s idea that business can be a driver of the positive change we all want to see. Call it ‘ethical business’. I think this is an important point to make; that ‘ethical business’ can support sustainability but it can also support an improved bottom line. It doesn’t have to be an add-on – it can be a core component of making a business successful.

We were fortunate that the philosophy of sustainability and including others in our success, which we got from our parents, meant that a social conscience was part of the festival DNA from the beginning.

Q: And, how tough was it, in the early days of the MTN Bushfire festival?

There were a number of challenges, but I think they were mostly structural. Here’s an example; in the first year of the Bushfire festival, our aim as a family was to give away most of our profits to Young Heroes (an NGO established in 2005 to assist youth who are orphaned and made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS). This just wasn’t sustainable. With hindsight, we started off as a charity running a business, but quickly realized we needed to be a business running a charity.

Our business model needed a massive rethink but, like all entrepreneurs, we grew into it and came to understand that we had to create a sustainable brand. As the brand grew, we prioritised financial planning, developed our systems, operations and teams to manage the growing needs of the event more efficiently, and re-invested for longevity, which allowed us to continue our philanthropic work.

Q: As an entrepreneur what does one require to succeed or see their idea through?

So, I think the more unique and dynamic your concept is, the better the opportunity for purchase in the market. However, concepts need to be firmly rooted in business principles to be sustainable. Financial planning, systems and teams to support operations, and customer relations and communication to build and develop much-needed partnerships in the creative industry are all central to the equation. 

I think one also requires a good deal of passion, perseverance and patience. What I can say is that most successful brands aren’t built up overnight, it takes time and grit to build a business. It often takes a while before start-up businesses become viable entities. 

Q: What are the challenges of being part of a family business?

The challenges are different from other businesses. Business is about trust and relationships, and this is something you can find in your family, but working together requires clear communication. To us, the key thing is putting healthy relationships first. Teamwork is critical, as is playing to our individual strengths in a complementary way. Again, I would credit our parents for the strong family we have, which has enabled us to work together as business partners. My brother Sholto and I run House on Fire together, and fortunately we found that our individual interests and skills really complement each other.

Q: Where would you say you are now in regard to the MTN Bushfire festival brand?

We are strong believers in continuous growth and learning. We do not take our achievements for granted. Ironically, one of the biggest challenges that we face today is that we need to manage the festival’s successful growth. We are an established brand, internationally recognized across the continent and around the globe, and we are a proudly local product. We’ve sold out 10 years in a row, and we receive interest from a range of partners and sponsors who want to get involved.

The tendency for a lot of brands is often that “bigger is better” and, while that may be the case for some businesses, it isn’t necessarily the case for our festivals. For us, it’s crucial that we maintain our alignment with the festival’s original vision and call to action to preserve the unique MTN Bushfire feel.

This in turn speaks to consistently improving the quality of the experience and retaining our loyal long-term festival goers who respond to the festival’s call to action; families and audiences looking for an alternative programme to the mainstream commercial programmes out there.

There’s a lot of pressure to showcase mainstream music on our stages, but what has made MTN Bushfire successful is the eclectic variety of performances, the little-known surprise gems and quirky acts that inspire, as well as the recognizable headliners that draw crowds.

Q: There are now a number of local event organizers hosting festivals. What does it take to pull off a successful festival?

What is your “why”? You need a unique selling point, what sets you apart for both punters and partners / sponsors. I have consistently advised event organizers to start small and be patient. By starting small you are able to make mistakes that aren’t detrimental to your brand, and in the process are also able to gain the trust of sponsors, which in most cases are big corporations. Sponsorship is critical to support the wide range of expenses required to hold a successful event.

It’s not easy to find a sponsor from the get-go. It’s critical to find partners and sponsors with a similar vision to support the myriad of expenses and inputs to stage events and that support comes in many forms, not just financial; it can be in kind, with goods and services. It is very important to acknowledge that sponsors must also receive their return on investment. However, to get sponsors, event organizers need to create a positive track record, and there are a number of ways of achieving that.

Your proposals need to be strong enough, you need to be offering something unique with a standard of quality they can trust. Budgeting – and staying within budget – is also crucial to ensuring sustainability.

Q: Finally, what does the future hold for you?

A. We’re moving into content production, and have just launched our own record label, Bushfire Records. We aim to offer a year-round youth-oriented arts programme at House on Fire to ensure continuity and support the local creative industry. There is still so much we can do to help develop the arts industry, so we’re going to keep our fire burning!

Inside Biz: Mjikaphansi, thank you very much for your time and for opening up to us.

Jiggs: Ngiyabonga! it has been a real pleasure.

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