Mr Sam Okello Kelo is not an actor by mistake. He is one of the very few local performing artists who have been able to refine his raw talents to internationally accepted standards. He is also one of the very few among his professional peers to embrace entrepreneurship and his decision is paying off.
Currently the executive director of Mizizi Ensemble-an entertainment dance group, where he is not only grooming more talents but also turning the fortune of the group from literally nothing to a multi-million cultural organisation. Okello Kelo is thinking beyond gate collections by targeting non-governmental organisations, governments and corporate bodies. In addition to cultural dance performance, they also perform drama, plus his other job as a motivational speaker.
How Okelo Kelo went solo
By 1997, Mr Okello Kelo was his own man for he had parted company with Ndere Troupe. Between that time and 2006, he had a stint with the National Theatre where he served as production manager for about two years before giving up that position due to what he termed “a lot of red tape.” Two years later, he decided to venture into private business with the view to not only identify and mentor oozing young talent but also change the industry’s image. That motivation saw the birth of Mizizi Ensemble about two years ago.
How Kelo became a performing artiste
The 44-year-old actor, musician, comedian and choreographer whose achievements include among others, performing in the movie called ‘The Last King of Scotland’ was spotted in 1987 by Stephen Rwangyezi, the founder of Ndere Troupe while performing a Lakaraka dance, an Acholi courtship dance.
Although he was still a teenager then studying at Kololo Senior Secondary School, he became one of the star talent of the group. “I will always be grateful to Mr Rwangyenzi,” said Mr Okello Kelo in an interview with Prosper last week. He continued: “The Ndere Troupe Philosophy of developing young talents was so important for many youngsters including myself.”
It was not until 1991 when he travelled to the Netherlands for live performance that he started to take his career seriously. He said it had never occurred to him that his talents would take him places—and as a result, he sobered up, and gave in his all.
Rising above the challenges in the performing arts industry
Starting Mizizi Ensemble was not a walkover. He needed an apartment that would house his performers, equipment for performance and feeding his members let alone scouting for people who may want his services. “Rent for six months in Kawempe costs me about Shs2.7 million (Shs450, 000 monthly) and the equipment took about Shs20 million.”
Another challenge is the interest that the banks loans attract within shortest possible repayment period. He said interest rates above 20 per cent are exorbitantly high. He is of the view that each sector should have a tailored loan which he called a development loan, that should be reasonably cheaper. He has qualms with the National Theatre saying it needs to be revamped so that it can be an icon where talents can be sourced. This should be in addition to an expanded role—where the National Theatre has a programme to reach out to up country talents.
Mizizi Ensemble takes shape
To further cement his contribution in the industry, Mr Okello Kelo founded Mizizi Ensemble where he is the executive director. He says he needed to inspire performing artists to venture into serious investments of their own. “Starting an investment is not only a privilege of the business people. Even artists can venture into entrepreneurship,” he said.
Achievements and the future of Mizizi
Mr Okello Kelo is a musician, actor, comedian and choreographer who performed several plays and movies, including; The Last King of Scotland, an award-winning movie. He had an interesting role in Misisipi Masala, and The Will which is a political satire about African attitude to work and investments.
Weekends are generally busy for Kelo. Each cultural show around Kampala costs Shs1.5 million. Those outside Kampala cost Shs2.5 million while skits for conferences within Kampala go for Shs5 million. But the charge outside Kampala is negotiable. Community plays, on the other hand, go for not less than Shs10 million. In five years, Kelo hopes Mizizi Ensemble will be a production House training many professionals with a passion for traditional arts. This will be in addition to providing leadership skills.
Mizizi Ensemble employs more than 30 people, most of whom are talented performers but struggling with school fees. Part of the agreement he has with the youthful team, most of whom are university students pursuing different courses, is to pay their fees then recoup it from their monthly stipends. He also has an arrangement with them to invest part of their salaries in real estate and later sell it at a profit which they share among themselves. This is meant to inculcate entrepreneurship traits in the mind of his young members before they become uncontrollable.
Cultivating financial discipline to prosper
The calibre of performances Okello kelo wanted meant that had to invest not less than Shs100 million. “My personal savings over the years largely reduced the pressure to run to the bank for a loan. I have been saving from a young age. I would save most of the proceeds that I would make out of the performances all these years. So when it came to raising the capital I relied on those savings,” said Mr Okello kelo.
Lessons for prospective artistes
For that, he said young artistes can pick a leaf from—and not squander their money aimlessly. To multiply the impact of his savings, he ventured into real estate. He would buy a piece of land, preferably in the outskirts of Kampala, rather cheaply, and years later when the value of the plot appreciated, he sold it—recouping profits from the deal. One of his earlier purchases more than a decade ago was in Seguku, on Entebbe Road at Shs2.5 million. Now, he said the land has appreciated to nearly Shs200 million.
These days, artistes rarely have that kind of patience and discipline.
Collections per show
Their weekends are generally busy. Each cultural show around Kampala goes at Shs1.5 million. And outside Kampala is at Shs2.5 million. While skits for conferences within Kampala is Shs5 million. And outside Kampala is negotiable. While community plays goes for not less than Shs10 million.
More about Okello Kelo
Setting up a social enterprise
Was born in Northern Uganda on December 8, 1969. He is the third child in an extended family of 20 siblings. According to his website, while walking to school at age 16, with other children, he was abducted by rebel armies and initiated a nightmarish two-week basic training at their own high school that included torture and brainwashing.
During a pitched battle, Okello escaped, only to find his family was dispersed by the chaos of Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement and a scourge of vicious Karamojong cattle rustlers.
With his village in the heart of the war zone and his family’s whereabouts unknown, Okello found his way to the capital, where an uncle gave him space along with two wives and four children in a two-roomed house in the slums.
Okello fetched water and washed clothes for money with one ambition: to raise the money to continue his education. Okello’s teenage brother Godfrey was also later abducted from boarding school, along with 50 other children, by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.
One morning in 1998, Okello opened the morning paper to the gruesome photographs of 300 people killed and dismembered in his home village. It was such experiences that compelled him to start an NGO called Hope North whose aim is to encourage peace, educate and empower youths—most of whom are victims of the northern insurgency.
HOW ARTISTES CAN MAKE MONEY FROM THEIR TALENT
•Stage performances. It could be at schools, election celebrations or even government sponsored shows. Normally people want to see you perform what they’ve seen on TV or read about in a newspaper or any other setting. Stage performance attracts good pay.
•Sponsored shows. This could be by NGOs or any other organisation, including a wealthy individual.
•Busking: This includes performing in a public space (as opposed to street performing which is a full length show). This may not make you as much money but it could be much easier to do.
•Corporate Performances: These performances are generally high paying but they do come once in a while.
• Birthday Parties: This may not fetch as much unless it is a high-profile person around.
• Roving Entertainment: This is normally associated with big parties, medium-sized charity events, and smaller festivals. The pay for this is relatively low although there are exceptions.
• Performing in festivals: There is no better way for an artiste to build on his/her image than at a festival. And the good news is that it also comes with a pay cheque.
• Street Performing: This is another opportunity that artiste should be prepared to take unless the day is spoiled by continuous down pour.