On location in Uganda with Lilly Ajarova – Chief Executive Officer of the Uganda Tourism Board
My journey in the tourism sector has been a very exciting and rewarding one. I was exposed to tourism and travel right from childhood. My father, who is my role model, always made sure we took out time to take part in game drives as well as visit different protected areas. These had a significant impact on my life.
He taught us the value of natural resources, diversity, and the limitations and took us to some of Uganda’s biggest national parks such as Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls which enabled me to realise my surroundings with a keener eye.
So when I joined Makerere University Kampala, Uganda's oldest and largest public university, I enrolled for a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Sociology. Later, I joined the International Institute of Tourism and Management in Austria. This was the start of my close interaction with the sector.
"By selling Uganda to the rest of the world in a sustainable manner, I believe that together we shall enable future generations appreciate their environment more."
On return, I joined the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the government agency charged with conserving and managing Uganda's wildlife, as the Tourism Development and Marketing Manager.
Subsequently, I joined the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust as the Executive Director where I served for 14 years. The Chimpanzee Trust was founded in 1998 as an international collaborative conservation effort with the immediate purpose of establishing a chimpanzee sanctuary on the Ngamba Island in Lake Victoria.
While there, I also served as a board member of the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB). I chaired the committee that classified and graded Uganda's hotels in 2015.
In January this year, I was appointed as the Chief Executive Officer of UTB where I enjoy marketing my country as a premier filming destination.
I have also served as a member of the Advisory Committee of Pan African Sanctuary Alliance as well as being on the board of the Uganda Conservation Society.
What does this role involve exactly and what do you enjoy most about the job?
As the CEO of UTB, my biggest responsibility is to grow Uganda’s tourism industry. What this means is that we are mandated to develop tourism and market Uganda as one of Africa’s leading tourism destinations. My biggest responsibility is to ensure that these mandates are undertaken and that tourism becomes one of the major contributors to the economy.
What I enjoy most about this job is that it gives me the opportunity to do what I am most passionate about. Being part of the team helping to promote Uganda’s natural endowments while at the same time contributing to the country’s economic fundamentals is a very huge honor for me.
By selling Uganda to the rest of the world in a sustainable manner, I believe that together we shall enable future generations appreciate their environment more.
What can you tell us about Uganda as a location filming destination?
The film industry in Uganda is still young and emergent when compared to other established African pioneers such as the South Africa or Nigeria film industries.
Kampala, the capital city has six high-end cinemas, located mainly in the city center and there are over 1,000 video halls and libraries in the city alone, mostly in the city center and downtown locations. These are mostly community and privately-owned establishments.
As a filming destination, there is no place on the African continent that is more ideal for filming than Uganda.
"There are many other locations spread across the country that ooze luxury and grandeur but with an authentic African setting."
A favourable climate with both semi-arid and snowcapped setting as well as long hours of sunshine for filming, beautiful scenery and a rich cultural heritage all connive to make Uganda the perfect set for shooting internationally acclaimed films and documentaries.
Uganda has highly experienced, competent technical crew is available to work on production of all sizes. With a young vibrant youth, Uganda also promises a trainable workforce.
Uganda’s has a diverse culture and heritage with over 64 tribes and a multicultural community with the highest number of the refugee population in Africa with large communities from South Sudan, Eritrea, Rwanda, Kenya, and Somalia – making for a great variety of casting.
Furthermore, the government of Uganda has established an incentive scheme offering filmmakers and producers cash rebates and tax incentives on qualified expenses and projects.
What locations are most commonly used by foreign film and TV productions when they come and film in Uganda?
As a country located right at the zone of overlap between the savannah of East Africa and the rainforests of West Africa, Uganda is famous for its unique beauty, lush green scenery and beautiful weather. The tropical weather is hugely influenced by Lake Victoria, which is also the source of the River Nile, the longest river in the world.
The south-western part of Uganda is characterised by rough terrain and high mountains such as the snowcapped Mountain Rwenzori, the third highest point in Africa. All of these diverse aspects make Uganda one of the best places in the world to source locations for film productions.
These coupled with a thriving economy and stability in the countries security have attracted a number of high profile film and documentary producers.
Uganda’s raw beauty and exotic scenery has always offered ideal filming locations dating back as far as 1931, when MGM sent their crew and cast to the country to film the blockbuster Trader Horn, one of the most successful movie projects in Hollywood history. The film's director was fascinated by the rough terrain landscape and wild animals such as crocodiles, elephants, lions, gorillas, chimpanzees, and hyenas.
"The local talent here is in abundance and this makes Uganda a prime location for film productions."
The beautiful and breathtaking Murchison Falls played host to the 1950 Technicolor adventure film King Solomon’s Mines, which went on to gross over USD15 million at the box office. Other big-budget productions include the 1962 film The Lion which was shot in the country because of our wild game. 1991 movie Mississippi Masala, starring Denzel Washington and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Mira Nair was also partly shot in Uganda.
In recent years the blockbuster superhero movie Black Panther had parts of it filmed in the Ruwenzori Mountains, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Lake Bunyonyi. Others are the Last King of Scotland as well as Walt Disney Pictures and ESPN Films’ Queen of Katwe starring Lupita Nyong’o that was almost entirely filmed in the country.
Uganda has the potential of becoming a center for filming in Africa.
What are the more unusual locations that Uganda has to offer that our readers would not necessarily associate with the country?
One area that is unusual and unique are our snowcapped mountain peaks. Despite our position on the equator, Uganda is gifted with snow. I think that is very unique given that the equator ideally isn’t associated with this phenomenon. So for those who would like to film in allocation with both warm and cold climate with both in close proximity, Uganda is the place.
There are also many other locations spread across the country that ooze luxury and grandeur but with an authentic African setting. For film productions that require a showcase of that part of Africa, teams don’t need to fly to other countries as we have it all here.
Having said that, every area of the country has different terrain and attraction that are different from the others. Uganda has filming locations to suit every need; be it to shoot wildlife documentaries or locations for reality shows, we have it all. Basically, the entire country is a film set waiting for directors and actors.
What are the advantages of filming in Uganda?
Filming in Uganda requires a filming permit that allows crews, journalists to carry on with any filming in the country.
Supported by the Uganda Communications Commission, all filming permits are issued by the Uganda Media Council, a body mandated by the government to oversee all issuance of valid filming permits in the country. Accreditation in Uganda is usually valid for a period between 30days to 1 year and are not difficult to acquire. There may be additional permissions required especially if one will be filming in a national park, drone filming or night filming.
Filming fees in national parks have recently been discounted by 40% of the activity being filmed in the National park.
For film crews, the ease of transporting equipment to the filming destination is guaranteed given the amount of infrastructure development undertaken by the government in recent years.
For foreign crews, Uganda issues visas on arrival at the port of entry and the clearance process has been expedited.
What has been your most difficult film location assignment or request to date and why?
Mountain Muhavura has so far been one of the most difficult film locations assignment. Recently, while on a mountaineering expedition with the team from the Uganda Mountaineering Association, I traveled along with a video crew to capture the moments up until the peak which stands at 4,127 meters above sea level.
The climb to Muhavura gives one some of the most amazing views of the volcanoes, Lake George, Lake Edward, Queen Elizabeth National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The scenery from Muhavura is simply breathtaking.
As expected in any outdoor shoot, lighting, wind and changing temperature as we ascended up the mountain proved to be a challenge and some of the equipment was unable to complete the tasks. It is recommended that film crews travel with sophisticated equipment able to adapt to changing temperature and weather on the mountain.
Are there any particular tips that you would like to share with our readers about filming in Uganda?
Uganda is creating a unique venue for its local film trade and promotion that outlines the diversity and plurality of the country at the international level in TV content.
Filming in Uganda just as earlier on stated requires a number of permissions and licenses depending on one’s particular interest. It is for this reason that I would advise whoever would like to film in Uganda to get in touch with the relevant authorities as early as possible so to get the necessary approvals on time.
"Uganda has a number of hotels ranging from budget, midrange to high-end facilities all of which are film friendly."
Essentially, Uganda’s film industry is managed by three major government entities. The Media Council is responsible for classification and censoring of all films for dissemination to the public in Uganda, the Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB) is responsible for enforcing copyrights, while the Payment of royalties is managed by a Collecting Management Society (CMO) mainly for its members. URSB manages the CMO and deals with issues around piracy. To engage in film exhibition or distribution, a trader should have undergone the processes of classification and copyright registration.
It is also important to note that Ugandans are very friendly people who are always smiling and welcoming. They are always willing to help as crew members, giving the foreign teams every possible opportunity to succeed. There’s also a huge growth in local expertise from makeup artists, stylists, gaffers, production assistants and directors.
The local talent here is in abundance and this makes Uganda a prime location for film productions. The Government has also sprang into action to recognise the potential of the industry in terms of tourism and telling our unique story to the rest of the world.
What would you recommend a foreign film crew and cast do to have fun and relax on down days or pre/post-filming in Uganda?
With one of the fastest-growing economies in the continent, Uganda now boasts a number of high-end hotels, sandy beaches, exotic shopping malls and palatial areas that are sure to give you an experience of a lifetime.
Lake Victoria alone is home to one of the most beautiful islands in the region. Tourists flock these islands to enjoy the calm waters and the beautiful sand which you can only find in Uganda.
There is a lot for you to do while in Uganda. You can visit the different cultural sites located within a few hours’ distances, which will give you an insight into the lifestyles of the different tribes.
The nightlife in Kampala is also a huge attraction. There are people who are flying in all the way from different countries just to come and experience the nightlife over the weekend in Kampala.
What is your favourite film friendly hotel and restaurant in Uganda?
Uganda has a number of hotels ranging from budget, midrange to high-end facilities all of which are film friendly. These hotels and restaurants are located near some of the country’s most beautiful tourist attractions spread across the country all offering a unique experience of cuisine and culture. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, River Nile, Murchison Falls, our bustling Kampala City, Kidepo national park are some of the attractions with and/or adjacent to film friendly hotels and restaurants in Uganda.
What do you do to relax after a busy week promoting Uganda as a film location destination?
I like to meditate.
Uganda has some of the most tranquil locations to meditate. The shores and islands of Lake Victoria offer a very relaxing environment for this.
What was the last film you saw and loved?
The Lion King (2019). I love the film because it showcases African wildlife and amazing scenery and goes on to confirm that Africa makes for some the world’s best filming destinations.
What book are you currently reading?
I am currently reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. I believe that during her time as the first lady of the United States she led with grace and is a n example to all black women, not only in America but the world over.
Most importantly, she demonstrated to women how to balance work and motherhood and win against all odds.
Thank you Lilly. It has been great talking to you and finding out what makes Uganda such a great location filming destination.
Click here to contact Lilly.
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