Empowering LGBTQ+ Entrepreneurs in Africa: An Interview with Rodney Otieno, EQUAL Africa Fellowship Recipient
This year at #EQUALAfrica, we had the pleasure of recognizing Rodney Otieno as our first ever EQUAL Africa Fellowship recipient. Rodney is the co-founder of Queer & Allied Chamber of Commerce Africa (QACC Africa), an organization based in Nairobi that promotes economic relationships between queer-owned and operated businesses, entrepreneurs, and their allies in nations throughout Africa.
As a Foundation Fellow, Rodney was invited to participate in this year's conference and had the opportunity to network with industry leaders, share his insights on expanding LGBTQ+ tourism in Africa, and engage in thought-provoking conversations about the future of the industry. We caught up with Rodney to learn more about his experience at the conference and his work with QACC Africa.
Congratulations on being awarded the first-ever EQUAL Africa Fellowship! What inspired you to co-found QACC Africa, and how has it evolved since its inception? Can you tell us more about QACC Africa and the work you do there?
Thank you for the honor of the EQUAL Africa Fellowship and attending the #EQUALAfrica conference at WTM Africa. QACC Africa aims to facilitate and promote commercial relationships between queer-owned businesses, entrepreneurs, and their allies across Africa. Although officially registered last year, the concept emerged in early 2021 when my co-founders and I organized our first safe queer community event. Themed a Pride Halloween, this was Kenya’s very first large-scale queer-focused public event, held at a queer-owned business property and supported by a wide range of partner and allied organizations and local and international celebrities and diplomats. We were hoping approximately 300 people would attend. What transpired, however, was over 30 different queer-owned business vendors setting up stands in the property to showcase their products and services, and interacting with over 800 guests that came together and enjoyed music, art and queer culture. This success led us to establish QACC Africa, hosting additional events focused on inclusivity, diversity, advocacy, and business development. We are now expanding our business ecosystem to other African countries, promoting the power of the PINK ECONOMY. Through a blend of technology and in-person interactions, QACC Africa provides training, mentorship, certification for inclusive practices, collaboration within the queer supply chain, and support for queer start-ups and entrepreneurs. We also serve as a hub for investors in queer and allied businesses.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing queer-owned and operated businesses in Africa, and how does QACC Africa help to address those challenges?
Queer-owned and operated businesses in Africa face numerous challenges, including the need to hide their identities to avoid missed opportunities and potential exploitation by competitors, clients, employees, and government entities. The LGBTQ+ community in Kenya, in particular, has experienced high levels of discrimination, harassment, and abuse, intensified by the backlash following a Supreme Court ruling protecting LGBTQ+ rights. Hate speech, threats, and calls for violence have been pervasive, with some politicians even advocating for further criminalization and discrimination. This hostile environment, fueled by funding from both domestic and external sources, has had severe mental health impacts on LGBTQ+ individuals and has resulted in workplace discrimination and abuse. QACC Africa recognizes the urgency of addressing these issues and mobilizing their network of business inclusion training experts to create safe work environments for LGBTQ+ employees and provide support for their mental well-being. Additionally, LGBTQ+ business owners and entrepreneurs have suffered financially due to income loss, refusal of business transactions by clients and suppliers, and targeting by authorities. QACC Africa seeks to address these challenges and provide support to LGBTQ+ individuals in the business sphere.
How does QACC Africa incorporate intersectionality into its work, and what challenges and opportunities does this present?
QACC Africa embraces intersectionality in its work through the diverse composition of its team. Team members represent various races, gender identities, sexual orientations, economic backgrounds, religions, and heritages. This diversity enables QACC Africa to incorporate a multi-level analysis, drawing on grassroots knowledge, international geopolitical trends, and social developments. It ensures that the organization's strategy development remains informed and responsive to the needs of marginalized individuals facing discrimination in commercial settings. QACC Africa's programs are driven by team members who are committed to achieving maximum long-term impact, fostering economic advocacy across Africa, and ultimately promoting broader community acceptance of the queer community. They also recognize the potential for their work to contribute to policy change at the governmental level.
How do you see LGBTQ+ tourism evolving in Africa in the coming years, and what role do you see QACC Africa playing in that evolution?
I have no doubt that LGBTQ+ tourism will continue to flourish here in Kenya, as the hub to East Africa, despite the current climate here in Kenya and Uganda being perceived internationally as unsafe for queer travelers. It is my passion to ensure the safety and security of all LGBTQ+ people to find safe and secure accommodation and to make travel plans without fear of discrimination through my travel company WK Inclusive Travel. WK Inclusive Travel is passionate about genuine inclusive travel, meaning that we not only provide safe and enjoyable tourism and hospitality service offerings across Africa to the queer community, but to the many allies who want to ensure their travel dollars are spent to develop a more inclusive and equitable tourism industry, whilst exploring this beautiful continent. For my role at the Queer & Allied Chamber of Commerce Africa, as my background is largely in travel and the wider tourism sector, many of the LGBTQ+ people I meet are involved the tourism industry and I'm actively working with them to promote hiring inclusively and support the growth of their businesses through QACC Africa’s pink economic ecosystem, to ensure the success of queer tourism in East Africa.
What role do you think international organizations and businesses can play in supporting LGBTQ+ rights and economic empowerment in Africa, and how can they work effectively with local organizations like QACC Africa?
QACC Africa is the first African chamber of commerce dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ businesses. It acknowledges the valuable insights of existing queer organizations in Africa and learns from global best practices through networking and international events. Genuine queer inclusion is necessary to address unconscious bias and the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals, such as limited access to healthcare, education, and finance. By empowering them economically, they can create their own successful ventures and become self-sustaining. However, funding for queer organizations in Africa remains limited. International organizations have the opportunity to shift the funding focus from solely health and HIV to comprehensive economic development, empowering LGBTQIA+ individuals and fostering societal integration. QACC Africa advocates for economic inclusion as a means to achieve independence in health, security, and education, restoring human dignity.
What were some of your key takeaways from this year’s #EQUALAfrica conference, and how do you plan to apply those takeaways to your work with QACC Africa?
Whilst it was fabulous to be around so many queer community members involved in the tourism industry whilst at the #EQUALAfrica conference, it was clear that the LGBTQ+ representation at the entire WTM Africa expo was extremely small in comparison to the actual tourism buying power that the queer community holds globally. QACC Africa aims to collaborate with existing queer-owned or operated tourism businesses across Africa, assisting them in formalizing their enterprises and expanding their market share. We will actively promote these businesses within our queer and allied business ecosystem in Africa and through our global partnerships. Additionally, we will establish an incubator to nurture queer entrepreneurs, many of whom have promising concepts in the tourism and hospitality sectors.
How do you see the future of LGBTQ+ tourism intersecting with broader trends in travel and tourism in Africa, such as ecotourism or cultural tourism?
LGBTQ+ tourism has the potential to drive innovation and set new trends across various tourism sectors, driven by the community's progressive mindset and appreciation for diversity. In Africa, the future of LGBTQ+ tourism is likely to align with these broader trends. While LGBTQ+ travel is still emerging in the region, there is a growing interest among LGBTQ+ travelers in exploring Africa. One trend that may intersect with LGBTQ+ tourism is ecotourism, as many LGBTQ+ travelers are attracted to sustainable and eco-friendly travel experiences. Africa's remarkable wildlife and natural landscapes make it an appealing destination for ecotourism, including national parks, wildlife reserves, and sustainable tourism initiatives. Additionally, cultural tourism is another trend that is expected to intersect with LGBTQ+ tourism in Africa.
What advice would you give to other emerging leaders in the LGBTQ+ tourism industry who are looking to make a positive impact in their communities? The many fascinating countries on the African continent are home to a diverse range of cultures, traditions, and languages, and many LGBTQ+ travelers are naturally interested in exploring these unique aspects and cultures.
Here are some valuable tips for emerging leaders in the LGBTQ+ tourism industry who are eager to make a positive impact:
Be authentic: Embrace your true self and share your personal experiences to help others in the community feel seen and understood.
Be an advocate: Take a stand against discrimination and prejudice, and actively promote policies and practices that foster equality and inclusion.
Build networks and partnerships: Collaborate with like-minded individuals and organizations to amplify your impact and advance shared goals in the LGBTQ+ tourism industry.
Embrace diversity: Recognize and celebrate the diversity within the LGBTQ+ community, acknowledging and addressing the unique experiences and challenges faced by different groups.
Keep learning: Stay informed about the latest trends and issues in the LGBTQ+ tourism industry, and remain open to new ideas and perspectives to enhance your leadership and advocacy skills.