Alessandrabree Chacha remembers the stigma and discrimination she faced when she started transitioning from male to female at her former workplace in Harare in 2010.
By Lungelo Ndhlovu
“Even employers sabotaged me,” she said.
“If you are the boss, at least people respect you.”
This realization pushed her to leave her tech sector job and become her own boss.
She started Balt Global Limited, her own lifestyle and skincare company, launched in December 2018.
“Now with the partners I work with, suppliers, customers, even distributors, I am just seen as a normal woman,” Chacha said.
Sylvester Nyamatendedza, the Services and Policy Advocacy officer at GALZ – An Association of LGBTI People in Zimbabwe says lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people face various forms of homophobia and transphobia in the country.
“There is little awareness about trans-identifying persons. Things like misgendering, referring to people by a pronoun that is not their choice is part of the gender violence LGBTI people experience,” Nyamatendedza said.
“[In the business world,] there is so much stigma and discrimination. Some clients do not want to be associated with you or your brand. Some shun you, and some competitors use your sexuality as a tool to [badmouth] you.”
There is no provision for trans people to change their gender marker on official documents in Zimbabwe, compounding the widespread unemployment and unsafe working conditions most workers already face. These realities have contributed to suicide cases among Zimbabwe’s LGBTI community, as statistics from Trans Smart Trust (TST) show.
TST, an organisation focused on intersex and transgender persons in Zimbabwe, suggests that transphobic and homophobic attitudes contribute to suicidal thoughts and deaths among transgender people.
According to TST, Victoria Falls had the highest number of suicide cases among LGBTI people in Zimbabwe in the past year, more than 15 people approached TST for help dealing with suicidal thoughts during that period. TST has also registered trans suicide cases in Bulawayo, Mutare and Harare.
Chacha uses her company to sensitize people about what it means to be transgender and to provide new economic opportunities for LGBTI people in Zimbabwe.
“One of our brands is bottled organic skin care, and the distributors, even affiliates, are actually trans persons in different areas, rural and urban, who are able to earn a commission each time they do a product referral. So you find this is also now empowering the community,” she said. “Even though you were denied quality education, maybe you have great marketing skills and can now make a buck and be included by a company that understands who you are without discrimination.”
Like Chacha, gender and sexual minorities across Zimbabwe are creating businesses to beat unemployment and poverty while providing safe spaces for themselves.
The Other Foundation, a trust dedicated to advancing human rights in Southern Africa with a particular focus on LGBTI people, set up ‘PLUS’ the LGBTI Business Network in 2016 to support such initiatives and create opportunities for LGBTI owned enterprises and businesses to be empowered and included in the supply chains of big corporations.
“The Pink Economy initiative is an entrepreneurship development and support project that focused on the youth LGBTI community in Zimbabwe, to equip them with business skills that foster economic growth through entrepreneurship and advocacy for inclusion into the mainstream economy,” said Chrystal Bonxo, Programs Manager at Bayethe Development Institute, which implemented the initiative.
Bonxo indicated that most of their organisation work is anchored on five thematic areas targeting primarily youth and key populations: Economic Empowerment, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Arts, Culture and Heritage, Peace Building and Environment and Climate Change.
“The workforce space in Zimbabwe is openly discriminatory towards LGBTI community members. As a result we have qualified LGBTI people without jobs. The Pink Economy’s objective is to alleviate the issue of unemployment and create economic sustainability for LGBTI community members so that they are able to be empowered economically,” she said.
In Masvingo, a city in south-eastern Zimbabwe, a group of LGBTI youths are using fashion design to beat unemployment among the community. They lend each other money to lift the group out of poverty.
In Bulawayo, LGBTI youths started a catering company to cook and sell the Zimbabwe staple food ‘Isitshwala’ a maize flour porridge at a local bar.
“My catering business has been very lucrative ever since I started in 2019. My customers don’t mind my sexuality, and they enjoy my cooking. I roughly make about $50 on a busy day, but COVID-19 lockdown has been a late downlet-down lately,” said Noxie (Preferred name).
Others have become electricians and hairdressers while others make and sell bead art.
One gay man Bonxi mentioned now has his own successful dishwasher brand. Bonxo says these initiatives are what drives the Pink Economy.
Bonxo however said the COVID-19 pandemic had slowed down the Pink Economy’s success, but confirmed that with the easing of regulations and freeing of movement, there are plans in place to boost the initiative.
Chacha believes being responsive to the concept of the Pink Economy makes LGBTI people feel more included in the country’s growth.
“A ‘Pink Economy’ is a situation where LGBTI persons are able to contribute to the overall economy. LGBTI persons in Zimbabwe are human beings just like anybody else and have a lot to offer. Being responsive to the pink economy makes LGBTI persons feel more included and motivated to contribute. That motivation can mean greater rewards for Zimbabwe as a whole because we have motivated highly capable human resources that feel included and are able to give what they can for the country to prosper,” Chacha said.
This feature article was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Lungelo Ndhlovu and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union’.