TourCert Journal

Sustainable Tourism in Africa – Insights from Judy Kepher-Gona

Löwe auf einem Ast in der Steppe Ugandas


Our project Tourism Excellence Uganda aims to make a contribution to responsible tourism, strengthening local added value and preserving natural and cultural treasures.

Together with our local partner Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda (STTA), we are building up a local qualification network. In this interview, Founding Director Judy Kepher-Gona gives us an insight in her work and experience as ecotourism consultant:

Judy, when did you start getting involved in the field of sustainable tourism?

In 1997 as a young graduate I got involved in planning the first ecotourism conference in Africa. At that time, I worked for the national agency responsible for management of protected areas and custodian of wildlife. It was also the first time I heard the term ecotourism. I was challenged and at the end of this summit I vowed to make a difference by advocating broader and more environmentally aware forms of tourism. This conference influenced my decision to write my Master’s project on Public-Private Partnership (PPP) in Tourism.

Have your views on tourism and sustainability changed over time and if so, in what way?

No, my views have not changed. They have only become clearer over time through gaining deeper knowledge from experience and various interactions, both formal and informal. My interpretation of the concept is now deeper and holistic.

Judy Kepher-Gona mit Team und Martin Balas in Kenya
Judy Kepher-Gona and members of her team Lucy Atieno, Martin Balaš (TourCert) and Job Odhiambo (from left to right)

As founder of “Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda” (STTA) you are a role model in sustainable tourism in East Africa and beyond. In 2017, you made it to the list of Top 100 women in Tourism in Africa, you have been serving as judge for several awards and as a board member of the GSTC. This makes you a prime example for women’s empowerment in East Africa. Was it a difficult way for you to assert yourself? 

Yes, it was difficult and for many reasons other than just being a woman. The tourism industry in East Africa and Africa at large is a male dominated industry, especially at management level. When I joined the industry, I was the first female CEO of an industry association. I was young, female and black and without a background in tourism. I got my fair share of being ignored. My background was in community development. Two philosophies helped me to cut through the barriers. “We don’t need to do big things. We can do little things with great love and our world” – This is a paraphrased quote from Mother Theresa. Then my other inspiration was from Mahatma Gandhi, “first they laugh at you, then they ignore, then they fight you, then you win”, I have been through this without burning bridges. Then I made it my business to build networks, learn and stay updated on all matters of sustainable tourism.

I drove the agenda to develop the first certification scheme for accommodation facilities in Kenya. It became the first in Africa. It was a very bold move convincing the industry. My breakthrough came from international recognitions. First when I joined board of TIES, then became an assessor for WTTC Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, then joined the GSTC Board. The latest recognition was by Forbes Women Africa with the Africa Sustainable Citizen Award 2019.

Blick auf den Victoria-See in Uganda
Lake Victoria, one of the prime tourists spots in Uganda

Which have been the main lessons learned during your work at STTA?

There is a lot of research and information, and programs and certification and guidelines of what it takes to be sustainable but little knowledge on how to transform from ”business as usual” to sustainability. There are few structured processes for supporting businesses to make the transition. For this reason, there is scepticism on return on investment for being sustainable.

There are new forms of Greenwashing aided by weak tools and guidelines that lack measurable indicators for change.

The need for coaching is underestimated in sustainable tourism.

STTA is based in Kenya, a country in East Africa next to Uganda and Tanzania. Which challenges do east African countries face concerning tourism development at the moment? In which way can sustainable business approaches contribute to a better tourism?

The biggest challenge for tourism in East Africa is harmonising quality standards. This has been ongoing for years but is constantly being challenged and reviewed. Hotel star rating classification remains optional and this too affects harmonisation.

Second challenge is barriers for traveling across the region. For example, Kenya and Tanzania remain in a deadlock situation over cross border travel services. Kenyan vehicles are not allowed to carry tourists in Tanzania and enter national parks. Many policy challenges.

From experience, practice has always preceded policy in conservation and tourism in East Africa. If sustainable tourism practice becomes a string movement, it can influence policy, lead to more open borders and harmonisation of quality standards.

Gruppenbild beim Sustainable Tourism Africa Summit
Group picture at the 5th Sustainable Tourism Africa Summit in Mombasa

To what extent is the concept of sustainability already anchored in the mind-set of tourism players in East Africa? Are there any best practices that you have accompanied?

Sustainability awareness is greater that it was 15 years ago. There are amazing examples of best practices in community inclusion and empowerment as well as support to conservation. In Kenya, it was sustainability certified lodges that championed the establishment of community owned wildlife conservancies before it became law. Today this is the biggest and most equitable form of inclusion of communities in conservation and tourism.

Mid-May, you organised the 5th Sustainable Tourism Africa Summit in Mombasa, Kenya, which our consultant and partner Martin Balaš attended as a speaker. What have been the main topics on the agenda?

There was a wide range of topics focusing on the product, practice and business. The theme was redesigning the product, business and practice for Sustained and Inclusive Tourism Growth in Africa. The key discussions included:

  • Travel trends in Africa
  • Managing tourism in the sustainability era – what should be the focus and why?
  • Sustainable Tourism and Digital technology
  • Innovation and destination competitiveness
  • Progression of sustainable tourism industry – Gaps & opportunities for collaboration
  • Destination management companies and responses to SDG
  • Sustainable and Green hospitality
  • Cultural tourism for sustainable development
  • Emerging luxury sustainable tourism experiences
  • Successful sustainable cities
  • Impacts of Travel associations on sustainability of a destination
  • Rethinking tourism measurement in a sustainable world
  • Impact of climate change on tourism in Africa
  • Unique and innovative models of socially and environmentally conscious tourism
  • Alternative and responsible tourism for development in Africa
Baby Berggorilla im Dschungel Ugandas
Gorillas are one of Ugandas most precious animals

With Martin Balaš, you also had your first meeting on our joint project Tourism Excellence Uganda. What was your motivation behind the partnership and for becoming involved beyond the borders of Kenya?

My motivation in partnering with TourCert is to advance sustainable tourism certification by filling the gap on coaching. I see the tools and process embedded in the TourCert approach as key to unlocking scepticism that surrounds certification and an opportunity for many businesses to be qualified. Secondly, we share a lot with TourCert when it comes to certification. We believe in the process, not just the recognition.

We are designed to work beyond our borders. Currently there is no regional organisation linking sustainable tourism in the East Africa. Working in Uganda in this project strengthens our position in the region.

STTA will play a leading role in the project as the main local partner. Can you briefly explain the part played by STTA?

STTA will support the project activities, by working closely with other partners, through training, coaching, monitoring, audits, communication, events.

Martin Balas beim Sustainable Tourism Africa Summit
Martin Balaš giving his keynote at the 5th Sustainable Tourism Africa Summit in Mombasa

What is your personal wish for the outcome of the project?

My personal wish is to see new and renewed confidence in sustainable tourism and an appreciation of the need for a structured qualification process.

Have you been to Uganda as a traveller yourself? Would you like to share an insider tip with us?

Yes, I have been to Uganda as a traveller. The number of motor bikes in Kampala is intriguing. Crossing roads in the city is an adventure. Eat Matoke, boiled green bananas in banana leaves. I love the local food. It is rich and healthy. I have heard of ROLEX, a famous street food but never tried it. Ask for it!

Thank you, Judy.

Please find more information about the project Tourism Excellence Uganda here.

Africa, Partner, STTA, Sustainable tourism, Uganda