If you’ve always dreamed of volunteering in Africa, now is a great time to do it. People in Africa face an array of challenges — extreme poverty, lack of clean drinking water, HIV/AIDS, lack of access to healthcare — and there are plenty opportunities to help. Here’s how to volunteer in Africa.
Volunteering in Africa is a great opportunity to give back, learn new skills, and gain valuable life experiences. Be sure you do your homework before you go. Your volunteer experience will be much more meaningful if you’re adequately prepared.
How to volunteer in Africa
I’ve met hundreds of volunteers in Africa over the last few years, and I’ve learned that people often come with misconceptions about what their experience will be like. Understanding what to expect can help you have a richer volunteer experience. If you’re thinking about volunteering in Africa, here are a few things to consider:
1. Not all organizations will have volunteer opportunities. Some organizations’ missions are incompatible with short-term volunteers. For example, over the years many children’s homes and orphanages have learned that having people come and go frequently can be harmful for the children in their care. They’ve learned that consistency is important, and it’s something short-term volunteers can’t offer.
2. Managing volunteers requires time and effort. Organizations that have a lot of volunteers often need to hire someone to manage the volunteers’ schedules — and in some cases their accommodations and transportation. I’ve heard from a number of volunteers who wanted to volunteer in Africa for free and are frustrated when they have to pay for a volunteer experience.
But keep in mind that hosting volunteers, and doing it well, can take a lot of time and effort. For example, if you volunteer on a building project, someone needs to make sure you have the supplies you need. If you volunteer at a school, someone must coordinate with the teachers and the person in charge of the school. This is one reason some organizations charge for a volunteer experience and have a limited number of volunteer spots available.
3. Sometimes locals can do the job better. Whether it’s a building project or teaching in a village, sometimes locals can do the job more effectively than international volunteers. If you’ve traveled in Africa, you know that foreigners often attract attention, which can be a distraction on a volunteer site.
And with building projects, volunteers often don’t have the skills needed to build with local materials and tools. Plus, it would be a shame if volunteers were taking away paid work for local residents.
Tips for an amazing volunteer experience in Africa
All of that said, there are many organizations rely heavily on volunteers and feel that their service is invaluable. Here are some tips for having a memorable and life-changing volunteer experience:
1. If you’re short on time, plan ahead. I’ve met a handful of people who arrived in Africa hoping to volunteer, but with out having any contacts or plans for what they would be doing. If you have plenty of time (and patience!) this can work. But it’s best to plan ahead, especially if you’re on a shorter trip. Contact a few organizations in areas you’ll be visiting and find out how you might be able to get involved.
2. It’s okay to pay, just not too much. There are a lot of great organizations that ask volunteers to contribute to overhead costs, or the cost of the specific project they’ll be working on. In general, I think this is fine. But ask good questions — make sure the money is staying in the local community and supporting local programs. There are some organizations that will charge inflated amounts and take advantage of volunteers. Do your homework and plan ahead to make sure you find an excellent volunteer experience with a reputable organization.
3. Be willing to do anything. It’s great if you have specific skills you think will be helpful, but it may be difficult to find a short-term volunteer opportunity where you’ll be able to use your talents. Be open to a variety tasks, however menial they may seem, that allow you to take some of the load off of the people working hard in their local communities. Use the time to build relationships with other volunteers and local non-profit workers; you’ll be able to gain insight into their culture, as well as the significant challenges they may be facing.
4. Learn about WWOOFing.
If you’ve always wanted to volunteer in Africa, there’s no time like the present. Volunteering in Africa and volunteering abroad can be an amazing, life-changing experience. Just make sure you have realistic expectations, and use the tips above to set yourself up for success.
Eco-tourism in Africa
Many people may plan to volunteer as well as travel in a new country. It’s great if you have the time to do both. When we were in Argentina, we took several days to volunteer on an organic farm. It was one of the highlights of our trip.
When you go to Africa, or anywhere and are planning travel, more and more tourists and tourism providers are taking responsibility for the environmental impact caused by their activities.
The tide is turning toward eco-friendly, sustainable travel – holiday-makers expect ethical dealings, and tourism providers understand the importance of maintaining the environments and communities they operate within.
An example of a company that takes eco-tourism its commitment to ethical tourism practice, a UK-based tourism provider. Here’s a case study of the different ways this company is working to maintain sustainable tourism:
Giving back to the communities who accommodate tourists through the, Safari Consultants sponsors students for the entire five years of high school in Kenya.
There is also a commitment to provide two bursaries each year for students at the Koiyaki Guiding School – providing local Maasai youth in Kenya the opportunity to learn the tourism industry and skills in eco-friendly land management.
Safari Consultants demonstrates its commitment to taking care of wildlife through regular contributions to the South Luangwa Conservation Society in Zambia.
Smaller conservation projects and one-off involvement is also key. Maintaining a level of flexibility in the budget allows a company to make pledges to a variety of different projects as they come up.
Safari Consultants has assisted small-scale projects such as providing school equipment in school, and football boots for a local team.
Examples in the UK
It’s necessary to keep up with peak industry bodies such as The Travel Foundation and Ethical Tour Operators Group (ETOG) of Tourism Concern to keep up-to-date with projects and industry news and demonstrate a commitment to ethical tourism.
Taking care of the environment has been extended to onsite practice at Safari Consultants HQ in Suffolk, where low energy light bulbs are used, and electricity runs off 100% renewable resources.
They have an in-house green travel policy for all staff, plus a comprehensive recycling scheme in the office. As climates change ever more rapidly, it becomes increasingly essential to do as much as possible to mitigate the impact that humans have on the environment. The onus is on both tourism companies and travellers, who can choose to support ethical tourism providers, especially when travelling in the delicate ecosystems such as while on safari.
Always remember about supporting the local economy and to buy sustainable souvenirs only.
Volunteers and tourists — in Africa and wherever you are going — should also take personal responsibility while abroad – from taking care of the environment while visiting to offsetting carbon emissions, there are many ways to ensure the lightest possible footprints are left.
Are you planning a trip to Africa? The chance to volunteer in Africa is sure to be a memorable and life-changing experience. Do your research in advance for the best time possible.