Voluntourism in Africa
It was the great anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela that said:
“There can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time & energy to help others without expecting anything in return.”
When I was planning my trip to Africa, I kept thinking “what can I do?” I couldn’t just spend months traveling around and looking at animals all day (well, maybe I could) but I wanted to have purpose. So I decided that I would spend at least half my time volunteering. Not only would this help me to establish relationships and learn about the continent but it was also give me a better understanding of life’s hardships that we don’t always experience in the west.
Africa is home to an increasing number of non-profits and I was curious to learn more, particularly around the topics of entrepreneurship, microfinance, and water/food shortages. I was also interested to work with displaced peoples and refugees as the international crisis grows day by day.
While the United Nations has fantastic programs, the application takes up to 6 months and they require one year commitments. I was looking for 2-4 week commitments and found various ways to find volunteer projects and get involved:
- Volunteer through third-party websites
- Find your own, smaller organizations and apply to volunteer directly
- Develop a specialized niche and search for organizations that fit this
Third-party volunteer websites
There are plenty of websites that aggregate short-term volunteer projects, offering room and board in exchange for your time and services. Some focus on a specific niche (eg. organic farming) while others have projects in a whole range of disciplines that you can browse and apply for.
There are also professional organizations that focus on pan-Africa opportunities that you can apply for before departing home. These organizations specifically focus on micro-finance:
Smaller non-profit organizations
During my travels, I came across other volunteers while at hostels or out hiking who were working with smaller non-profits. If the non-profits are western sponsored, then you’ll need to complete a short application and waiver procedure, as well as an interview in some cases.
It was after meeting Lauren at a hostel in Kigali that I heard about one of these organizations - ReapLifeDig - an Atlanta-based NGO that I had an immediate connection to as they are close to where I grew up. After completing a short application, they accepted me for a week-long program volunteering with them in northwest Uganda - a very beautiful part of the world.
Another organization I heard about was Innovation Africa www.innoafrica.org - an Israeli-based organization that builds solar-powered water wells in rural Africa. I was introduced to them through mutual friends and after a short interview process, I was accepted to spend an exciting week with them.
I’ve listed these organizations (and more) at the bottom of the page.
Locally-based African organizations are less stringent in their application requirements and generally don’t conduct interviews. This makes it much easier to reach out to their leaders and ask to visit or work, usually on a donation basis.
Below is a list of organizations I visited during my journey, most of which have been started by African entrepreneurs.
The final way to find volunteer projects in Africa is to develop your own niche specialty or competency. Is there something unique you think you can offer? If the answer is “yes”, then develop that skill to a point where you can share it with others. Sharing knowledge and time is often more powerful than money.
In my case, I have a passion and knowledge of entrepreneurship, so when I was first arranging my Africa trip, I connected with Team4Tech www.team4tech.org. This organization teaches tech skills to marginalized communities and they have a very selective process for volunteers, with two months of training before departure.
During this time, I realized that I not only really enjoyed the teaching experience but the students also learned a lot. So after the training, I devised a curriculum focusing on schools and entrepreneurship hubs in Africa, which allowed me to “sell” myself to different organizations focusing on entrepreneurship skills and local business accelerators. All in all, I gave my presentation about 20 times during my Africa journey and felt that it was most impactful when I was able to spend at least a week with the organization.
During my trip, I visited the following organizations focusing on entrepreneurship:
Nigeria and Ghana: www.meltwater.org
Kakuma Refugee Camp: www.kakumaventures.com
Working with the State Department on Women’s Entrepreneurship. https://zm.usembassy.gov
Tips for volunteering in Africa
While volunteering is usually an unforgettable experience for all the right reasons, there are a few things you should be aware of to ensure it lives up to your expectations.
- Make sure you take note of standard medical precautions (such as vaccinations) and safety considerations before departing home. Always be aware of organizations that don’t advise you on medical considerations or local dangers.
- Ensure the overnight accommodations are adequate and comfortable (I’ve heard horror stories of volunteers staying in mosquito-infested areas with no mosquito nets). Ask questions of the organization so you know what you are getting yourself into ahead of time.
- Check what food is provided and if you need to bring packaged foods and snack supplies from bigger towns to where you will be volunteering. Fruits and meat are often available in the villages, so make sure they are clean and cooked sufficiently. I highly recommend bringing a water purifier, just in case. You can get them for around $30 at outdoors stores such as REI.
- Don’t try and be the “White Savior” - someone who flies in and out thinking they can fix everything. Just do your best, make some friends and stay in touch as you see fit.
- If you’re working with kids, have fun but don’t get too attached. This can be detrimental for both you and the child.
- As a foreigner, don’t wander around at night if it’s not advised. Optimize for the daytime and leave the night for rest.
Interesting African volunteer organizations
NB: “1” indicates an overseas-based organization and “2” is locally run.
Want to work in one of the world’s biggest slums?
Kindle Africa www.kindleafrica.org (2)
Help to empower women across West Africa through textile production
Global Mamas www.globalmamas.org (1/2)
Work with sex slaves
Haart Kenya http://www.haartkenya.org/ (2)
Empower schools and children in western Kenya
Better Me https://bettermekenya.org/ (2)
Melon Mission http://www.melonmission.org/ (2)
Help build the first children’s hospital in East Africa
Shoe4Africa https://shoe4africa.org/ (2 but run by an American)
Work with refugees to build companies
Kakuma Ventures www.kakumaventures.com (2)
There are a quite a few organizations working on helping the original coffee plantations export. Most of these are women focused organizations.
Worried about disappearing Cheetahs?
Cheetah Conservation Fund http://cheetah.org/ (2)
Planning on hiking Kilimanjaro? Stop to teach at this Japanese-funded NGO en route
Sakura Vision https://www.sakura.vision/ (2)
Assist in financial empowerment
Teach a Man to Fish https://www.teachamantofish.org.uk/ (1)
Teach women about health issues
Uganda Village Project http://www.ugandavillageproject.org/ (1)
Teach farming skills in rural areas
Reap Life Dig http://www.reaplifedig.org/ (1)
Educate Madagascan students (run by overseas-educated Madagascan girls)
Nofy I Androy https://www.nofyiandroy.org/
Want to save the Ocean?
There are lots of companies working with the environment throughout Africa. Many are quite expensive and profit from volunteers, so make sure you ask a lot of questions. In return, you may get to do lots of diving and utilize their equipment for free. Blue Ventures is one. https://blueventures.org/
I also dove with volunteers in Tofu, Mozambique with another one that was cheaper but I forgot the name.