Volunteering in Africa: What You Need to Know

A Useful Guide to Volunteering in Africa Food
Bartosz Haydniak/ Getty Images

If you're looking to add meaning to your African adventure, volunteering is a great way to do so. From week-long internships that are easily tacked on to the end of your safari or beach vacation to placements that last for several months, there are countless opportunities available. Whether it's a citizen science project dedicated to gathering data for rhino conservation in South Africa or an initiative that builds schools for kids affected by genocide in the Sudan, all you have to decide is which cause you're most interested in supporting.

What Does "Volunteering" Actually Mean?

The term "volunteering" means something different to almost every organization you come across. Generally speaking, positions that last for less than a year usually carry a price-tag - i.e., you'll be paying a certain amount to the charity or organization for the privilege of working with them. This may seem strange, but in reality, volunteer fees help the charity to cover costs and act as an important source of revenue.

Positions that require a commitment of more than a year will often offer a basic stipend; while others will pay for your flight and general living costs. Whether you get paid and how much you get paid will also depend on your skills and the current demand for them. Most paid volunteer opportunities in Africa are available to those who have a university education and/or practical skill. 

Engineers, doctors, nurses, environmentalists, emergency relief personnel and teachers are among the professions most sought after by volunteer agencies. If an organization doesn't require you to have specific skills then you will usually have to pay your own expenses as a volunteer.

What to Expect When Volunteering

Basic Conditions: Most volunteer opportunities take place in rural areas where you may not have ready access to running water and electricity. Housing can be very basic and you will often be staying with local families. Food is likely to be basic as well, so you'll have to make arrangements in advance for any special dietary requirements. 

Cultural Differences: As in most countries in the world, rural communities are usually more traditional than urban centers. As you will be working closely with the local population you will have to dress and behave in accordance with what is acceptable to their culture. The pace of life is often more relaxed than in the West. Don't expect any organization to run without glitches.

Getting Sick: Depending on where you're going, there is likely to be a chance of contracting tropical diseases like malaria or bilharzia. Make sure to consult your doctor well in advance, and to ensure that you have all the vaccinations and medication you need. You may also experience digestive difficulties when adjusting to the local diet or trying new foods. 

Personal Growth: Anyone who has volunteered in Africa will probably tell you that the biggest impact their project had was not on the community they served but on themselves. Spending time immersed in another culture will change the way you look at life and is part of the appeal of volunteering.

Competition: Most organizations working in Africa try to recruit as many local people as possible, as this helps to build a foundation for the project that will last long after you have returned home. Often, this means that the spaces available for foreigners are limited, so competition can be tough. Be prepared to apply for several positions. 

Recommended Volunteer Placement Sites

One way to book your volunteer adventure is to browse a job site that specialises in volunteer opportunities abroad.

  • Idealist.org is one of the best resources for those looking for the opportunity to volunteer in Africa, with volunteer vacancies listed in their hundreds. There are also some paid job offers listed for Africa.
  • WorkingAbroad.com offers a personalized list of volunteer opportunities to suit your profile. For a fee you can fill out what type of volunteer work you are interested in, where you wish to work and how long you can work for. WorkingAbroad is affiliated to hundreds of organizations, some of which are so grassroots that you may not find them independently.
  • Transitions Abroad has a good list of volunteer opportunities in Africa with contact information for each organization.

Recommended Volunteer Agencies

There are many reasons why people want to volunteer in Africa and it's important you choose an organization that shares your ideals and goals. The volunteer organizations listed below come highly recommended and usually offer long-term positions. Divert here for advice on short-term volunteering in Africa.

  • Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is a British organization that recruits professionals for two-year stints throughout Africa. There are a couple of youth programs available for 17-25 year-olds that require a shorter time commitment. VSO is one of Britain's most established and professional charities. While most of their recruits come from the EU, anyone is encouraged to apply. You can search for jobs by skill area.
  • Habitat for Humanity is a U.S. based organization publicly supported by former president Jimmy Carter. Their focus is on providing housing for people throughout the world. Habitat offers paid international positions for three-year terms. They also offer an international volunteer program which is a two-to-three-month commitment for which you are expected to cover your own costs.
  • UN Volunteers (UNV) requires you to be 25 years or older. While you can specify the country you would like to work in, you will be placed where you're needed most. The jobs usually last for one or two years and are paid. Working as a UN Volunteer is a good way to get a foot into the wider UN organization if that's where you'd like to have a career.
  • Peace Corps volunteers usually spend two years working on a project, with all positions exclusively available to U.S. citizens. Every Peace Corps volunteer gets paid a modest stipend and all travel, in-country training and medical costs are covered. The Peace Corps operates in about 30 African countries, so there's plenty of choice.
  • Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) work under the most dangerous circumstances and are often the only organization left when all others have left the scene. MSF Volunteers are generally expected to be available to work for nine to 12 months and often in fairly extreme conditions. MSF offers volunteer missions to health professionals, administrators and logistics staff.
  • African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) has over 50 years’ experience in health development in Africa and offers programs in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Southern Sudan and South Africa. Training and consulting support are provided to an additional 30 African countries. Current vacancies and volunteer flying doctor positions are recruited for here.
  • Wildlife ACT: If you're more interested in wildlife conservation than human aid, try World Wildlife Fund-approved volunteer agency Wildlife ACT. This organization specializes in projects that are working to conserve Africa's most endangered species, from the black and white rhino to the African wild dog. Student and intern positions are also available for longer stays in some of Africa's best-known game reserves. 

Volunteer Visas and Work Permits

If you plan on volunteering for a short period of time (less than 90 days), it's likely that you will be able to volunteer on a general tourist visa. Depending on your nationality and the country that you plan on visiting, you may not need a visa at all - but it's imperative that you check with the nearest consul or embassy. If you're staying for an extended period of time, you'll need to apply for a long-stay or volunteer visa. This can often be a lengthy process, so make sure to research your options well in advance. 

This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on July 13th 2018.

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