For this week’s Volunteer Abroad Spotlight feature, we interviewed Greg Bows, the Managing Director for African Impact
1. What is your goal for African Impact? Has this goal changed since 2004, when African Impact was founded?
When we first started out in 2004, we knew that we could do something positive through volunteering, but I don’t think we realized at that point just how much we could actually achieve. Since then, our capacity for making positive, long-lasting change has grown more than we ever imagined it could!
Our goal has always been to help volunteers make a positive impact on conservation and the lives of people in the communities we work in, but as time went on, we were struck by just how profoundly volunteering was effecting the volunteers themselves. We realized that volunteering really is a win-win situation; the volunteer benefits just as much as the project does.
As we’ve grown, we’ve gained experience and expertise in this field that has enabled us to really maximize and enhance both the positive impact our projects make and the experience we provide to our volunteers.
2. What significant changes have you seen with volunteer projects in Africa (as a whole) over the past nine years?
As an industry, voluntourism has expanded rapidly throughout Africa. There’s been a huge increase in the number of volunteering projects on offer, including the amount of specialist operations out there. The increase in volunteering projects has meant an incredible increase in the amount of work volunteers are actually doing in Africa – some amazing things are happening on the ground because of volunteers.
There’s also been a change in volunteer demographics; it’s gone from being regarded as something aimed only at gap-year students to something that’s accessible and attractive to a much broader market. This is great because it means that collectively volunteers bring a much wider range of skills and experience to projects than ever before.
3. Where do you see volunteer work in Africa going next?
We want to keep pushing the boundaries of what volunteering can actually achieve. The voluntourism industry isn’t doing that enough. Volunteering can be amazingly effective and it can actually make a real difference – that’s something we want to keep pushing.
We’re also looking at expanding to North Africa, which is something we are really excited about. At the moment we’re looking into setting up a project in Morocco. We also want to expand the voluntourism market – we want to change the perception of voluntourism as something that’s only for students and backpackers and are working on ways to tailor voluntourism so that it becomes accessible to people outside of that demographic as well.
As a company, one thing that we feel we don’t do enough of is involving local African volunteers in our projects. Encouraging local people to volunteer alongside our international volunteers is something we’d really like to encourage. For instance, in Livingstone there’s a local women’s group that regularly pitches in on our farming project, and we love that. It’s about getting local people to buy into the idea of volunteering with the projects in their own communities.
Our aim is to get our volunteers even more involved in the projects they visit. We don’t want them to just feel like our guests, we want them to feel like they’ve really become part of our team, because that’s exactly what they have done. The more I work in this industry, the more I see the value that volunteers can bring to a project. We need to keep coming up with new and innovative ways to harness volunteers’ full potential – the more I see this happen the more I believe in what we’re doing.
4. On your website, you emphasize African Impact’s “unrivaled on-the-ground support network”. Why is this support network so critical for volunteers?
It’s all about ensuring that volunteers are the most productive and effective that they can possibly be, while at the same time making sure that they are as safe and comfortable as possible.
It would be unrealistic to expect a first-time volunteer, untrained in any specialist skills, to come out to a foreign country for just a few weeks and be able to do the best work – no one could do that. Our on-the-ground support network helps to focus volunteers in the right direction – to guide, mentor and assist them – making sure that their work is as meaningful and impactful as possible.
Similarly, our on-the-ground support system ensures that we can make volunteers’ time with us as enjoyable as possible; having fun is a huge part of the experience we want volunteers to have! Food, accommodation, transport, personal safety, extra adventure activities – all of that is taken care of and we encourage our volunteers to get involved in the fun elements of project life!
5. Has technology and the rise of social media impacted your interaction with volunteers and/or the support you provide to them?
Absolutely. Social media has changed the way we interact with our volunteers in almost every aspect.
Before volunteers arrive on a project, social media helps us to make sure that their expectations are spot on. Each project has its own Facebook page and the teams regularly post updates and photos that give a great sense of what goes on in day-to-day life on the projects. Also, prospective volunteers can get in touch with past volunteers through our community pages on Facebook, which essentially gives them access to independent reviews and advice.
Past volunteers also love to stay in touch with the project through Facebook once they’ve gone home. It’s great for us because it’s an easy way for volunteers to share our pages with their friends. Through that, we’re now reaching people who might not otherwise have found out about our projects. A brilliant photo shared on Facebook, for instance, has an astonishing way of reaching people who would otherwise not have been aware of us or the work we’re doing.
Social media keeps past volunteers up to date with their favorite projects, keeps their interest engaged and is an invaluable fundraising tool. Essentially, it allows them to feel as though they’re still part of the team, and we absolutely love that.
6. How can organizations such as African Impact utilize the Volunteer Forever platform to help volunteers during the life-cycle of their experience?
We absolutely support the use of crowdfunding platforms for our volunteers. Many have the passion and enthusiasm but lack the funding to fulfill their dream of volunteering in Africa. Organizations like Volunteer Forever allow prospective volunteers to raise funds to get themselves on a project, where they’re able to make a real difference and change not only the lives of others but their own lives too. Fundraising for a trip is an important part of the volunteering life-cycle, and the very first step for many of our volunteers. Also, having the support of family and friends, who contribute funds to help volunteers in this venture, is very important.
We are also able to support our volunteers who fundraise through Volunteer Forever by sharing their fundraising page on our social media platforms and promoting further contributions.
Feedback is one of the most important things in the volunteer industry. Volunteers choose the program that’s right for them through honest feedback and reviews, and independent review and volunteer-to-volunteer feedback helps set the right expectations about what life is like on a particular project.
7. What is your best volunteer abroad-related memory and why?
I was volunteering at Tembe Elephant Reserve near Mozambique where we had released four lions into the reserve. My job was to monitor them every day; check on them, make sure they were hunting effectively, and so on. One of my most special memories was the day we darted them to change their collars. We drew them in by playing recordings of other lions roaring, which made the lions think they needed to defend their territory. We then darted them and changed their collars while they were sedated – fending off hyenas and other animals at the same time! It was an incredible, unique experience, but the best part of all was discovering that one of the females was pregnant. Knowing that this lioness was going to have cubs largely due to our work was a very satisfying feeling. Our work with those lions at Tembe paid off long-term too because today African Impact volunteers visit Tembe and there are now over 25 lions there.
Today the best part about being involved in the voluntourism industry is visiting one of our projects and seeing the positive changes that have taken place. We came from humble beginnings in 2004, but our dreams were big. We started out as a few passionate people sitting around a table with a big idea, and have grown into a network of passionate, innovative people who have taken these projects to new heights. Every time I visit a project, things are working better, there are more achievements, and I learn something new each time.
8. Do you have any advice for first-time volunteers?
Do your research. Ask questions. Work out what you want to get out of your volunteering placement. Also, do it for the experience of doing the hands-on work, the experience of getting personally and physically involved. Don’t volunteer because you think your money’s going to make a difference. I believe that the biggest contributions volunteers make on projects aren’t financial – it’s about the exchange of cultures and ideas, it’s about what you bring to the table as an individual and what you can take away with you.
For more information on African Impact Click Here.