GoAbroad Interview

Greg Bows - Co-Founder & Managing Director

Greg Bows - Co-Founder & Managing Director

African Impact was founded in 2004 and has since grown from a small family run organization to a well-known social enterprise. However, the organization’s goal has remained the same throughout the past decade: to bring about positive change in Africa. Leading the exploration into a better future for Africa is Greg Bows, the organization's co-founder and managing director, who brings well over a decade of volunteering experience in Africa to the African Impact team.

Greg will go to any lengths in the name of volunteering. He has been trudging through jungles with bat-eating guides and charged by lions in the search for the best volunteer projects! Greg grew up in Yorkshire England and fell in love with Africa on a family Safari in 2000. In 2003 Greg took a gap year to Africa where he travelled from Ethiopia to Cape Town. After that he spent some time monitoring lions in Tembe Elephant Reserve before going to Antelope Park and meeting the Conolly family where African Impact was born. Greg is supported by a passionate and hard-working team that help to turn his visionary ideas into reality and make African Impact what it is today.

A volunteer playing with an African kid

Photo courtesy of Annabel Vere, African Impact

How does African Impact bring about positive change in Africa?

We embrace the power of volunteering. It sounds fluffy, but essentially we work tirelessly combining the needs of communities and conservation partners to align with the goal we have of providing volunteers with a great experience in a way that is mutually beneficial and fulfilling. It’s a balance that can be incredible and life changing for all involved. It’s one of the best things I see when travelling around our projects every year - we seem to constantly take things one step further, improving and increasing the impacts we make whilst simultaneously improving the quality of the experience we offer to our volunteers.

What served as the inspiration for the founding of African Impact?

For me it was never some big dream, but rather something that evolved over time. I travelled from Ethiopia to Cape Town in South Africa on my gap year. I loved it and fell in love with Africa. I was taking some time out to travel before going to university with an aim to study Animal Science but at that point I was clueless about what I wanted to do in life.

Travelling in Africa was just mind blowing! On arriving in South Africa I managed to get a placement volunteering on a game reserve that had just released four lions. I was there for one month and at the end they asked me to stay on and help them so I did. The organisation had volunteers from all over coming to help on the project, but if I’m honest, it was all wrong. They needed the funds but not the volunteers; essentially the volunteer fees were used to fund the research, which is great, but volunteers were just watching us do data collection and weren’t really contributing tangibly.

I soon left that project and headed to Zimbabwe where I had met Andrew Conolly, the owner of Antelope Park game reserve near Gweru. Here I was offered a job – three months before I was due to go to university. After about a month and lots of conversation on volunteering, we decided Antelope Park was the perfect place to launch a volunteer project and do it properly.  Andrew Conolly’s daughter, Sarah, had just completed her Marketing degree and together the three of us, sitting around a table in the Zimbabwe midlands, founded African Impact.

Like any new organisation we made plenty of mistakes to start off with but we quickly realised we were on to something great by providing incredible and rewarding experiences to volunteers while making real meaningful impacts on the ground! Since then this initial idea has now become more of a mission for us; we want to push the boundaries of what volunteering can achieve both from an experience and impact perspective. It makes me incredibly proud looking back and seeing how far we’ve come. Personally it has surpassed anything I could have dreamt of, however, the more we do, the more I want to do; I want us to keep growing, keep improving, and keep making our impact. 

Why is Africa the perfect volunteer destination for community work and conservation?

I can’t say it enough - this continent is magic! Its wildlife, landscape, and people provide some of the most adventurous and fulfilling travel experiences – it’s powerful stuff! Africa has some of the most unique and friendly cultures in the world and without a doubt, the most amazing wildlife. However, much of this is largely misunderstood, threatened, and in a very vulnerable position right now. There is this big misconception that money is the answer to Africa’s issues, while it’s often not. It helps, of course, but it also hinders. Volunteering is not about money. It’s about YOU the volunteer and how you can help with your hands, time, and life skills. 

Africa is host to hundreds of volunteering programs. What sets African Impact programs apart from programs offered by other volunteer organizations?

We run our own projects - What sets Africa Impact apart is our absolute passion for what we do – we live and breathe it every day! These are our own projects, we run and manage them ourselves (and there are loads to choose from which means finding your ideal program is easy!).

We have a clear vision - We have a strong vision for making our volunteer experiences even more extraordinary and meaningful – helping people who join us get the most out of their time and helping them put the most into what they’re contributing towards. We often talk about these three elements which make us successful – we make sure we’re operating in the sweet spot in the middle.

Two lions in South Africa

Conservation Photography Project in South Africa. Photo credit to Jessie Zamichow

We are Africa - Being based in Africa means there is no middle man to deal with when booking your placement – you’re speaking to the same people who are helping run the project you’re joining! We have been operating in Africa for over 10 years, we know Africa, we are Africa.

We focus on quality experiences - African Impact really is about quality. We are not the cheapest option for volunteering abroad but I’d like to think that with our focus on rewarding and impactful volunteering – we are the best! We employ a lot of staff at our projects who work alongside volunteers, providing constant support on project and ensuring that the placements are well-structured and responsibly run.

Proud to be recognised - African Impact is proud to be associated with many responsible travel organisations around the world, and to have taken home many awards for what we do. Last year saw us win the GoAbroad Innovation Award for our Maasai Literacy project in Tanzania, the Global Youth Travel Award for our Cape Town community programs, and the Imvelo Tourism Award for Social Responsibility. We’re also the preferred African volunteering provider of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in the UK.

What is African Impact's most popular program in terms of annual number of participants? What draws participants to this particular program, in your opinion?

Our most popular programs continue to be our lion conservation and rehabilitation projects. We have three lion projects based in Livingstone, Zambia and in Victoria Falls and Antelope Park in Zimbabwe. Volunteers on these programs are involved in the day to day care of lions, which are raised for their eventual release into the wild as part of the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust program to release captive-bred lions into National Parks and protected reserves across Africa. Volunteers do daily walk with lion cubs in their natural environments, maintain enclosures, prepare food, assist with behaviour enrichment, and also do physical conservation work, such as alien vegetation clearing, snare sweeps and patrols.

Kids washing their hands

Teaching the kids the importance of hand washing. Photo courtesy of African Impact

Which country receives the most African Impact participants?

South Africa is currently our most popular destination. Last year saw over 600 volunteers join us in South Africa and our Cape Town projects took home the WYSTC Global Youth Travel Awards. Cape Town was also recently voted as the number one best places to go in 2014 by The New York Times and voted the World’s Best City by readers of The Telegraph UK. If you’ve ever been to South Africa it’s easy to see why travellers keep returning!

Apart from availability of programs, what other factors do you think influence participants' decision of where to volunteer?

In our experience, volunteers’ decisions of where to volunteer are based largely on location, what’s on offer (what they’ll be doing), and the price. This is why we invest a lot in developing projects in incredible locations like Kenya’s Maasai Mara, Zanzibar Island, and Kilimanjaro to name a few. We also structure our programs in such a way that they offer a well-rounded experience for volunteers that they wouldn’t get elsewhere. African impact is not cheap – but volunteers get what they pay for, which is a quality experience in Africa.

Do volunteers need specific skills or skill sets to participate in any African Impact program?

Most of our projects are open to all volunteers regardless of skills and professional experience, but everyone joining us will undergo a thorough induction and training program upon arrival to ensure they are adequately prepared to begin project work. Where volunteers come to us with specialised skills or experience we will always try to use these as effectively as possible where appropriate. We also run projects aimed at skilled volunteers over 30, where these older travellers can use their professional and life experience to make a meaningful impact with vulnerable children and adults.

Volunteering for the first time typically pushes participants out of their comfort zones. How do you help first-time participants adjust to their host culture and environment?

The orientation programs which volunteers and interns go through when they arrive on project are great for getting them prepared for project work, familiar with local culture and customs and to put them at ease. It also gives volunteers a chance to meet one another, group together as part of a buddy system, and get to know our friendly staff.

A volunteer of African Impact

Photo courtesy of African Impact

African Impact strives to offer responsible and safe volunteer experiences. How do you ensure the safety of participants in your programs?

Safety is very important to us and we have strict protocols to maintain this on our projects, without losing any of the fun! Before volunteers arrive they receive a comprehensive pre-departure pack which details everything they need to know before arriving, including safety tips. On arrival, their induction program covers this too. The project managers and coordinators at our project locations are trained and experienced in managing volunteers, facilitating project work (they accompany volunteers on project), and dealing with emergencies.

We also insist that all volunteers have adequate insurance which includes repatriation. We will keep in constant contact with you as the parent, to update you on the situation. Volunteers also abide by a Code of Conduct which is in place for their own safety while they are with us and we have a Child Protection Policy in place to protect both people in the communities we work with and the volunteers themselves.

We manage our responsible approach to the continued development of our projects through regular Aims and Achievements Reports put together by our project managers. This ensures that everyone working on our programs is committed to making sure the projects are running well and we are making an impact while offering great experiences to volunteers.

African Impact has experienced phenomenal growth since its founding in 2004. What can we expect from the organization in the next decade?

Last year we partnered with a bespoke skilled-volunteering provider in Uganda called Big Beyond. Now our sister organisation, we are working with them to launch programs in Ethiopia, which is very exciting for us. We are leading the way in volunteering in Africa and want to take this to a whole new level with more giving back and more fun.