GoAbroad Interview

Rob Harris - Founder & Director

Rob Harris - Founder & Director

African Conservation Experience has been establishing, maintaining, and supporting conservation projects in southern Africa for the past two decades. These projects are selected based on their real conservation value, or the genuine wildlife experience that they are able to provide to enthusiastic volunteers, and their contribution to the local environment and community. Rob Harris co-founded the organization with his wife, Marion. ACE's first program participants were Rob and Marion's son, Mark, who spent a few months working on a game reserve in South Africa together.

A lot of parents are reluctant to send off their children on programs abroad despite the benefits of experiential education. What made you grant your son Mark's desire to gain work experience on a game reserve in South Africa before starting university?

We have always taken the view that we would not send anyone else's child to a project that we would not send our own children. All three of our children have been to various of our projects.

Mark eventually became the guinea pig for African Conservation Experience programs. Apart from your son's persistence in wanting to volunteer abroad, what inspired you to establish the organization?

I was going through a period of my life where I was dissatisfied with my career. I decided to leave my job and take a break. It was during this time that I decided I wanted to do something that I am passionate about but I still had to making a living. I have always had a passion for wildlife and thought that I could give others exposure to my passion by having them participate in wildlife conservation projects. At the time I did not imagine it would grow into what ACE now is. I am fortunate that Marion supported and worked with me to start this dream.

What do you think the biggest benefit of international volunteering is for young people?

Most people who have an interest in nature have seen TV programmes about African wildlife. ACE gives them the opportunity to experience that hands on. Our projects are generally in areas not accessible to tourists so they get to be involved in what goes on “behind the scenes” and see things that tourists will not get to see.

Originally we thought that all the benefit would be for the wildlife but have come to realise that a huge part, possibly even the major part, of the benefit goes to the volunteer. Many have not travelled alone before and most not to Africa so they develop confidence and independence in an environment where parents can feel confident that there is a reputable and caring organisation as a back up. All this as well as exposure to totally new experiences, African wildlife and a diverse culture. 

What challenges did you face during the early years of the organization and how did you overcome them?

No one had done this before so we had to develop the idea from scratch, starting by approaching game reserves in southern Africa. Most did not understand the concept that we were going to send them volunteers who were going to work for them and that they were going to get paid for the experience. We also had to be confident that the type of placement we were giving them was suitable for inexperienced nature lovers. We quickly came to realise that as long as they are enthusiastic and open minded they quickly adapt and make a valuable contribution to the project.

Approaching banks for start up finance was a dead end, after all, nobody had done this before so there were not interested. We ended up financing the start up with personal savings and selling an endowment policy (at a loss). However, this has turned out to be very rewarding for us to see the growth of what is now an industry.

How does African Conservation Experience create the ever-desired combination of volunteering and tourism?

We believe young people like a challenge and to be stretched beyond their comfort zone. They want to learn and develop their skills as well as have new experiences. It is important for us to balance the conservation experience and hard work with fun and variety. Through our many years of doing this, we think we have got it about right but recognise that we have to continually look to improve. We have a dedicated team who are as passionate about what we do as we are.  We may have started ACE but they are the ones who are taking it forward.

Where are your volunteers usually from? How many volunteers participate in ACE programs annually?

We started in the UK but for many years have had volunteers from Europe, Australia, and the USA. More recently we have volunteers from the Far East. We have now established an office in the USA to provide for that growing source of volunteers. We believe in controlled growth and now send about 600 volunteers to some 14 projects in southern Africa and Mauritius.

Safety is typically a major concern for individual who decide to go abroad. How do you ensure the safety of African Conservation Experience participants?

We recognise that there are dangers in all travel so we go to great lengths to minimise the risks every step of the way. Firstly, by meeting volunteers at their in country arrival airport. Secondly, by ensuring vehicles transferring volunteers to and between projects are properly licensed and maintained and driven by trusted drivers. Apart from being experts in the field, our project coordinators are experienced, and where relevant, fully qualified to manage volunteers on the projects. ACE’s management staff in southern Africa regularly visit projects to monitor and advise on safety requirement and standards.

What component of African Conservation Experience programs is most unique?

Most of our programmes are exclusively ACE programmes so we are able to tailor and adapt the programme to give the best experience to our volunteers while making their contribution to conservation worthwhile. We regularly review and adjust programmes when we see opportunities for improvement. Where projects are not exclusive to us, we continue to have a strong influence in the programme content and the way it is run. We are regularly approached by projects who would like to take our volunteers but we are very particular about who we choose to support. We are now in the unique situation where we can take on a project of our choosing and develop it to our ethos.

What makes African Conservation Experience different from other volunteer program providers in Africa?

Apart from our sustainability ethos, ACE has a very strong “volunteer care” policy. We go to great lengths to ensure that volunteers are well cared for throughout their involvement with us.  We have an open and sympathetic approach to any problems that volunteers may have at any time and try to resolve them quickly.

Being parents ourselves, we recognise parents’ worries and concerns, and if they request it, we will keep them regularly updated with their child’s progress and activities. This “volunteer care” ethos runs through all our dedicated staff, and is rewarded by many return trips our volunteers make and siblings travelling with us when they hear from returning brothers and sisters.  A large proportion of volunteers that travel with us have been recommended by past volunteers.

What can we expect from the organization in the next five years? Do you have any new programs that are in the works?

Because we were the first organisation to specialise in conservation placements in southern Africa, we believe we are well placed as market leaders in our specialised field. This is demonstrated by the number of our competitors who follow our progress and adopt our ideas.

We have great plans for the future development of ACE but at this stage I am reluctant to reveal too much about these plans save to say that we plan to take our unique ethos and methods to countries beyond southern Africa.