Volunteer Abroad in Ethiopia

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A Guide to Volunteering Abroad in Ethiopia

Coffee lovers may have found their spirit country in Ethiopia, because it is believed to have been first discovered there by a goat herder, Kaldi, in the ninth century. Naturally then, at Ethiopian gatherings, drinking three cups of coffee is expected. Aside from a devotion to coffee, Ethiopians also devote themselves to their Orthodox faith, which dominates daily life. Those who volunteer in Ethiopia will surely have the opportunity to experience daily traditions, while lending a helping hand in what is considered a swiftly changing country. Volunteers will have to eventually leave Ethiopia begin, but they won’t soon forget the unwavering pride of the Ethiopian people.


Lying in the Northeastern region of Africa, Ethiopia borders five countries, including the controversial countries of Sudan and Somalia. Ethiopia has a highly diverse population of over 90 million people, with over 80 different ethnic groups. It’s also ecologically diverse, with deserts in the east, tropical forests in the south, and extensive mountain ranges in the north and south west.

Often referred to as the political capital of Africa, Addis Ababa, which translated means “new flower,” hosts the headquarters of the African Union as well as the United Nations Economic Commision for Africa. This capital city’s light rail system is the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa, and it even connects Addis Ababa to neighboring Djibouti. Newly built high-rises signify the economic growth throughout the city, but cultural opportunities remain endless; volunteers can get lost in the largest outdoor market on the continent in the Merkato district, explore Addis Ababa University, and visit the numerous mosques, cathedrals, and museums during their volunteer program. 

If visions of volunteering in Ethiopia’s countryside are more what you had in mind, there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer in rural areas, such as Bahir Dar. Almost 90 percent of the population lives in a rural environment, where much of the need for volunteers lies. In rural villages, locals primarily work as farmers. Rural life is still very much the foundation of Ethiopian life, giving volunteers the unique opportunity to learn about the local way of life.

If you are looking for that just-right in between setting for your volunteering in Ethiopia, you should consider one of the nation’s smaller cities. In the eastern part of the country lies the second-largest city, Dire Dawa; situated on the Dechatu River, Dire Dawa has a population of about 300,000 people, 40,000 cattle, and almost 120,000 goats. You could also look at volunteer programs in Awassa, located in southern Ethiopia, where you can enjoy the beauty of Lake Awassa and mountains overlooking the Great Rift Valley every single day.

Volunteer Programs in Ethiopia

The theme “lending a hand” prevails when discussing any type of volunteering in Ethiopia. Rather than using utensils to eat, Ethiopians use injera, large thin pancakes, to scoop up delicious stews of meat and veggies, called wat. Everyone eats from the same dish served in the middle of the table and shares food using their hands, a custom called gursha. Gursha signifies a strong bond of friendship and love, which you will no doubt develop as a volunteer in Ethiopia.

Volunteers will get the chance to share in this bond with locals and extend it beyond the dinner table, while helping to build capacity in local communities. Despite the growing economy, the country is still recovering from civil wars and strife that occurred in the 1970s and 80s. In short, there is a strong need for volunteer support in areas of healthcare, education, and community development.

Consequently, volunteer programs in Ethiopia often focus on different types of work with children, such as helping to give street children the resources they need to move forward, providing supplies to children affected by disasters or civil violence, teaching English to elementary children, and even spending time with orphans or children affected by HIV/AIDS. Additionally, medical and public health related placements are frequently available. 

As with volunteering abroad nearly anywhere in the world, the duration of volunteer work in Ethiopia is usually tailored to each volunteer's desired length of stay and organizations typically accept volunteers from all parts of the world.

Costs & Affordability

Despite the fact that you will be lending a hand as a volunteer in Ethiopia, it’s common for volunteer programs to require a program fee. The cost of these fees vary dramatically, from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. The biggest factor for the variance in program costs is what’s included, which may or may not include housing, transportation, and meals, so pay close attention to program fee inclusions and ask questions if you’re not sure. On average, most opportunities to volunteer in Ethiopia hover around one to two thousand dollars for two weeks of volunteering. 

As with many developing countries, one advantage of volunteering in Ethiopia is the low cost of living. Once you get there, you can grab a meal for three bucks and a soft drink for less than a dollar. Volunteers can save even more money by shopping at markets and local establishments. A meal at a popular Western-style fast food restaurant is likely to cost you more than a local restaurant.

Also, don’t plan on spending much time snapchatting, because internet is super expensive. 

Accommodation & Visas

Housing arrangements are almost always included in volunteer program costs, but may entail a homestay with a local host family, group living arrangements with fellow volunteers, or a combination of both. 

In rural villages, families typically live in tukels, traditional houses made of mud and grass. Electricity and running water typically are not available in these locations, and each village often has a shared latrine. Because of this, many volunteer programs in Ethiopia provide private housing for volunteers. However, still expect accommodations to be basic. You might have running water, but it likely won’t be hot. You might have electricity, but definitely won’t have tv or internet. Instead, embrace the change, enjoy the peaceful quiet of your surroundings, and invest in meaningful conversations while volunteering in Ethiopia.

Although you’ll need a tourist visa to volunteer in Ethiopia, residents of most countries can apply upon arrival. For super planners, however, it is possible to apply ahead of time. To apply, volunteers need to provide a valid passport, a passport-sized photo, and an application at least 30 days before they plan to begin volunteering in Ethiopia. Check out GoAbroad’s Ethiopian Embassy Directory for the most up to date visa application requirements.

GoAbroad Insider Tips

Although over 80 languages are spoken in Ethiopia, English and Arabic are the most common, and English is the language used in secondary schools and universities. With English language skills, it’s possible to communicate with many individuals in Ethiopia, thus building connections and opening the door to understanding one another.

Volunteers who have not spent time in a developing country may be surprised at the level of infrastructure that exists (or doesn’t). Especially in rural areas, roads are typically unpaved and may become impassable in periods of heavy rain. Also, electricity and internet are luxuries, not standard amenities, in Ethiopia.

The level of poverty, as well as the stark contrasts between the rich and the poor, can be hard to stomach as well. But, that’s why you’re there, to help build capacity so people can live better lives and to learn from a culture much different from your own.  

Believed to be the source of the historic Nile River and dubbed one of the oldest locations in human existence, history flows through Ethiopia. With an outstretched hand and open mind, embark on a volunteer experience in Ethiopia to make a difference and learn more than you can imagine. 

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A Guide To
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