How to travel responsibly in Africa: Eco & Ethically Friendly travel tips for your Overland Tour

September 13, 2019
Jodi Lucas
Jodi is an adventure enthusiast and Douglas Adams groupie who supports these addictions through travel writing. When she’s not hitting Cape Town’s surf, you’ll find her trawling pre-loved bookstores for a leather-bound volume of The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

So you’ve finally booked that African overland tour you’ve been dreaming of. Your bags are packed and your head is filled with the prospect of exploring the continent’s misty rainforests, vast savannah plains, and glorious tropical coastlines.

Whether you’re a wide-eyed first-timer or a frequent visitor, Africa will not fail to get under your skin. And, its easy to see why. Africa has few peers when it comes to natural beauty, and so protecting the people and landscapes that put this continent on so many bucket lists is a must.

It’s becoming more and more important to think about the marks we leave on places when we travel. After all, we all want future generations to be able to enjoy the beautiful places we visit. However, it can be difficult to know where to start, but don’t fear: we’ve put together a helpful guide on how to travel responsibly and ethically in Africa for your upcoming overland tour.

Eco-Friendly travel tips for an Overland Safari:

1. Be conscious of your carbon footprint

This is where it all begins. One of the worst contributors to global carbon emissions is the travel sector, contributing an estimated 8% each year. There’s no way of getting to Africa, but to fly. But, being conscious of your carbon footprint before you travel is crucial to understanding your impact on the planet and how best to offset it. If you want to be precise, you can calculate your carbon emissions using one of the free online calculators, like Carbon Footprint.

The easiest option is to offset directly with the airline when you book your flight. There are a few airlines – such as Qantas, KLM, Air Canada, and Austrian Airlines – that have carbon offset programs that encourage travelers to pay an extra fee on top of the flight cost which is donated to a carbon offset scheme. Do it and be one step closer to responsible travel.

2. Be Waterwise

In 2018, the city of Cape Town faced one of the worst droughts in its history and millions of people braced themselves for “Day Zero” – when most of the city’s taps would run dry. But, through aggressive water conservation, effective awareness campaigns, and a bit of rain, this looming day was narrowly avoided.

Droughts of this magnitude aren’t just local to Cape Town. Worldwide, it’s estimated that more than 780 million people – 40% of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa – don’t have access to clean water. Water is scarce in the large proportion of the continent, so doing your bit to preserve this life-giving resource is a must no matter where you go on your African overland tour. Start by calculating your water impact footprint with this free calculator then be sure to save as much water as possible while on your overland tour.

You can use water responsibly in several ways:

  • You probably know by now that plastic water bottles are a no-no. Instead, bring along your glass or stainless steel water bottle and fill it up when possible. If the water is hot after a day of traveling, rather than toss it out just anywhere, decant it somewhere of value (like in a garden) or re-purpose it for something else (like washing your hands, clothes, etc).
  • If you want to be a friend to the environment, opt for a shower instead of taking a bath. And, be sure to turn it off while lathering yourself with soap, shampooing, or shaving.
  • Try to flush the toilet less. Each flush uses between 6 and 14 liters, depending on the kind of toilet.
  • Use a cup to rinse your mouth when you brush your teeth rather than letting the taps run.
  • When doing your laundry while on an overland tour, take note that lightweight, quick-dry, dark-colored clothing can be washed in your bathroom basin rather than using a water-hungry washing machine. Try to re-wear certain items of clothing (like pants and shirts) which will also help lessen the overall bulk and weight of your luggage.

3. Plant a tree

Planting a tree is one of the biggest and best ways you can offset your carbon footprint and give back to the land. You can join or donate to several tree-planting projects around the world, such as Carbon Footprint’s Kenyan project who has planted over 150 000 trees in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley or One Tree Planted who has been able to put more than 2.5 million trees in the ground since 2014.

4. Choose experiences that make a difference

Do your homework: choose destinations and activities that are eco-friendly. Many African destinations have adapted to more responsible travel practices and have developed sustainable projects that have a positive social and environmental impact, such as Botswana’s high value – low impact policy which limits the number of people who can stay in conservation areas. This has a huge benefit in helping the conservation of wilderness areas.

While on a Southern Africa overland you could also learn more about Cape Town’s incredible biodiversity in the beautiful Kirstenbosch Gardens, or visit SANCCOB (South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) where you can ‘adopt’ and sponsor an African penguin.

Penguins in Cape Town at Boulders Beach

It also helps to know what attractions to avoid when you’re traveling. Often, travelers engage in activities that are harmful to animals and the environment without even realizing it, such as cuddling lion cubs and walking with lions. While it’s these activities are tempting, it’s important to remember that these are wild animals and not interacting with humans generally keeps wildlife safe and equipped for survival.

5. Travel in groups

Traveling with a group has many benefits and is one of the easiest ways to be a greener traveler. Aside from the safety in numbers factor; reduced emissions, less wasted water, and decreased fuel consumption are just a few of the environmental benefits that group tours have to offer.

The sharing economy is a great step in the direction of a greener planet for everyone and so is traveling light. Less baggage weight simply means reduced pressure on the vehicle you’re traveling on, so subsequently fewer fuel emissions. The five kilos less from you might not seem like much but if everyone did it the impact would be huge.

Overland Tour Packages

6. Say no to plastic bags and straws

Plastic is ubiquitous in our culture. It’s convenient, fast, and cheap. But, it also happens to be one of the most pressing environmental issues. Millions of animals are killed by plastics every year and so reducing the amount of plastic we use is imperative. The best way to do this is by using a re-useable shopping bag, carrying your water bottle instead of buying water, and by refusing plastic straws.

Travel Responsibly Tours:

How to travel ethically in Africa:

1. Be socially conscious of where you are

First and foremost, do a little homework on the culture of the people living in the places you’re traveling to and be sensitive to that culture. This is especially necessary when traveling in a continent as diverse as Africa.

This goes beyond the usual faux pas such as assuming a person’s cultural background or off-handed generalizations about traditions. Many minority and indigenous communities right across the African continent are being displaced because of political conflicts, natural resource extraction, large-scale infrastructure projects, and tourism parks.

Taking some time to learn about the customs, traditions, and history of the local people will go a long way in showing respect to your hosts. And, if you’re unsure of how to act or whether or not a particular attraction is ethical then ask a local. Africans are renowned for their friendliness and we are very happy to share our different cultures and let you know what’s okay and what’s not.

Eco Friendly Travel in Africa

2. Buy local

Buying souvenirs is a great way to remind you of your African overland tour. Just be sure that your buying locally made crafts.

Africa has a huge informal economy based around the sale of curios and craft. Traditionally this includes wood carving, wire products, basket weaving, beading, ceramic work, and even painting. Unfortunately, due to demand, the market has become flooded with cheap imports that have no real cultural authenticity and don’t benefit the local economy.

By purchase of souvenirs directly from community markets and crafters, your hard-earned travel money goes directly to local businesses and can help an economy thrive.

African Markets

3. Avoid “drive-by” township tours

Everyone wants an authentic “Africa experience” while on an overland tour. And, the easiest way to do this is by making an effort to meet people that are not getting paid to guide you, carry your luggage or serve you food. This is where village visits and township tours come in.

They’re perhaps the easiest way to meet locals but not all of these tours help local people. Township tourism is controversial. In slums, favelas, and townships around the world, these kinds of tours have gained a reputation as “drive-by-shooting” trips – where tourists pay to drive through and shoot photos of some of the world’s most deprived people, without giving anything in return.

Thankfully, not all tours are like this and all it takes is a bit of research to find the socially responsible ones that give back. To ensure you pick the right one, you need to ask some questions. Are the guides from the township? Does a portion of the fee go back to the community, either to the individuals involved or to local projects? Where will you stop off on the way? And is there an opportunity to spend money? Local craft stalls, shebeens, and food stands are all a great way to give back – ensuring your money goes directly to local entrepreneurs.

Township tours

4. Give back

Giving back to the community is a big step toward being a more socially conscious traveler. Volunteering is probably the most well-known way to contribute but if you don’t have the time to put in then there are other ways you could do some good.

Want to do more to travel responsibly? Organizations such as Pack for a Purpose, Save the Children’s ‘Keeping Girls in School’, The Shoe that Grows, and African Child Feeding Scheme, tackle some of Africa’s most pressing social issues by supporting wider work in communities and promoting education to help break the cycle of poverty. By contributing to these, you can rest assured you are doing your best to leave a positive impact while travelling in Africa.

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