Even experienced globetrotters can learn new tips for travelling in Africa. Our well-travelled CEO and founder, Kristine Pearson offers up her advice.
One of the Lifeline team thought that it would be fun to list my top 20 tips for work-related travel in Africa.
During my 20 year tenure at Lifeline Energy, I’ve travelled to 33 of Africa’s 54 countries. This has meant sleeping up to a third of any year on a mattress that I didn’t buy. And plenty of nights where that mattress wasn’t exactly a Sealy-Posturepedic. These include a house without windows or doors in the Sahara Desert, a basic hotel room in a mining town in Tanzania that didn’t have hot water, but gave me an electric bucket to heat water, a room on a boat on Lake Victoria with a live bat and a tent along the Nile in South Sudan (right).
When I started travelling across Africa for business, nobody told me anything about what to expect, what to do, what to pack, or what leave behind. I learned by trial and plenty of error. There are big differences between packing for meetings in a city or working in a rural area. I haven’t included anything on safaris, which apps to download (other than WhatsApp), items that are obvious to pack, advice on jet lag, or etiquette for taking photos of people.
My top 20 tips
These are some of my best recommendations for the first-time visitor or seasoned traveller to Africa. And as they say in Kenya – safari njema – have good journey.
Remember at all times when you’re travelling you’re an ambassador for your country. How you behave not only reflects on you, but your country and organisation. Please take this point seriously.
Read deeply about where you’re going – its history, traditions and the culture(s) of the people. Don’t just check out the Wikipedia or UN pages. Read historical fiction set in the country and African authors from the country. Try to understand the impacts colonialism made. This will hopefully prevent you from asking stupid questions. But if you do ask a dumb question, Africans are likely to be unfailingly polite nonetheless. The knowledge will also enrich your experience.
Make an effort to learn a few words in the language(s) of the people you’ll be meeting. Then learn the correct pronunciation, especially people’s names. Some African names can be tricky, especially if you’re not African.
Take gifts. Pack a few practical and lightweight presents such as teas, treats, specialities or small picture books of where you’re from. If you are invited to someone’s home or someone does something special for you, you have a memento to give.
Check the weather report before packing. Not everywhere in Africa is hot. In many places temperatures plunge at night.
Install WhatsApp if you don’t have it. Otherwise, buy a cheap GSM phone and local sim card. It’s not appropriate to expect locals to call you on an overseas number. (I’ve seen this happen a lot.) Consider buying a portable wifi device as data is cheap in most African countries. Wifi is increasingly ubiquitous in many African countries, but the wifi device ensures you can connect from just about anywhere. Unless it’s an emergency, don’t roam without a roaming packing. You’ll get the shock of your life when you return home and see how your service provider has committed daylight robbery.
Clothes are a bit tricky since they’re so personal, my advice is:
For women: pack tops that are brightly coloured. Avoid white. You’ll show up much better in any photos, no matter what your skin colour. (White reflects the bright African sunshine back at the camera.) Most African women dress modestly. You can’t go wrong with a longish skirt or two and scarves. Also, trousers for women are not usually as acceptable as a skirt or dress. If you find yourself in a rural area with only trousers, consider buying a colourful African cloth (a chitenge or khanga) to wear around your waist over trousers. For work, shorts are never acceptable.
For men: Most business meetings will require smart pants, a shirt and maybe a jacket or even a tie. African men tend to dress formally for business meetings. In rural areas, even if it’s hot, shorts are seldom appropriate. Socks and sandals are ugly anywhere.
If there’s any chance of rain, pack a portable rain poncho. You can’t always buy an umbrella.
Pack recyclable, Ziploc plastic packets of different sizes for small items that can easily go missing. Bring extras, you never know when something in your luggage might leak.
A small roll of packing tape, paper clips, a peg or two, and a Swiss Army knife with scissors, knife, Phillips screwdriver and corkscrew will come in handy when you least expect it.
Put your laptop in a colourful soft case. You’ll be less likely to forget it somewhere, in addition to protecting it.
Check Google for the adaptors that you require for each country. Paint bright nail polish on the adaptors/chargers to attract your eye so you’ll be less likely to leave them behind or confuse them with someone else’s. Take an extra charging cable and battery for your phone/tablet. The entire African continent uses 220v electricity and the plugs from their former colonial rulers, except South Africa, which has its own 3-pronged plugs.
Make sure your phone has a protective shield and a case. Business cards and your emergency contact number can be kept in the case too.
Make a copy of your passport to carry with you and keep it separate from the genuine item. Have a digital copy too, along with your visas and vaccination certificates that can be saved on your phone. Leave your passport/valuables locked in a hotel safe or wherever you’re staying. Ensure that you have six months remaining on your passport. For example, in South Africa, where I live, they won’t let you in the country otherwise.
If you’re not a great sleeper, like me, bring your own pillow. Also toss in sleeping pills, valerian or melatonin. If you’re crossing time zones, it’s essential to get a good night’s sleep on the first and second night in your new destination. Don’t forget ear plugs (silicon ones from a drugstore, not the useless ones the airline might give you on the plane) and a comfortable, thick eye mask.
A small fan will help to take the edge off extreme heat or noise.
You can very likely get whatever toiletries you need locally, however, pack the ones you prefer, along with a basic first aid kit of band-aids, hand sanitiser, alcohol wipes, activated charcoal for a runny tummy, anti-inflammatories, etc.
Bring at least one solar light . You never know when you’re going to lose electricity. Also, a solar light is great for reading under mosquito netting.
Gratuities are important to get right. Most people in service jobs earn a very low basic wage and tips are a much needed reward for good service. In a restaurant, 10% is appreciated. (African countries have high VAT rates and you’re tipping on top of the tax.) Do leave something to hotel cleaners or domestic workers in Airbnbs. These jobs are generally poorly paid. Keep small bills or coins and do not leave dollars or Euros – that goes for porters, too.
The issue of money merits its own blog, but these are my headline points. You can withdraw local currency from ATMs all over most of Africa. (Check online first.) I always withdraw cash at an airport ATM when I land. If only large bills come out, then buy something at an airport shop to get small bills or coins for tips. It’s a good idea to carry a few dollar or euro notes for an emergency. If you have $100 notes, they need to be 2009 or newer. Sudan for example, doesn’t have international ATMs and you need to exchange cash or travellers cheques. Credit cards are widely accepted in cities, but not rural areas. As I spend a lot of time in Kenya, I have an M-Pesa mobile money account. All you need to open one is a passport and a local cell phone number. M-Pesa enables me to pay shops, businesses and individuals everywhere in the country.
BONUS TIP: Whatever you do, please don’t bring a pith helmet.
The scout motto “Be Prepared”, will serve you well when you move around Africa. And be open to how you might traverse to get where you’re going. I’ve travelled in at least 20 modes of transport – jumbo jet, old Russian Antanov (cargo plane), an aircraft that looked like a crop duster, bicycle, camel, rope ferry, big car ferry, donkey cart, local bus with chickens and goats, tuk-tuk, air conditioned Toyota Land Cruiser, by foot, unroadworthy taxi, pirogue (dugout canoe), helicopter, mini-bus or matatu, motorbike, wheelchair, rowboat and even a tractor.
And when things don’t go the way you’d hoped, sometimes the best thing to do is to smile. Africans are usually far better than we Westerners at taking things in their stride.
** What suggestions do you have that aren’t included? We’d love to hear them.
Author | Kristine Pearson
Chief Executive of Lifeline Energy
Christine Pearson is the founding Chief Executive of Lifeline Energy since 1999. She was previously an executive with a large South African banking group. Kristine is a fellow of the World Economic Forum’s Schwab Foundation; served on the Women’s Leadership Board of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; was named a Hero of the Environment by Time magazine and was the 2005 recipient of the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award.