Eight Fields to Study in Africa
May 13, 2019

Africa is a massive continent comprising many diverse cultures, languages, landscapes, and political perspectives. Its educational system is also on the rise in the international higher education scene. Factor in opportunities for interactions with local communities, interesting fieldwork, and a first-hand view of the development of a country on the cusp, and studies in Africa constitute a unique opportunity for adventurous international students looking for an off-the-beaten-path experience.

Wondering what to study while you are there, meanwhile? Consider these eight fields:

1. Public health

The World Health Organization’s Health of the People: The African Regional Health Report explains, “African countries will not develop economically and socially without substantial improvements in the health of their people. [...] The health care interventions -- treatment, diagnostic and preventative methods -- that are needed in this region are known. The challenge for African countries and their partners is to deliver these to the people who need them.”

Indeed, Africa faces many public health challenges, including AIDS, maternal and child mortality, high illiteracy rates, scarce potable water and more. The continent also has a shortage of health workers on the continent. Studying public health in Africa gives students an up close and personal look at these issues, as well as the chance to start making a positive impact while they’re there.

Harvard says of the power of public health, “Medicine helps individuals one-on-one when they are sick. The goal of public health, in contrast, is to prevent illness and injury, and to do so across large numbers of people through programs and actions that can reach hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people at a time.” There’s no better place to do so than in Africa.

2. International development

According to the Global Policy Forum, “Africa, a continent endowed with immense natural and human resources as well as great cultural, ecological and economic diversity, remains underdeveloped. [...] Although some believe that the continent is doomed to perpetual poverty and economic slavery, Africa has immense potential.”

International development professionals work to reduce these issues across everything from global health to emerging market investment opportunities. Given that the continent of Africa comprises many undeveloped countries, it’s a major focus of international development efforts. Studying abroad is an unparalleled way to understand the cultural, political and historical factors influencing Africa’s development in order to help support and shape interventions.

3. Environmental studies

The UN’s Africa Office asserts, “Africa faces serious environmental challenges, including land degradation, deforestation, biodiversity loss and extreme vulnerability to climate change. But the region -- which is home to roughly 15 percent of the world’s population as well as some of its most iconic species -- has enormous potential for sustainable growth and environmental conservation.”

In fact, Africa is rich in natural resources and therefore has huge potential. Harnessing these in a sustainable way will save lives while helping Africa reap the economic and social benefits of this inherent 'wealth'. Not only are many students and faculty members working toward these goals at African higher education institutions, but the experiences gained and the connections formed during a study abroad program there will continue to come in handy throughout your career.

4. African languages

A recent Quartz report suggests more Americans should be learning African languages -- not only due to economic opportunities, but also service delivery. Professor of African and African-American studies Angaluki Muaka says, “A new or foreign language opens incredible doors of opportunities. Americans would tremendously benefit from learning African languages, especially regional lingua francas like Kiswahili of East and Central Africa, Hausa and Yoruba in West Africa; Zulu, Xhosa, and Shona in Southern Africa; Somali in the Horn of Africa; Arabic in North Africa, et cetera.”

“A language is accessible to a potential population in a way that the levers of a production economy are not. And perhaps enrolling in Introduction to Zulu it is the first step someone can take,” Quartz concludes.

Africa is also a great destination for studying Arabic, which claims a spot on many lists of most important languages for business today.

One additional thing to keep in mind? If you are planning on studying in Africa and you speak French, you've already got an invaluable inside edge due to the continent’s widespread French colonial roots.

5. Politics and international studies

In a recent Teachers for East African Alumni newsletter, John Bing proposes several reasons to study Africa and African politics, including its view of the consequences of both lawless political authority and government by command, as well as its public health crisis that threatens the world at large. Bing’s conclusion? “We need to study and understand Africa for our own sake, for our own safety, so that we can engage with our leaders in a rational dialog about future policies and priorities toward Africa and the world.”

According to the Institute of Developing Economies of the Japan External Trade Organization, meanwhile, the study of African politics “serves both a research approach as well as a forum for that discussion.”

6. Anthropology

“The study of the cultures of Africa has been central to the methodological and theoretical development of anthropology as a discipline since the late 19th-century. As the anthropology of Africa has emerged as a distinct field of study, anthropologists working in this tradition have strived to build a disciplinary conversation that recognizes the diversity and complexity of modern and ancient African cultures while acknowledging the effects of historical anthropology on the present and future of the field of study,” reveals A Companion to the Anthropology of Africa.

Not to mention that an understanding of anthropology is critical to informing any efforts to effect change on the continent.

7. Sociology

It is often said that sociology and anthropology are twin sisters. While similar, they are different in key ways. While anthropology focuses on culture, sociology focuses on society.

Assistant professor of sociology Erin Metz McDonnell says of her decision to study sociology in Ghana, “Although we often talk about governments in places like Ghana as being uniformly weak or corrupt, within those large sprawling organizations there are small niches in sometimes unexpected places, that are functioning remarkably well. I wanted to understand and explain how those niches worked and why they sprung up where they did.”

Today, McDonnell says her time in Africa continue to influence her teaching and research as she often calls on examples from her fieldwork.

8. Business and entrepreneurship

We’ve already covered that Africa lays claim to one of the world’s largest emerging economies with manifold business opportunities. One particularly ripe area of business? Entrepreneurship.

Africa Renewal says, “With a majority of African nations diversifying from traditional sources of income, entrepreneurship is increasingly seen as a key to economic growth. So far, entrepreneurship has yielded huge returns for entrepreneurs, and according to experts, there lies great untapped potential to drive the African continent into its next phase of development.”

Studying in Africa not only gives students a vital foundation of business practices and strategies on the continent, but is also accompanied by chances to visit companies, build a network, and acquire essential cultural competency skills. There is a reason why many global business schools are now offering programs and internships in Africa.

These eight fields are just the start when it comes to international study opportunities in Africa. As the continent continues to rise, even more opportunities will emerge. Are you ready to be part of the many amazing things happening there? International studies in Africa can help you lean into your future.