BACKGROUND There is a great need for safe surgical services in sub-Saharan Africa, but a major difficulty of performing surgery in this region is the high risk of post-operative surgical site infection (SSI). METHODS We aimed to systematically review which interventions had been tested in sub-Saharan Africa to reduce the risk of SSI and to synthesize their findings. We searched Medline, Embase and Global Health databases for studies published between 1995 and 2010 without language restrictions and extracted data from full-text articles. FINDINGS We identified 24 relevant articles originating from nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The methodological quality of these publications was diverse, with inconsistency in definitions used for SSI, period and method of post-operative follow-up and classification of wound contamination. Although it was difficult to synthesise information between studies, there was consistent evidence that use of single-dose pre-operative antibiotic prophylaxis could reduce, sometimes dramatically, the risk of SSI. Several studies indicated that alcohol-based handrubs could provide a low-cost alternative to traditional surgical hand-washing methods. Other studies investigated the use of drains and variants of surgical technique. There were no African studies found relating to several other promising SSI prevention strategies, including use of checklists and SSI surveillance. CONCLUSIONS There is extremely limited research from sub-Saharan Africa on interventions to curb the occurrence of SSI. Although some of the existing studies are weak, several high-quality studies have been published in recent years. Standard methodological approaches to this subject are needed.