With One Student’s Technical Touch, Hopes for Sprouting Success in Benin

Illinois Tech Student Helps West African Farmers Develop Website



By Mary Owen-Thomas
With One Student’s Technical Touch, Hopes for Sprouting Success in Benin

Illinois Institute of Technology student Nihar Patel spent two weeks this summer helping soybean farmers in the West African country of Benin.

Not with their soybeans or farming, but with their new website. 

Patel, a fourth-year information technology and management major, helped Union Nationale des Producteurs de Soja du Benin (UNPS-Benin) with its first-ever website as part of the Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program.

UNPS-Benin is the country’s largest cooperative of soybean farmers. The F2F program matches United States volunteers with farmers, farm groups, and agribusinesses in developing countries to promote sustainable capacity building.

Patel was matched with UNPS-Benin, which was seeking to better promote itself online. Soybeans are an important part of the country’s economy as one of the biggest crops.

Prior to his arrival in Parakou, Benin, in late July, Patel met several times with Illinois Tech Assistant Professor Maurice Dawson, of the School of Applied Technology (SAT), who told him about opportunities with the F2F program.

"My goal is to broaden the global perspective for students while showing them how their skills can help make a difference. The Farmer-to-Farmer assignments provide an opportunity for students to achieve just this in a short period of time," Dawson says.

The big challenge was working within a limited budget, but also helping UNPS-Benin farmers determine what information to include on the website and how best to present it for a better user experience.

“When I was there, I thought, ‘It’s not just about completing the assignment. I can help these people improve their business,’” says Patel, who learned website development in high school but honed his skills last summer as an intern at IBM.

Before leaving Benin, Patel trained the UNPS-Benin farmers on how to manage a website when he was gone. The farmers are still adding information to the website, which is expected to go live in the fall.

During the training, one of the trainees who Patel taught how to manage the website had a revelation about how impactful a website could be for their organization, declaring “knowledge is power.”

And there was some cultural exchange. Patel, who had never been to Africa, made friends and tried new food, such as fufu, a staple in West African countries.

In addition to pursuing his undergraduate degree, Patel is also pursuing a master’s degree in information technology and management with a specialization in computer and information security. He also hopes to again travel abroad to volunteer.