In early August, I reached Benin with my partner Lotte, Materialise CEO Fried Vancraen and Executive Vice President Hilde Ingelaere. The goal for the next month was to conduct a summer school at the hospital in Papané, with 17 students—the best performers from four high schools in the region—and guide them through the developmental projects they had chosen to work on. At the end of three weeks, three students would be chosen to receive a scholarship to aid their further education. Looking back at my notes over the following month, I think we had as much to learn as the students did.
As soon as we arrived at the hospital in Papané, the doctor on duty showed us how all the buildings were equipped with mosquito nets to prevent malaria outbreaks—fighting malaria in the hospital had been the goal of the first Summer School in 2011, which made us glad that there had been progress. There was also a new melon orchard in front of the hospital guesthouse, a result of a project by a student last year on hospital gardens.
On our first day in the Summer School, we met the 17 participating students as well as some of the scholarship winners from past years. It was startling to see the contrast between the confident speaking manner of the previous scholarship students and the barely-audible questions from the newbies. After a parent of one of the students came forward to thank Materialise for the opportunity offered to the children, we found that the parents of the selected students had formed a committee to help each other out with travel so that their children could attend. We covered educational and subsistence costs for the students, but there are still other costs: the solidarity between the students' families was heartwarming.
Just two weeks later, it was amazing how quickly we had acclimatized to such a new situation: we called it chilly when was 25°C out; we routinely got the candles out when there was yet another power cut; we automatically high-fived children running towards us, yelling "Jovo, Jovo!" ("sea monster", which is how they greet Europeans); we got on a motorcycle with three people or in a car with seven people without so much as blinking an eye. That didn't mean it was all smooth sailing: we turned up for a stand-up comedy show 15 minutes after the scheduled starting time, and then it actually started four hours later, only to be cut short by a power cut twenty minutes later.
Benin Summer School: The students and their projects
The schedule of the summer school went something like this: the students chose the projects they would work on during the first week. In Week 2, they would collect the information they needed to write their reports and presentation, due at the end of Week 3. My partner Lotte and I allotted a half-hour daily to each student for consultation with one of us, and we spent the rest of the day with them as they went about researching for their projects. The projects were all focused around different development-related subjects—ranging from awareness on hygiene and handwashing to boosting transportation options, from conservation of vegetables and fruits to the feasibility of installing solar panels for more reliable electricity.
With the first round of presentations in the second week, we found that each student had worked very hard to collect information on their subject: without exception, they are all very motivated and dedicated to their projects. However, the presentation itself was a bit of a challenge: most students struggled with creating a good presentation structure. On the last day, at the end of Week 3, the students presented for 15 minutes each and took 15 minutes of questions. Some students did great, others were too nervous to express themselves clearly. But we had the tendency to forget that these are mostly teenagers, with almost no experience with computers, who had to prepare a report and a presentation in less than three weeks. With that in mind, the result was nothing short of impressive and really shows the students' intelligence and perseverance. For us, though, we still had one last, difficult task: to discuss with Euloge and Antoinette, the local employees of the Hubi & Vinciane foundation who had helped us throughout, to give recommendations about each student. The main reason that it was so difficult is because pretty much each student had made very good achievements at some point. But unfortunately, only three of them could receive a scholarship.
It was a pleasure to be part of the Benin Summer School 2015. It's a great project, and the good kind of development aid: a long-term investment in knowledge. It has been interesting and fun to live with those kids who are so motivated and intelligent. In general, people in Benin are extremely friendly, and we felt very safe everywhere we went. My report includes some typical funny anecdotes about questionable time management and unreliable infrastructure but it's impressive how people here make do with what they have. If you take into account that Benin is 66 times poorer (GDP per capita) than the US, you realize how much potential there is in Benin in and in Africa. I'm confident that projects like the summer school are the right way to try and get that potential out.
Want to know more about the projects?
Triporteur Tuk-Tuk investigated how a three-wheeler, already used in Benin for transporting goods, could be used for local transportation in the region which lacks reliable public transport. Logiciel Logistique implemented a software package to improve the package transport executed by the Baobab Express. Solar Panels was split into two projects, to study the technical and economic feasibility of promoting solar panel installation in the region. Wakati II carried on the food preservation efforts by the Wakati project that Materialise's Additive Manufacturing supported last year, to conserve fruits and vegetables longer without relying on refrigeration. The fertilizer project aimed to add options to the chemical and organic fertilizers available to farmers, while the food variety project would compose a menu of affordable, nutritious food components as listed by the WHO. The hand washing project worked to spread awareness for the importance of sanitary hygiene in preventing disease spread.