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  • Writer's pictureKina Velasco

Kenyan Woman Recycles and Refurbishes Computers to Teach Next Generation in Tech

  • Nelly Cheboi always wondered what the world was like outside her village in Mogotio, Kenya

  • Cheboi took her education seriously and earned a college scholarship in the United States—where she was introduced to the power of technology

  • Cheboi went from not knowing how to type on a computer, to becoming a software engineer and founder TechLit Africa, which gives students in rural Kenya access to technology and digital skills from an early age, so they can receive greater opportunities and live better lives

8-Minutes Read

By Kina Velasco | WeINSPIRE Journalist

SAN FRANCISCO, California - It is impossible to tell what the future holds. For Nelly Cheboi, the future was guided by her childhood dreams of wanting to change the lives of those around her; little did she know that technology would become the gateway for such change.

A native of Mogotio, Kenya, Nelly Cheboi grew up in a tin roof house, walked to school barefoot everyday, and went to bed hungry every night–something not uncommon for those in her community.

“I used to lay on the floor and look at the light bouncing around, and think of what I could do,” Cheboi recalled. “I was thinking about building estates to fix housing for everyone and help give loans to people for their businesses, and I was only 11.”

Nelly Cheboi. Courtesy of TechLit Africa.

Cheboi says that there is an astounding lack of upward mobility in Kenya. “Someone who had a business selling tomatoes while I was in my second grade is still doing that now,” Cheboi, now 29 years old, said. She explained that locals use their profits to support the community at large, not just their families, making it much harder for businesses to develop.

Cheboi worked very hard in school, always aspiring to be able to take care of her family and lift her community out of poverty. Cheboi’s ambition and unparalleled work ethic ultimately earned her a full-ride college scholarship at Augustana College in Illinois.

“When I was growing up in the village, I was constantly thinking, ‘What is life like out there?’ ‘Does every kid have to worry about food and raising their little sister?’ When I got to America, it was really eye-opening. I saw the abundance,” Cheboi recalled.

In the United States, Cheboi was introduced to the world of technology. She recalls having consumed plenty of books growing up, but didn’t know a thing about computers. If given a ten page paper in college, Cheboi would choose to handwrite it because she typed too slowly.

It was only in Cheboi’s third year of college that she stumbled across computer science - a subject she was fascinated by, but undoubtedly required her to understand technology. Even after college, Cheboi had to spend six months practicing how to type to get a job as an engineer, where she learned how technology could serve the economy. Cheboi realized that, in order to fix the systems in Kenya that kept people in a cycle of poverty, she could encourage her community to work online. That then became the motivation for TechLit Africa.

Founded in 2018, TechLit Africa, short for Technologically Literate Africa, is Cheboi’s nonprofit organization that provides students in rural Kenya with access to technology and the ability to learn fundamental digital skills. Computers are donated, transported to Kenya, then refurbished locally. TechLit Africa provides the computers and curriculum to schools, while the schools provide the actual rooms for students to learn in. Schools and parents cover for the costs of local operations, which helps keep the project sustainable.

Nelly Cheboi. Courtesy of TechLit Africa.

Students are taught three main skills: self-efficacy, troubleshooting and internet skills. Self-efficacy teaches children that they can be whoever they want to be; troubleshooting helps them solve any tech problems they run into; internet skills teach students how to communicate online, market themselves and be safe on the internet.

Cheboi wants children to gain intrinsic motivation through the program by having them work with passionate specialists. For example, a specialist teaching audio production would also be a music artist. Students learn that the subject can be fun and enjoyable, while also understanding how it can translate into a career.

Although educators are mainly locals, children can learn from international specialists too. Recently, students were able to speak to NASA interns through Zoom. Kids asked questions like, “Can a kid go to space?” and “Can I call my parents in space?” After learning about NASA, one student told Cheboi that when he grows up, he is going to buy his own rocket and fly to space.

“What I like about projects like that is that it really opens up their world,” Cheboi said. “What I would’ve given for me to have that as a kid…it’s so empowering, and to think about what their life is going to be like because they have access to all this - that really is so wonderful.”

TechLit Africa students. Courtesy of TechLit Africa.

Students do not limit their new learning to themselves - Cheboi also shared that an 8-year-old girl is currently teaching her mother how to touch-type, a skill she developed through TechLit Africa. Cheboi marvels at how children from her own community will no longer have to go through the same hardships she did of breaking into the tech world with zero knowledge, and they can learn invaluable digital skills from an early age.

Today, Cheboi is working on ensuring TechLit Africa remains sustainable, especially in terms of funding. She says that TechLit Africa’s programs are the highlight of students’ days - but it is difficult to convince parents, teachers and the county government of the relevance of the digital economy and how technology can financially support people.

Despite these challenges, Cheboi continues to speak to as many school heads as possible and mobilize parents to keep TechLit Africa going. Her next milestone is to work with 100 more schools.

“In a way, [TechLit Africa] is a way to connect two worlds - kids interact, ask questions and imagine what life is like out there while understanding the value of the internet,” Cheboi said. In doing so, kids unlock global opportunities - and a second chance at a more fulfilling life.

TechLit Africa students. Courtesy of TechLit Africa.

Now a 2022 CNN Hero and Forbes 30 under 30 member, it is an understatement to say that Cheboi has come far from her roots in Mogotio. One thing that keeps her going is looking back at where she came from, and she encourages others to do the same.

“It’s very easy to look at where you need to be and get discouraged. Instead of looking ahead, look at how much progress you’ve made - progress is intoxicating.”

Keep up with Cheboi via her LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.


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