Like many entrepreneurs and change-makers, Nelly Cheboi first looked within her community. Growing up in rural Kenya, Cheboi was acutely aware of the ways in which poverty affected those around her. She sought to understand why those who worked tirelessly, like her own mother, were seemingly unable to achieve upward mobility. This led to a thorough understanding of the institutions that effectively disabled financial improvement.
Armed with the goal of “fixing poverty,” Cheboi studied hard in school, received a scholarship to attend university in the United States, lifted her family out of poverty, and founded TechLit Africa. With an emphasis on self-efficacy, TechLit Africa recycles old computers and IT tech, establishes computer labs in schools across Kenya, and teaches kids the skills they need to enter the digital economy.
In early 2022, Cheboi was named in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 feature, catapulting her company — and cause — to international acclaim. By the end of the year, Cheboi hopes to expand the number of TechLit labs in Kenya to one hundred.
What inspired you to start TechLit Africa?
I grew up in rural Kenya in poverty — going to bed hungry, going to school barefoot — and I became really motivated to find sustainable solutions towards poverty. What was crazy to me is that I saw my mom working really hard but not [experiencing] upward mobility. She’d been [running] small businesses but wasn’t able to lift her family out of poverty.
As I grew older, I was reading books about societies, how they are formed, and all these forces that play together. I realized that we really don’t have the strong institutions that actually enable people to start their own businesses, grow them to be middle-sized businesses where they can hire more people, and then lift the economy up. So, it’s really hard to have that upward mobility.
I was thinking about fixing poverty, [but] those systems are very expensive to fix. Looking at digital infrastructure, I realized that if we can get people online and become skilled enough to work remotely for Google or do minimum-wage jobs (like make a logo on Fiverr), you don’t need good infrastructure for that — we just need internet and the skills.
TechLit Africa’s mission seems like a massive undertaking. What were some of the initial steps you took to turn your goals into reality? Were there any particular challenges you faced?
I [initially] thought that what I needed to do was get the youths who just graduated high school [computer] skills. So, I got old computers and brought them over to Kenya, and then tried to get them to become digital natives. It was really hard to go from never using a computer to spending endless hours on [one]. For them, it wasn’t valuable — they did not understand.
It really showed the disparity between the skills needed to be successful online and the skills they had. Most of the people don’t know how to send an email, [but] it’s really not their fault. So, what we decided to do instead is actually work with kids. [We thought,] “How can we incorporate this as part of their growing up, [and] as part of [schooling]? How can we teach them all these skills?” It became easier to go into existing schools and have these classes as part of their day-to-day activities.
You were named in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 this year. What does that recognition mean to you? Has it brought more awareness to TechLit?
As an entrepreneur, it has never been about being recognized. It’s [about] being on the ground and seeing the impact. It’s making the kids see that you can actually [accomplish something]. Like, if I struggled to type, and I’m [now] getting a seven-year-old to learn how to type — that is so powerful.
In terms of its impact on TechLit, it’s crazy. Many people have found TechLit through that, and they’re reaching out, so it really has taken on a bigger platform, which is something that I cannot take for granted.
Jericho Tadeo | Contributing Writer