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Growing up in poverty in rural Kenya, Nelly Cheboi saw her single mother, who had only completed fifth grade, work tirelessly so that Cheboi and her three sisters could go to school.
From a young age, Cheboi realized that her family, along with others like hers in her village, were trapped in a cycle that left them with little hope.
“She was working really hard and I was still going to bed hungry. I was still being sent home for tuition. I was still living in a house that was flooding,” said Cheboi, now 29. “Looking at the poverty at home, looking at the community and the suffering, it became so clear to me that I had to do something.”
Cheboi attended college on a scholarship in the United States, worked odd jobs to support his family, and discovered his passion for computers. He credits computer literacy for his ability to find job opportunities and earn money doing what he loves. He knew he wanted to share it with his community back home.
Today, he gives 4,000 children the chance for a better future through his non-profit organization, TechLit Africa. The organization, whose name stands for Tech Literate Africa, uses recycled computers to create technology labs in schools in rural Kenya.
“I know the pain of poverty, and that’s why I’m so passionate about it,” said Cheboi, a software engineer who splits her time between the United States and Kenya. “I never forgot what it was like with my stomach twisting from hunger at night.”
In 2012, Cheboi received a full scholarship to Augustana College in Illinois and began his studies with virtually no computer experience. He wrote papers by hand and struggled to transcribe them into a laptop. He said he never felt comfortable using a computer until his freshman year, when he took a Java course required for his math major.
“When I discovered computer science, I fell in love with it. I knew this was something I wanted to do as my career and also bring it back to my community,” she said.
Cheboi switched to a double major and earned a B.A. However, she says skills like touch typing that came perfectly to some were still a steep learning curve for her. At one point after college, he had to practice for six months before he could pass a coding interview. It’s a skill that’s now a core part of the TechLit curriculum.
“I feel so accomplished seeing kids who are 7 years old touch typing, knowing that I just learned touch typing less than five years ago,” she said.
Cheboi ventured into businesses in his profession and in 2018 began accepting recycled computers from them. She started small, bringing the machines to Kenya in check-in bags and handling customs fees and taxes herself.
“At one point, I was carrying 44 computers and I paid more for luggage than I did for the plane ticket,” he said.
TechLit Africa is now working with freight and shipping companies to transport the donated computers, making it more cost effective. Donated hardware is scrapped, refurbished and distributed to partner schools in rural Kenya, where students aged 4 to 12 receive daily lessons and frequent opportunities to learn from professionals and gain skills that will help them improve their their education and prepare them for future jobs.
“We have people who possess a specific skill and are just inspiring kids (with) music production, video production, coding, personal branding,” Cheboi said. “They can go from taking a distance learning class with NASA on education to music production with our artists.”
The Cheboi organization maintains online and on-site ownership of the computers, providing technical support, software updates, and troubleshooting. TechLit Africa installs new child-oriented client operating systems, and schools are asked to pay a small fee for the services, which includes TechLit educators on site from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
The organization currently serves 10 schools, and by early next year, Cheboi hopes to partner with 100 more.
“My hope is that when the first TechLit kids graduate from high school, they can get a job online because they know how to program, they know how to do graphic design and they know how to do marketing,” Cheboi said. . “The world is your oyster when it educates you. By bringing the resources, bringing those skills, we’re opening the world to them.”
Do you want to get involved? Take a look the TechLit Africa website and see how to help.
To donate to TechLit Africa via GoFundMe, click here