HUMAN: nELLY cHEBOI
LOCATION: NAIROBI, kENYA
DOMAIN: ENTREPRENEURSHIP, COMPUTER SCIENCE/ENGINEERING
JOB PROFILE: FOUNDER/CEO – Techlit Africa
Since time immemorial, the world has been filled with dreamers who come along and changed the way things are. There’s a well-known Swahili proverb that goes, ‘Panapo Nia, Pana Njia,’ which roughly translates as ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’
This is more than just a young Kenyan’s quest to bring digital transformation to her hometown. This is the story of a family’s pursuit of success through education and a mother’s hopes and dreams to see her children get the life they deserve.
So here’s introducing the next human in the series, Nelly Cheboi, a social entrepreneur extraordinaire and the CEO/Founder of Techlit Africa, a non-profit American organization that is spearheading computer literacy in Africa. She was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for social impact in 2022. Coming from a long line of strong women who have paved their own way, she is empowering thousands of students in rural Kenya to leverage technology to break free from the cycle of poverty.
Growing up in Kenya
Nelly recalls growing up in a small rural village in Mogotio, Kenya with her three sisters and mother.
‘All my formative years, I have seen my mother work incredibly hard to pay for our education. She was rarely home, she would travel to different villages trying to buy and sell goods. I got a lot of the devotion and drive I have from watching her.‘, she reminisces.
The matriarch, Christine Cheboi, would take on odd jobs to ensure her children received the best education possible given their limited resources. Even on the hardest times, she never gave up and frequently reinvented herself and her business in a local industry that was heavily dominated by one gender.
She narrates, ‘She would change her business with the times and because she was a woman she would often get discriminated. But she never gave up. She would start all over again. Selling anything from clothes to chapatis.’
Resilience was something the matriarch had imbibed in her children and all of them knew the only way out of their situation was through education.
‘We didn’t live in a great neighbourhood. It had electricity issues and was prone to floods. Seeing our mother’s resolve to get us out of there made me work harder too. I would often take my books in the verandah and study and do my school work.’ , she remembers.
Her high school years were spent in a boarding school, and she recalls how the school assisted her in obtaining a scholarship to study in the United States. Despite having limited resources, she describes how her mother did everything she could to pay off her tuitions.
‘Our financial situation was tough but my teachers were all so confident about me and supportive. Getting a scholarship to study in the States gave me the platform to start all that I do now.’, she explains.
One of her teachers, Isabel Gitau, would take her under her wing and provide the young Nelly with her daughter’s old uniforms. She explains how such kind souls enabled her journey and how grateful she is for the wonderful humans and samaritans she has met along the way.
She recalls, ‘My teachers have been so deeply influential in shaping me up …like Ms.Gitau knew where I come from and would always try to provide me with everything I needed.’
Her sisters are the ones she draws her strength and inspiration from as well. Sharon has been assisting her with the operation of the school, and Babra, who owns a vet shop, has been in charge of overseeing the construction of her project.
‘My family has been supportive throughout. No matter how lonely the road is, they have been with me from the start. My mom’s sole purpose was to educate her daughters and she worked hard for us.’, she acknowledges.
She recently had a heart-to-heart with her mother about why she worked so hard for them to get an education when everyone around them advised her to marry off her daughters.
She reveals,’ She told me that before she even had us, she had asked somebody how to get rid of all the poverty and suffering around them. And that person had told her if you have to chase poverty away it is only through education.’
Her mother would buy her encyclopedias and science books. Her younger self was fascinated by it. It introduced her to a world she didn’t know existed, and she would spend hours poring over the pictures in the book.
‘I really like science books as they painted the world as it is. There was this book that had the tagline ‘All the things that a house has’ and there was a picture of a vacuum cleaner. I had never seen it in real life and I would dream that one day I would have them all. I would experience the world through those pictures.’, she fondly remembers.
Her first window of opportunity came in the form of a scholarship that allowed her to complete her bachelor’s degree at St.Augustana College in Illinois .
‘It was a change to come to America. I could work as a college student and I would take up odd jobs that made me like eight dollars an hour. I saved up any money I could earn and sent it home. Retiring my mom was something I wanted to do.’, she confesses.
From her savings, she could get a decent apartment for her family and move them to a safer neighbourhood with electricity and access to clean water. But it was hard for the family to maintain the higher cost of living that came along with it.
‘I was just a sophomore in college but with whatever little money I could save up we bought furnitures and household items. I remember the first time we took pictures in our new home. We were so proud of what we had.’, she recounts.
One of her life changing experiences she witnessed was watching her sister Sharon teach a group of enthusiastic young students in a makeshift school with iron sheets for walls.
She confesses, ‘It was a temporary makeshift school in rural Kenya. The way she was teaching and how the kids reacted to her …walking into her class, that moment changed everything.’
She recalls how she wanted to build a school in her hometown. It started with her opening a daycare or preschool centre around 2015. And all her savings would go into creating her dream project of bringing computer education to her town.
‘The daycare or preschool centre helped us run the school, pay our teachers and provide books for students. We were running on three thousand dollars and I would work over the summers or do internships to support the school in any way I can.’, she remembers.
This experience didn’t just changed her life. The family didn’t have to live from paycheck to paycheck anymore. The school had been her labour of love.
She explains, ‘This school changed our life. We came out of poverty because of it. We started it from scratch.’
One of her memorable experience was discovering computer science. She describes how it has been a rewarding experience to help people in upskilling themselves in the world of technology.
She describes, ‘When I discovered Computer Science, it really opened up my world. I realized how far behind I was in my class in America. I switched my major to computer science and I could see the way we could uplift people through technology.’
In the initial days, she would collect old or used computers from her friends and gradually got companies and institutions to donate their products. And so ‘Techlit Africa‘ was born, a non-profit organization that redistributes recycled technology to build computer labs in African schools to upskill the next generation to transition into tech.
‘Tech came really late in my life but I was quick to embrace it and bring it to my community.’, she reflects.
One of her major motivation to start a school stemmed from her own experience of not finding jobs right after college due to her inability to type fast enough on computers. She recalls being asked to code a function in an interview and struggling to type it out, missing the opportunity.
She narrates,‘I couldn’t keep up with the rest of the class and my interviews would go horribly wrong as I had to find everything. I was never exposed to computers in school. Now I see seventh graders type magnificently well on their laptops and it gives me immense happiness.’
A World of Codes
The social entrepreneur had different dreams of her own while growing up.
She cheerily recalls, ‘I wanted to be a pilot. I kept trying to find a pilot in the village and ask people around if they could introduce me to one.’
Her first flight to America, however, convinced her otherwise. She hated being on the plane and the experience made her change her mind about the profession.
‘It was kind of sad. I’d had that dream for a long time and was looking forward to flying. I remembered how I used to try to find a pilot in my hometown, and now I was reconsidering it.’, she ponders.
But that was only the beginning of her journey. The American culture opened up a whole new world of possibilities for her.
‘It was unquestionably a culture shock. Life was so much easier there. I grew up seeing poverty everyday and in America, there was just an abundance of resources.’, she narrates.
That was her first hint to try to bring the same resources and opportunities to her people and community. Having grown up in limited resources, she describes how important it was for her younger self to work harder to find her path.
‘It really motivated me to help my community come out of poverty. When I got there I was lost for a while. It was moving from scarcity to abundance. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.‘, she explains.
But the road to self-discovery was not always easy. She recalls feeling utterly lost while deciding on her majors and discovering programming in one of her computer classes. She became completely enthralled by how a few lines of code could have such an impact and changed her major.
She reveals, ‘It was in my introductory Java classes that I first discovered programming and switched my major. You write codes and you can see the impact immediately. I was fascinated.’
But it took some time for her to make that decision and her encounter with a wonderful computer science professor, Donna, did help her take that leap of faith.
‘I was a Chemistry major and a junior in college. I was unsure if I could break into tech. Donna was so encouraging, she asked me to build an app and figure out if its what I wanted to do.‘, she explains.
And so began her long journey to upskill not only herself but an entire generation of children who would one day look back on the brave adventure she had undertaken to get here.
‘It has made me realize how little investment it takes to change lives. Our school started out small but the project we could undertake specially in rural Kenya is amazing. We just need to keep building on top of it.’, she reflects.
Hope, Dreams and more
The startup and entrepreneurship environment is not always a kind place and there can be mentors who may or may not agree with the work you do.
‘I was new to the world of entrepreneurship, and everyone advised me that the road would be difficult. People who tell you to just go for it are rare. It’s easy to crush your motivation.’, she laments.
But in spite of all the noises she had immense faith in the problem she was solving. It was difficult for her as a young student coming to the United States for the first time and having no prior experience with computers.
‘I’m really glad I didn’t give in to pressure or go around seeking advice. I was just trying to solve a problem that I saw and use my resources to make lives better. Just believe in yourself.’, she explains.
Building a school from scratch came with a lot of unexpected challenges and she recalls doing her best to get funds for her project in Kenya.
She narrates,’I had saved up two grand and I was excited to build an awesome school. But the reality was that it was barely enough to cover the foundations. I had to work extra shifts or borrow money wherever I could. I even made a GoFundMe page which didn’t work for me.‘
All of the struggles and difficulties pale in comparison to the wonderful experience her children are getting with technology.
‘It has always been the kids for me. Seeing them grow up and some of them have been with us for close to six years. It’s been inspirational. They are growing up with technology and it is so powerful to see the changes in them.’, she reflects.
Nelly has perfectly demonstrated that sometimes, no matter how difficult the path is, with dedication, we can turn anything into reality.
‘When I have this much will or devotion into making something possible, I have always bring it into existence. I have found this undeniable confidence that I can figure things out no matter what the challenges are.’, she discloses.
The path to self-discovery has never been easy. This was not your typical story of finding oneself; it is the story of one determined young woman’s vision and determination to change her country’s tech landscape based on her own personal experiences.
She advises, ‘Everything takes time. You have to keep going… You have to keep grinding. Keep trying again and again. You have to believe in your dreams and follow it.‘
It is also the journey of brave Christine and her three beautiful daughters’ resolve to change the norm and break out of the cycle of poverty and change the world around them forever.
As a young girl in a remote village in rural Kenya, she would sing to her tired mother when she came back home from a day of labor.
‘Mkono Wangu mdogawe
My hands are so little
Hauwezi kufanya kazi
They can’t do much
When I get older
I will help
You will catch a break’
These are the little dreams and aspirations we live for.
As most Kenyans would say, ‘Kuishi ndoto yako‘.
‘Live your dreams‘
The next time you meet a young Kenyan typing away on their computer, one can be assured that it has Nelly‘s magic written all over it.
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