Woman quits lucrative career to make tech labs in Kenya, named CNN Hero of the Year

I got to make sure that nobody in my village ever went to sleep hungry. To contribute, even in some small way, to the future of these kids means everything to me. 

  • 1 year ago
  • January 28, 2023
6 min read
Children from Techlit Africa celebrate their achievements with their patron Nelly Cheboi. The non-profit organization has successfully built computer labs in many parts of rural Kenya in order to educate the young minds of its communities. Children from Techlit Africa celebrate their achievements with their patron Nelly Cheboi. The non-profit organization has successfully built computer labs in many parts of rural Kenya in order to educate the young minds of its communities. | Photo courtesy of Nelly Cheboi
Interview Subject
Nelly Cheboi is a Kenyan computer engineer, born and raised in the remote village of Mogotio, in the Rift Valley province of Kenya. She refused a high-ranking job as a software engineer to focus on creating computer labs for Kenyan children. Through her non-profit organization, TechLit Africa, she has helped thousands of students, and earned praise for her work. She won CNN’s Hero Of The Year award, along with a grant of $100,000 for her revolutionary work across Africa. 
Background Information
In Kenya, 27 percent of primary school dropout rates are related to poverty issues. Secondary schools only receive a 40 percentage enrollment rate. Many children never get the chance to develop their potential, and cycles often repeat themselves. Achieving sustainable development in the world depends on eliminating poverty everywhere. 
TechLit Africa is working to provide rural African schools with computer labs,  a digital curriculum, and opportunities for digital skill development. Approximately 4,000 pupils are being served by the ten computer labs that TechLit Africa is managing. The organization intends to grow in the coming years. 

MOGOTIO, Kenya — After co-founding Technologically Literate Africa (TechLit Africa), CNN named me the 2022 Hero of the Year. My non-profit organization uses recycled computers to create tech labs in schools in Kenya.

I grew up in Mogotio, a remote village in one of Kenya’s poorest counties. I witnessed the ravages of extreme poverty my entire life. Children walked to school barefoot. We went to bed hungry almost every night. I never imagined one day a major news organization would award me a $100,000 grant.

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Now, at 30 years old, I use my skills as a computer engineer to serve 4,000 kids and 20 teachers. Together with my team, we built over 10 computer labs in rural Kenya, with plans for 100 more.

I watched my mother work until she could barely stand

Growing up, I watched my mother work for hours on end by the side of the road to provide for me and my sisters. She struggled to make sure we received the bare necessities in life.

People in our village often called her lucky for having daughters. After all, we simply had to get married. My mother felt differently; she wanted more for us. She pushed us to succeed at everything and to get an education.

I remember seeing the sadness in her eyes most evenings, when the table lay empty of food. She always returned from work tired and frail. At night, she sang us songs to put us to sleep, and in the mornings, she helped us get dressed and ready.

Many of my classmates stopped going to school. I do not blame them. Going to school hungry becomes difficult. My mother’s strength kept me going. She became the reason I persevered through all the challenges.

I hated seeing the guilt in her eyes. She wanted to offer us so much more. Often, as I sat with her, I made a repeated promise: one day, I will succeed. One day, you will never have to work again.

While she appeared skeptical of my promise, she always supported me. I feel great pride in proving myself to her. When my career in computer engineering began, I wanted to give the people in my community a better education. I saw brilliant classmates abandon their studies due to poverty, their potential wasted. It lit a fire inside me and motivated me to do something. 

What began as a small idea turned into a life-changing organization

Math always interested me. It felt like a world of infinite possibilities living within a few numbers. In high school, my teacher told us about computer science. My enthusiasm deepened as I learned that math and technology could be combined. I found my path. However, getting to a computer proved challenging.

I stayed in cybercafes for hours, printing documents about computers and teaching myself how to operate one. It felt like a nightmare at first, but eventually, I learned enough to use one comfortably. After graduation, I earned a scholarship to the United States. 

Students at Zawadi school, founded by Nelly Cheboi, prepare for computer lessons next to the recycled computers. | Photo courtesy of Nelly Cheboi

I reached out to my local government regarding a passport, and they held a fundraiser to pay for my travel documents and expenses. I felt eternally grateful to my community. Though I missed Kenya, America changed me. At first, I experienced culture shock, mainly around food and social gatherings. Nevertheless, I got to interact with great minds at school and work. It stimulated me, and my perception of the world changed. I learned the real importance of giving back to society.

After graduating in 2015, I worked as a business analyst, leading software engineering for two U.S. firms until 2019. I spent six challenging months practicing coding. Afterwards, I decided to go back to Kenya with one mission in mind: to empower my community with the knowledge I gathered. With the support of a friend, we co-founded Technologically Literate Africa (TechLit Africa) and began our dream of creating tech labs in schools.

Earning recognition and giving back to my community

I began visiting companies, universities, and individuals looking for used computers which I distributed to schools. Eventually, I bought a small plot of land and opened a training center called Zawadi School in the village. It felt crazy that something which started as a small personal venture ended up a global story.

I felt extremely proud of myself and my colleagues. Through this nonprofit initiative, I earned several awards and international mentions, including the Forbes 30 under 30, and the prestigious CNN Hero of the Year Award. The award came with a $100,000 grant that I can put back into the company. It felt unreal.

So far, we partnered with 10 schools. By the end of 2023, we hope to partner with 100 more. Giving back to my people in Kenya filled my heart with so much joy. My mom experienced flying for the first time when she came to America with me. She had never travelled outside Kenya before, and I never witnessed her so excited.

I also got to make sure nobody in my village ever went to sleep hungry. To contribute to the future of these kids means everything to me. I cannot wait for the first TechLit students to finish high school and land their first jobs in computer science. With their knowledge in marketing, coding, and graphic design, nothing can stop them. By bringing these resources and skills to Kenya, we opened up a whole world of possibilities.

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