30-year-old, Nelly Cheboi is the founder and CEO of TechLit Africa (Technologically Literate Africa) and Zawadi Yetu school. Her rise to prominence has been awe-inspiring.
Her company recycles used computers and creates tech labs in schools.
Like many entrepreneurs and change-makers, Nelly Cheboi first looked within her community
Growing up in rural Kenya, Mogotio in Baringo County, Nelly Cheboi was acutely aware of the ways in which poverty affected those around her as she grew up witnessing abject poverty from a personal perspective.
She sought to understand why those who worked tirelessly, like her own mother, were seemingly unable to achieve upward mobility.
Here is her story as told by YEA:
From grass to grace
Born into a family of three daughters, her mother who was a mama mboga struggled to make ends meet.
“I was born into poverty. I grew up watching my dear mother work tirelessly to educate my sisters and me. She did all kinds of informal businesses from selling goats to selling vegetables. For as long as I can remember, she worked hard day in and day out but our life never changed,” she said in a past media interview.
Society considered Nelly and her family as nobodies, and her mother’s industrious nature inspired her to work hard in school.
“I put my all into my schoolwork. I studied in verandas as we did not have kerosene for the lamp,” she says, adding that she relied on security lights from a nearby shop and the next day she would be up early, headed to school on bare feet.
Sometimes she would go to bed with an empty stomach but she was hopeful that everything would be okay.
With poverty all around her, Nelly’s dream growing up was to build a house for her mother, who would put up with ridicule for educating her girls.
“Neighbours would tell her that she was wasting her time educating girls who eventually will be married but she gave them a deaf ear,” Cheboi says.
Her hard work and dedication at school paid off. Nelly topped her hometown, Mogotio, in the KCPE. She scored a stellar 390 marks, automatically firing her straight to high school.
Nelly was admitted to MaryHill Girls High School. She had a troublesome high school life, riddled with hiatus’ caused by a lack of school fees.
“I was admitted to Mary Hill Girls in Thika but I was rarely in school as I was constantly sent home for tuition fees. I would go home and help my mother work for a week just to raise the fare to school, let alone the fees,” she recalls.
Despite the problems she encountered, Nelly beat the odds in her KCSE exams and scored an A, the first for a student in Mogotio.
News of her triumph traveled fast, and she joined Zawadi Africa, a non-profit education fund program that provides scholarships to academically gifted girls from disadvantaged backgrounds.
After high school, Nelly spent a year in Nairobi learning how to pass SATs. In 2012, she got a fully funded scholarship to study computer science at Augustana College in Illinois, US.
The ambitious young lady applied for a work-study program once she arrived in the US. She got a job as a janitor, whose roles include cleaning toilets.
She worked the job faithfully as it would give her Sh. 40,000 a month, thanks to the extra hours she’d put in.
“It made me a pro at cleaning toilets. I was making around KSh 800 an hour before taxes. It was not a lot because students were limited to 20 hours of work weekly.” says nelly Cheboi.
Out of her earnings, she saved 80 percent over one year.
After one year in the US, Nelly returned to Kenya with aim of completing her lifelong mission; uplifting her family from the shackles of poverty.
She recalls how she touched down and immediately rushed to do family shopping that filled a pick-up truck.
“I landed in Kenya and went to Gikomba, where I bought all household items, from sofa sets to even spoons, drove all the way to Mogotio, and move my family out of our condemned childhood home,” says Nelly.
She relocated her mother and siblings to a better home and for the first time ever, they were able to invite friends to visit them.
“People came to our house for the first time to watch TV, which was big for me,” she proudly recounts.
Nelly continued to work and upgrade the lives of her family and her neighbors.
Founding Zawadi Yetu and TechLit Africa
While in her third year at Augustana College, Nelly thought of a means to give back to her society. She decided to buy a plot worth Sh. 70,000 and build a school that she named Zawadi Yetu.
“I thought of building a school to teach entrepreneurship.”
She had saved Sh. 200,000 to build the school, which was not enough. The money was only used to construct a modern toilet.
“I set up Go Fund Me page and raised only KSh 30,000,” she adds.
Puzzled with how she would raise money for her school, Nelly decided to remain in college during the summer after schools closed and her classmates went home.
She stayed back in the hostel and cleaned toilets to raise extra money. Eventually, Nelly was able to raise Sh. 300,000 which she used to build four rooms.
She employed her sister to work at the school.
“My sister studied ECDE and started working in the school as the cook, teacher and cleaner,” she stated
Her school, Zawadi Yetu, was the flagship project that led up to TechLit Africa’s development. The school started as a daycare with five students and grew.
Initially, parents were skeptical of enrolling their students in TechLit Africa program, as many claimed that she was scamming them.
She says it was difficult to convince the rural parents to pay Sh. 100 per child. However, she was able to grow the school to over 4,000 children aged between 4 years and 10 years old.
She has created employment for over 20 teachers and has 10 computer labs in rural Kenya.
“I have partnered with 10 schools in Baringo, Nakuru and Mombasa to help them learn technology as part of their curriculum by using recycled computer technology,” she says.
The schools rely on donations to collect, ship and import donated computers, as well as to develop curriculum and administer digital skills education.
Nelly says that her school’s vision for the moment is reaching 100 schools with 40,000 pupils across the country.
“Despite being raised poor, I have such confidence because I was loved so much in primary and wanted to make kids feel loved and supported,” she maintained.
Nelly graduated in 2016 and got a job. In an interview, Nelly revealed that she was employed by an American Company, earning Sh. 1 million per month, working remotely.
She has worked as a business Analyst and lead Sofware engineer for two US firms; New World Van Lines and User-Hero. However, when COVID-19 hit, she resigned from her job to take some time off.
While working, any money she made, she invested back into the school. She built more classrooms and bought more acres of land. She has now built Zawadi Yetu school into a four-storey building.
Nelly dismissed the assumption that she runs the program as a profit-making enterprise.
“Running the program in one school costs KSh 40,000 including paying the teachers. For example, if a school has 400 students, we ask the parents to give KSh 100 monthly.”
“We fundraise to import the computers to Kenya, bringing one cost around KSh 5,000,” she added.
With a grin on her face, Nelly says she is honored to be teaching the children how to be software engineers, graphic designers, marketers, music producers, video producers and code experts.
Her joy comes with being able to see children in remote villages make their own money.
Nelly on being named in the Forbes 30 under 30
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.
Nelly nominated for the CNN Hero of the Year award
Nelly was shortlisted for the coveted 2022 CNN Hero of the year award. The award celebrates people who make the world a better people through small acts of kindness.
“I am still processing the news. What a great honor for @techlitafrica.Voting started today, you get 10 votes each day until December 6th. Please vote for us,” she urged her Twitter followers on November 4.
She made the 10-man shortlist, where each honoree will receive Sh. 1.2 million ($10,000 prize) before the CNN 2022 hero of the year is announced on December 11th. A final prize of Sh. 12 million ($100,000) will be issued to the winner.
Voting concludes on December 6th and can be done here on CNNheroes.com. Voters will be given 10 votes every day until the deadline.
This means you can vote for your favorite nominee 10 times or divide the votes among the ones you like.