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Nelly Cheboi: Lady who let go of US dream to teach 'villagers' IT

 Nelly Cheboi at Zawadi Academy in Mogotio, Baringo County on August 31, 2022. [Harun Wathari, Standard]

Nelly Cheboi, 29, lived the American dream. Born in a poor family in Mogotio, Baringo County, her fortunes changed when she secured a scholarship through Zawadi Africa to study computer science at Augustana College in Illinois, graduating in 2015.

Thereafter, Cheboi worked as a business analyst and lead software engineer for two US firms - New World Van Lines and User-Hero.

But she left all that behind and came back to her village in 2019 with the sole aim of empowering her community borrowing from her experiences in the US.

Ms Cheboi co-founded Technologically Literate Africa (TechLit Africa), a company that uses recycled computers to create tech labs in schools. She serves as its CEO.

But her first mission while still in campus was to uplift her family. Through a work-study programme, she secured a job as a janitor, which her Sh40,000 a month thanks to the extra hours she put in. Out of her earnings, she saved 80 per cent over one year and came back to Kenya.

"After a year, I returned home. I first went to a local market in Nairobi and did some shopping for my mother, showed up in our village with a pick up full of shopping and relocated my mother to a better place and for the first time, we were able to invite our friends to visit. I continued to work and upgrade the lives of my family and my neighbours," says Ms Cheboi.

Sustain operations

She decided to buy a plot and build a school, which she named Zawadi Yetu, where children would study more about technology with parents only paying a small fee monthly to sustain operations.

When The Saturday Standard caught up with her at the firm's offices in Mogotio town, she was in a room with over 10 children - all glued on computer screens.

Cheboi, who was listed in the Forbes 30 under 30 list in April, ushered us into the room as she excused herself from the children, who looked eager to learn from her.

"This is something I love to do," she says as she leads us to an adjacent office.

She continues with a grin on her face; "Here, we are teaching these children how to be software engineers, graphic designers, marketers, make money online, music production, video production, coding."

 Nelly Cheboi at Zawadi Academy in Mogotio, Baringo County on August 31, 2022. She resigned from a job in the USA and relocated to her village to fight poverty using Technology. [Harun Wathari, Standard]

Ms Cheboi says her joy is to see the children in the remote village learn and make their own money because the country's education system has failed many. Most of the 4,000 children, aged between 10 and four, are from needy families but well-off parents with children in private schools have also shown interest.

"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.

Techlit Africa, she said, has a vision of reaching 100 schools with 40,000 pupils across the country.

Initially, it targeted adults to learn basic computer skills to enable them stay relevant and connected with the outside world. However, Ms Cheboi faced rejection from the same people who should have benefited, forcing her to shift focus to children who were ready and yearning to acquire computer skills.

She said it was difficult for her to convince parents to pay Sh100 per child in targeted schools with many accusing her for scamming them.

But Cheboi reveals that even after returning to Kenya, she continued to remotely work for a US firm earning Sh1 million a month.

"I was employed by an American company and earned Sh1 million monthly. When Covid-19 pandemic hit, I was working at night but I resigned in July to take time off. The point is with computer skills one can work anywhere globally," she says.

Ms Cheboi has employed over 20 staff in both schools and her salon school, which empowers women with skills.

But why did she make such a major career switch?

When Cheboi was growing up, she never imagined that one day she would redeem her family from the shackles of poverty.

"I grew up in a very poor family. My mother was struggling with everything, food, clothing and our education. She had to do odd jobs in the village to make ends meet," she recalls and reveals it is her mother's resilience that inspired her and other members of the family.

Educating girls

"We would go to bed on empty stomachs but she was hopeful that everything will be okay. She kept on telling us that one day, things will change for the better and our family will uplift not only our living standards but the entire community," she recalls.

"With what was happening, I took upon myself to study with the intention of building a house for my mother who put up with ridicule to see us get education. 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, adding she relied on a security light at a nearby shop to study.

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