Disrupting poverty through digital skilling with TechLit Africa CEO, Nelly Cheboi

April 17, 2023

Digital technologies have become fundamental to economic success in today’s society, allowing individuals, nations, and organizations to participate more fully in the global economy. However, more than half of the developing world remains digitally excluded, and over 2.9 billion people in developing countries lack access to high quality, affordable, safe, and reliable internet, and adequate digital skills. While the COVID-19 pandemic prompted an increase in online learning and working across the world, 89% of students in Sub-Saharan Africa don’t have a home computer and 82% lack stable internet access. 

As the demand for digital skills increases, such disparities only hinder the ability of youth in rural areas to meaningfully engage in the digital economy and to fully harness the opportunities brought about by the digital era. TechLit Africa, a non-profit organization working to bridge the digital divide in rural Kenya, aims to unlock global opportunities for students in rural Africa and disrupt the cycle of poverty through digital skilling. The organization upcycles computers, establishes computer labs, and teaches computer classes in primary schools in rural Kenya, all with the goal of integrating youth into the digital economy and creating opportunities for them to earn a living online. In 2022, TechLit Africa’s co-founder and CEO Nelly Cheboi was recognized on the Top 10 CNN Heroes of the Year and Forbes 30 Under 30 lists for her work. In our conversation with Nelly, we discuss the realities of ICT access in rural regions, the importance of community-driven initiatives, ensuring sustainability, and TechLit’s goals for the future.

Between 2021 and 2022, Kenya saw an improvement in the Technology pillar of the Network Readiness Index, particularly in Access, where it jumped from 83rd to 69th out of 131 nations. Of course, numbers can only tell us so much, and the situation in urban versus rural areas is very different. Can you tell us a bit about the realities of ICT infrastructure and connectivity in rural areas, and how it has evolved? 

“The idea behind TechLit came from my upbringing in rural Kenya. Growing up, there weren’t many cell phones or smartphones to begin with. When I finished high school in 2010 I had a smartphone, but Internet was very expensive and I couldn’t get online very much. We could buy bundles of data in small chunks, but buying even 20MB or 50MB was too expensive. But really, there wasn’t even a need to go online—once you’re online without any digital skills, what are you going to do? I didn’t even know what the WiFi icon on a phone was, or what it did. 

Now, someone even in 5th grade would know what WiFi is. Kids talk about internet applications and websites like Google so freely. When I was growing up, all you could do when looking for information was ask your teacher, and if your teacher didn’t know then that was the end of it. Nowadays, the value of being online and being connected is so much greater. People actually opt to spend their money on data bundles, versus spending it on other things.”

Despite ranking 3rd in digital readiness in the Africa region in the NRI 2022, Kenya still faces challenges in ensuring inclusion (ranking 80th out of 131 nations), and a noticeable gender gap in internet use (96th out of 131) prevents a fully involved society from accessing or generating digital content. In your view and experience, what are the main barriers to equitable technology usage and access for women and girls in rural communities? 

“Initially, our work started with resource centers and computer labs. Kids would come in their free time or on the weekends to use the computers. It was fascinating because on any given day, we had equal numbers of girls and boys there. But then we’d notice that the same boys were coming back every week, but the girls were always new faces. Also, many girls would come with a child or a sibling with them, who they were taking care of. It was tough for them to sit at a computer and use the keyboard. Many times I would have to hold the child for them, so they could use the computer properly. 

Then it dawned on me that when I was growing up, if we had a program like TechLit available after school, I would not have been able to go because I was busy helping with house chores. Outside of school, boys are more free to explore and go to places like computer labs. However, girls in their free time are going for water, taking care of their siblings, doing house chores, or things like that. So, we decided to move the program to schools because there is more equal access, since kids are there every day. This way we were able to get closer to 50/50 distribution.

Another barrier is cost—in these regions, men make more money. They can afford better Internet, a smartphone, a laptop, and therefore have more opportunities to practice [their] digital skills. If you don’t have the money, gaining access to the Internet and digital devices on your own is very difficult if not impossible.”

TechLit is short for “technologically literate”. TechLit focuses on not just technology access but also on digital skilling. Other programs have been criticized for a ​​”one-shot” deployment approach with little or no technical support or teacher training, and lacking direct relation to the pedagogy needed in the local context. How has TechLit’s sustainability approach contributed to the organization’s success? 

“To begin with, there’s a big disconnect that exists across all stages of digital access. For example, if you ask a sophomore in say, Chicago, how to get a job at Google, they would know to go on LinkedIn to look at job openings, then they could go to YouTube or an online course and learn the necessary coding skills, they could email a recruiter or DM them on a social networking site—they could lay out the steps to do it. However, if you ask a sophomore in Mogotio [Kenya] the same question, they would have no idea how to do that, or that such an opportunity even is possible for them.

We are trying to prepare our kids by making them “digitally native”. We want them to be able to answer that question and get any skills or opportunities that they need online—for example, using YouTube to learn, or social media to network. Kids in developed nations have a computer at home, and they have a smartphone with them at all times. They are surrounded by devices 24/7. Our kids don’t have that, so they are by default, behind. We’re trying to get them as close as we can to this level of access, and being comfortable with it, which takes a lot of time and resources. That’s why we’re doing it in schools. Our curriculum is embedded into the day to day of the schools we partner with. For example, if kids are learning math, they go to the computer lab and engage with technology while learning. We also teach personal branding, networking, emailing, everyday things like that 

We want to provide this for kids as long as they’re in school, which is about 8-10 years. It’s hard to find someone who is going to fund the program for that long. So, to go around that we engage the parents. Also, all of our operations, like paying the teachers, or upgrading the computers are funded locally. This way we are able to expand, because we just need the community’s buy-in when we want to take our services to a new school. 

We also try to minimize our footprint in America. When someone donates a computer, we ask that they ship it to our consolidator in California, and they deliver it to us in Kenya. Almost all of our operations take place in Kenya—this is where we prepare the machines, we refurbish them, we get them into schools. 

We hire from the community, usually alumni from the schools that we are in, because they have ownership and a stake in community outcomes. It also helps with getting the kids more engaged. We want to be community-driven and community-supported, which guarantees longevity, and sustainability. It makes the team very lean, but able to grow and scale quickly. Right now we are in about 15 schools, with only about 17 people in the organization.”

The 2022 edition of the Network Readiness Index, focused on digital natives, and the unique relationship between youth and digital technology. It is my understanding that TechLit originally began with adult programs. Do you think the program is contributing to technical knowledge transfer between generations?

“We try to have the parents involved. Kids follow tutorials at school, and then use those skills to make their own projects and present them, so we are able to gauge what they learn. We record the presentations for the parents, and this way, the parents are able to learn from what their kids are doing in school. It makes the kids really excited too. For example, there’s a recent video of a girl teaching her mom touch-typing.”

You’ve stated that “preparing students for the future means opening their mind to new possibilities that don’t even exist today”. What are your goals for TechLit in the coming years, as the digital economy continues to evolve? 

“Our goal is to continue to grow and partner with new schools. We want to be in a hundred schools, then a thousand schools, as well as expanding to neighboring nations and the rest of the African continent. Every year that we are not in a new school or new country, there are kids graduating school having never used a computer before. What I see happening is our kids graduating high school and being able to earn a living online, because that’s what we are working hard to do. We keep asking ourselves, ‘are they going to earn a living online, or are we just wasting our time’. That really informs a lot of our curriculum.

We’re constantly watching the changes in the technology space. Right now personal branding and being able to express yourself and your ambitions online is important, as well as being able to communicate effectively. Everyone is their own brand now, with the rise of social media. If you’re trying to get a job, they’re probably going to your LinkedIn and looking at your digital footprint, and the past work you have done. 

Also, because there is so much information online these days, being able to identify if information is accurate is important. That’s what is driving our curriculum right now. 

Once we have the basics, we can move on in the next few years towards making our curriculum more AI-driven, or things like that. Right now, all about being able to find the information that you need, and if it’s not there, then recognizing that there is a gap in the market, and you can actually create something in that space. 

Much of our curriculum is actually softer skills. Hard skills are easier to learn—once you have access, you can go on YouTube and teach yourself how to code. Also important is knowing when to take a break and finding boundaries between being online and offline.”

How can our audience support TechLit, if they are interested? 

Because of our sustainability model, once we have computers here, they are put to use immediately. One computer is used by 20 kids every week for up to 5 years. The best way to support is by joining the monthly giving program. You can help ensure that we can continue shipping computers, empowering kids, and creating jobs.”

Learn more and visit TechLit Africa’s website at https://techlitafrica.org/

Learn more about the Network Readiness Index at https://networkreadinessindex.org/

Nelly Cheboi is the co-founder and CEO of TechLit Africa. She grew up in a rural village in Kenya, and through hard work and determination, landed a full scholarship to Augustana College, where she studied computer science. As an undergrad, she invested all of her income from various campus jobs into my community back in Kenya, and built a school, Zawadi, there and later started TechLit Africa. In 2022, Nelly was recognized on the Top 10 CNN Heroes of the Year and Forbes 30 Under 30 lists for her work.