SHABBONA – Before she was 18 and applying for college, Nelly Cheboi had never used a computer.
Now 29, Cheboi is a software engineer who is listed on Forbes’ 2022 Social Impact List of “30 Under 30″ for co-founding a nonprofit organization that distributes recycled technology to build computer labs in Kenyan schools.
Cheboi said that realizing the importance of learning computer skills at a young age led her to creating TechLit Africa with her husband, Tyler Cinnamon, in 2018. TechLit Africa has 4,000 students and 20 teachers, and Cheboi is working to establish an additional 100 computer labs.
Cheboi, who lives in Shabbona, is originally from Mogotio, a small village in Kenya about four hours from the capital city, Nairobi. She grew up in her town with her mom, who was a single parent, and her three sisters.
“I became really motivated to find a solution to poverty because of my mom,” Cheboi said. “She worked really hard. She would do so many jobs: selling mangoes at the market, buying and selling goats, having a small food stand. She worked hard and struggled to put us through school. I really wanted to help her and give children growing up in communities like mine a better childhood.”
Cheboi said she studied, sometimes until 2 a.m., to make sure she did well in school. Her good grades allowed her to attend high school, which was a boarding school about four hours away from home. She graduated at the top of her class and was awarded a full-ride scholarship to Augustana College in Rock Island.
“As a teenager, I was really driven,” Cheboi said. “I had so much conviction. I wanted to take care of my mom and siblings.”
During her freshman year at Augustana, Cheboi spent her weekends doing janitorial work and cleaning toilets.
“I was only allowed to work 20 hours a week as an international student, so I worked from 6 a.m. to noon on Saturdays on Sundays,” Cheboi said. “I didn’t make much money, but I worked hard and saved and saved.”
During a school break, she used all the money she saved to buy a plane ticket home to Kenya. While in Nairobi, she bought a truckload of furniture and returned home to move her family out of their small shack.
“We didn’t have electricity or running water, and I was able to move my family into a really nice apartment with nice furniture and a TV,” she said. “It was a really nice homecoming.”
However, Cheboi soon found that living in the new apartment wasn’t sustainable for her family.
“They could barely afford living in the shack, and I had to send them money for food and water and electricity bills,” she said. “It was really hard for me to support them, so I started thinking, and I started a small school.”
As a junior in college, Cheboi helped establish and build the school, Zawadi, in 2015 using money she made working minimum wage jobs. The school opened in 2016 with 40 students. Cheboi said that since the school opened, she’s never had to support her family, because her younger sister helps operate the school.
With the foundation of the school, Cheboi soon realized that a lack of technology and internet was holding her people back.
“I realized that the reason why most of our communities are poor is because of the lack of technology,” she said. “Computers are the easiest way to empower communities like mine. There are a lot of jobs online. You can work remotely, and all you need are the skills, a computer and the internet. It seemed like an easy solution to deconstruct the system that was holding us down.”
In 2018, Cheboi graduated college and started her first full-time job as a software engineer, where she met her now-husband, Tyler Cinnamon. Together, they flew to Kenya to teach computer science to children. They co-founded the nonprofit organization TechLit Africa, which distributes recycled technology to build computer labs in African schools.
“We quickly realized that it’s hard to get adults who work minimum wage jobs to commit to the program,” Cheboi said. “But kids are really interested in learning. ... We decided to really teach computer skills, we needed to get computers into schools. It has to be part of their school life every single day, where they’re growing up with the technology.”
Jane Bahls, chair of the board of TechLit Africa, said that watching Cheboi’s dreams come to life has been exciting. Bahls, the First Lady of Augustana College, helped sponsor Cheboi during her university days and describes Cheboi and her husband as honorary family members.
“It’s been amazing how she first lifted her family out of poverty through her college jobs, established a school and now helps expose kids in Africa to technology,” Bahls said. “With digital skills, these children will be able to get good jobs wherever they live from international companies.”
Cheboi is traveling to Kenya for a six-month stay. Her goal is to expand TechLit Africa and computer and technology literacy tenfold in the next five years and expand into other African countries.
“All you need is tech knowledge, the computer, the internet and these skills,” Cheboi said. “Skills like knowing how to design a webpage, how to code, build apps, communicate online and creative thinking, are useful. They can use those skills for marketing or sales or business, so many different types of jobs. These skills are in high demand. Knowing those skills is life-changing.”
To help Cheboi and TechLit Africa, donations of desktop, laptop and tablet computers are being collected to establish computer labs. Cheboi said the most impactful way to get involved is by investing monthly, subscribing a monetary donation to help make sure the schools and computer labs continue to operate.
“[TechLit Africa] is giving children in Africa a chance to have a level playing field,” Bahls said. “Nelly’s success story shows that it is possible for one person to make a huge difference. Computers that Americans are just getting rid of can actually help people in rural Kenya to learn skills that will help life their whole families out of poverty.”