But we must make sure that everyone gets a chance
I grew up in a small tin-roof house in rural Kenya. The cement floor was full of potholes. There was this patch near the door that had not disintegrated, just big enough to accommodate my torso. I used to lie on that spot and look at the roof, which was also full of holes. While this meant the house flooded during rainy seasons, on sunny days, rays of sunlight would shine through in a spectacular way. I loved looking at the different shapes of light bouncing around while I strategised the ways I could lift my community out of poverty. I was maybe 11 and was scared to die before I could change the narrative of people growing up in communities like mine.
Less than a decade later, I had moved my family out of that house, built a primary school, started a hairdressing school and founded a non-profit, TechLit Africa, which provided more opportunities for rural Africans to make a living online.
I grew up watching my dear mom work tirelessly to educate my sisters and me. She engaged in all kinds of informal businesses, including selling goats and vegetables. She, like so many people in rural Kenya, worked day in and day out just to provide for her family.
The lack of upward mobility is the most depressing bit. Rural Kenyans are not waiting for handouts; the systems in place do not work in our favour. Loans have at least 12% interest rates, unreliable roads make it difficult to distribute goods, and our education system is so expensive that families continue to sink into poverty just to educate their kids. This climate is unfavourable to entrepreneurs and hinders small businesses from growing and creating more jobs.
I knew education would give me a chance at a better life, so I worked hard in school and at age 19 I was awarded a scholarship to study in America. I immediately got a job through a work-study programme at my university and within just one year I had moved my family out of poverty and started on building a school. Even though I left my village in Africa and travelled to America to ‘make it’, I am inspired by a future where rural African communities have access to digital economies without leaving their homes.
That is the premise of TechLit Africa, which teaches digital skills using donated, used computers that would otherwise end up in landfills. Our biggest expense is getting the laptops into the country, and even that is not very expensive, only about $50 (£44) per device. Our programmes then prepare kids for the digital economy, providing opportunities to gain skills that enable them to work remotely from their villages for tech companies all over the world.
The lack of strong institutions and infrastructure keeps rural Africans poor, but digital infrastructure is the easiest kind to build. The hope for a future where rural Africans can be making money online is what keeps me going.
Nelly Cheboi is founder and CEO of TechLit Africa
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 4 2022.
RSA Fellows are invited to join a free webinar on 11 July, hosted by The Centre for Sustainable Design (CfSD) at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA), to explore the application of Circular and regenerative design to digital technologies and energy systems.
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