We are Technologically Literate Africa, also known as TechLit Africa. We teach self-efficacy through digital skills in rural African schools. We believe that the internet could lessen African poverty, but rural Africans lack digital skills and computers to gain from the digital economy, even though developed countries have an abundance of used computers.
We run vertically-integrated computer classes in rural African schools with used computers. In 2021, we ran a successful pilot program: we expanded to 10 computer labs in rural Kenya, serving over 4,000 students. In 2022, we plan to open another 100 computer labs in Kenya to serve another 40,000 students.
Software and the internet have transformed how the world learns, communicates and does business. However, those who have the most to gain from modern tools are often left without them, despite the vast surplus of devices that are thrown away every year.
The economic condition of Sub-Saharan Africa is poor, hosting some of the lowest GDP per capita and purchasing-power figures.
Research shows that the adoption of technology in education, business and government can raise GDP, lower unemployment and improve the quality of life. In most rural areas in Africa the Internet is still too expensive to use in education.
Rural Africans lack tools and skills to leverage the digital economy. Despite being well-educated, a great swath of African talent does not fit into the fast-paced technological world. If we fail to fill the widening gap between the market requirements and available skills, we will be unable to uplift African families out of poverty.
Despite the lack of computers available in rural Africa, organizations in advanced countries upgrade computers every three to five years. They have millions of spare machines per year and the problem of what to do with them.
Our mission is to see every student in Africa prepared to prosper in the digital economy.
Our vision is an Africa with world-class economic mobility from any region.
Above all else, we value self-efficacy. It is why we teach. Not only that, it is also what we teach and how we teach it. The most important skill in today’s economy is the ability to re-skill; anyone taking part in the digital economy must be self-reliant and self-sufficient. Our classes are self-guided and project based whenever possible, leading to students that are intrinsically motivated and able to take on challenges in general, rather than specific tasks (a necessary skill in a changing world).
We have a bias for agility. It’s no mistake that we build our own software, hire passionate teachers, or have a close board of directors. We do those things because they enable us to innovate, make quick decisions, and ultimately survive rapid growth. When deciding between priorities, we favor innovation and flexibility over stability.
Equity is our call-to-arms; we do not abide inequality. We hire from remote areas. We don’t require degrees. We train and promote from within. We enforce individual learning for us to recognize learning gaps, to reduce bullying, and to reduce gender inequality. Equity is a driving force for our decision making, trumped only by our ability to scale and our mission to promote self-efficacy.
Our executive director is Nelly Cheboi, a deeply driven native Kenyan who learned software engineering after taking an undergraduate scholarship in the United States. During her time in college, Nelly saved enough money to build a school in her hometown, effectively providing her family a stable income and lifting her family out of poverty.
Our chief operating officer is Tyler Cinnamon, an ambitious self-taught programmer who grew up immersed in technology. A non-traditional learner, Tyler spent five years touring as an acrobat before diving into computer programming, which he taught himself using digital tools readily available on the Internet.
Our newest director is Moha Ismael, a charismatic and purposeful Kenyan who has done everything from journalism, music production, computer repair and acting. Before joining TechLit Africa, Moha was already empowering the youth in his community in every way he could.
Our board chair is Jane Bahls, who has decades of experience directing nonprofits. Jane brings order, best-practice and optimistic wisdom.
Jack O’Donnel is our domain expert, having managed computer refurbishment at a similar nonprofit for over a dozen years, shipping more than 10,000 machines.
Matt Pelton is our financial expert and corporate advisor, bringing years of experience working on African development.
In Kenya, we have a rapidly-growing team of passionate teachers. Our hiring and knowledge-sharing practices keep the team involved and connected. We have teachers that are nurturing, bold and dedicated. Our goal is that every one of our teachers either becomes a leader within the organization or, through their training in TechLit Africa, finds gainful employment to lift their entire family out of poverty.
We have benefitted from the advice of experienced leaders in innovative nonprofit growth and software startups.
Tech nonprofits have helped us develop our vertical integration strategy, such as World Computer Exchange, Internet-in-a-box and One-laptop-per-child. These organizations, through very different approaches, have paved the way for our success.
Kenyan nonprofits have helped us navigate building our operations in Kenya. Dandelion Africa and other organizations in our early years helped us form our Kenyan community benefit organization.
Local Kenyan schools have helped us develop our program from experimentation and through our pilot program, including Zawadi Yetu, Mogotio Primary, Saint Mary’s Primary and other schools.
Many organizations have donated computers, such as Ibotta, SiriusXM, Augustana College and many others.
TechLit Africa has evolved significantly since it was founded in 2018. Our early founders, Nelly Cheboi and Tyler Cinnamon, started travelling between the United States and Kenya. In the United States, we collected computers and fundraised. In Kenya, we experimented with different uses for the used computers.
Initially, we brought content to serve over an intranet. We would download content like Wikipedia and Khan Academy to a big storage device, to be served over a local intranet.” We found that no matter what content we found, visitors would peruse everything we had, then leave within an hour, never to return.
Later on, we taught employable skills to young adults. In a local school (built and owned by Nelly, in fact), we hosted classes on how to build websites, how to create music with software and how to make money online with a few remote job categories. Little of our efforts stuck; we suffered high turnover from students. However, while running our adult programs, we found growing interest from nearby children, for whom we opened a small computer lab in a nearby room.
Over time, we started running an open lab for local children. The tipping point between the adult program and the open lab experiment was when we realized that children liked to play computer games. In fact, we had dozens of children walking for miles every day just to play computer games.
Through the open lab experiment, we learned how effective short, self-directed computer sessions could be. To reduce bullying, we enforced a 20-minute entitlement to self-directed use of a computer. Self-directed use without peer-pressure improved the average skill-level dramatically. To promote self-efficacy, we became hands-off and product-focused. When prioritized observation over hands-on teaching, students began to teach their peers, and only came to us after much effort.
To improve the open lab experience for students, we collected basic beneficiary data. Backed by observation and data collection, we devised our current solution.
We designed our pilot program at the end of 2019. Influenced by our engineering experience and agile principles, we developed an approach that is unique from most nonprofits tackling the digital divide.
We came to the conclusion that rather than teaching specific electronic skills or supplementing existing curriculum, we should use computers to teach self-efficacy. Self-efficacy best describes a person’s ability to re-skill, our desire to create an intrinsically motivating and self-guided curriculum, and our own approach to growing our organization. We believe that embedding a sense of self-efficacy in our students will best prepare them for the digital economy, or virtually any other future work they take on. To meet that end, we envisioned a self-guided curriculum that could evolve with our learnings.
We were faced with many decisions throughout our operations and programs of the same category; they all had the same format: should we handle this in house, or pay someone else to do it. It appeared when collecting, shipping, clearing, refurbishing and recycling hardware. It appeared when curating, hosting, deploying and maintaining software. It even appeared when onboarding schools and teachers. We have decided that everything from refurbishing computers to supervising the learning process should be done in-house.
Vertical integration means we are doing one thing, and doing as much of it as possible. In our case, this means we only run computer classes, and we are responsible for as much of the computer class as possible. The opposite would be horizontal integration, or doing only one small layer of many verticals. For example, if we were also an internet service provider, a remote work agency, and a computer retailer, we would be horizontally integrated. We are vertically integrated because we only run computer classes.
We have decided to be vertically integrated because it has small downsides, such as extra fixed costs and risk of theft, and big upsides, such as limitless curriculum changes and redistribution. Our decision to vertically integrate has many peculiar implications.
Rather than donating hardware to schools, we own the hardware ourselves. We are responsible for ensuring computers are in the classroom and working. We update them, repair them and replace them when needed. We secure them and are responsible when they are stolen.
Owning the hardware frees our partner schools from financial and organizational stress. It even limits the possibility of corruption. We do not give computers to staff, because we only teach computer classes.
Owning hardware also means we can guarantee equal access for all our students. Schools cannot decide how many computers they have on-site, nor are they responsible for providing enough to be equitable.
In terms of agility, it means that we are able to rapidly deploy changes to our curriculum. Because the computers are ours, we can distribute a uniform solution to all schools, which means that we can constrain technical requirements and that our data is more consistent.
Logistically, owning our hardware enables us to reuse electronic parts in-house, cutting the aggregate cost of maintenance significantly.
Connecting a classroom to the internet is still not financially reasonable for rural Kenya, and likely rural Africa in general. However, the cost of data will drop rapidly over time, so we are preparing for the inevitable inflection point where all rural African education meets matured, global education solutions available cheaply over the internet. Because we cannot depend on the internet for our classes now, we are developing an offline-first curriculum with open-source technology.
Over the past few decades, open-source software has provided a backstop for many software-capable tasks, and education is no exception. Although open-source tools fall short when compared to other tools available on the market for primary school education, we see unique advantages and opportunities from using customized open-source software. First, we are able to modify open-source tools to improve learning outcomes. Second, open-source tools lessen our reliance on bulky partnerships. With off-the-shelf software, the marginal cost of deploying a computer would be much higher. We are free to redistribute the entirety of our computer lab software with no constraints and at zero-cost. Finally, all of our work can be reused (and improved) by other organizations at no cost.
It is popular for nonprofits to train local professionals to carry out their mission. The natural solution for us would intuitively be training the teachers across Kenya to run computer classes alongside their usual curriculum. We hire our own teachers that typically have less formal training and pay them to teach, study, and develop our program full-time.
TechLit is defined by our faith in people of any background to overcome challenges. We believe that when we hire and invest in passionate youth, they will far exceed the outcomes of conventionally trained teachers less than full-employed with our program.
Our teachers teach classes in pairs, rotate between schools, and meet regularly. In this way, they have a broad support network, a diverse set of challenges and deep knowledge sharing.
Our teachers do more than teach. They help us develop and deliver culturally relevant curriculum. They both study software uses in the real world and iterate on methods for introducing it to students.
Our agreement with schools includes an arrangement to collect fees from parents for teachers and equipment maintenance. In our experience, parents are happy to pay to educate their children. This is beneficial in many ways.
There are many parties involved in this transaction: the school staff, the school’s board of directors, the students themselves, and the parents of the students. We believe that when all these parties are involved and facilitating payments, they not only value the program more, they also are more likely to support the program because they are investors themselves.
Another benefit of this model is that each computer lab, being relatively self-funded, is resilient to TechLit Africa as a whole failing. More often than not, young organizations fail. We have heard stories from other leaders and even seen computer labs ourselves that sit completely unused. We believe that when so many parties are involved, payments are made, and jobs are on the line, our computer labs will be more resilient to the test of time.
Each computer lab being economically independent makes it possible for us to grow with such a large employee base. This way, the majority of our fundraising is to redistribute used computers, not to spend on labor or supplies in some drastically different market.
In 2021, we built 10 computer labs. A figure like 4,000 students learning to type may sound insignificant to a major fund, but starting from a team of two, it was excitingly ambitious. It only took us three months to get from running a computer lab in one school to running ten labs in ten schools.
Selling our program to schools became easier as word spread about our program. During our open lab experiment in 2019, we knew how many students visited the lab and from which schools. This enabled us to target nearby schools that were already aware of our program. Our first school was Mogotio Primary, which at one time was Nelly’s primary school. After Mogotio Primary, schools began asking us to visit. Now, Moha and our teachers can onboard schools without us.
We started organic hiring and training practices. At first, we hired more teachers than we needed, anticipating expansion. The teachers already in the program found new candidates near prospective schools. New candidates then worked on a trial basis until the group approved their membership.
Our curriculum evolved with the experience of our teachers. The first few lessons in the computer lab were aimed at building the students’ confidence. The vast majority of our students had never seen a TV screen, let alone a computer with a keyboard and mouse. From our perspective, we taught them generally how to go about logging in and out, then finding, opening and closing applications, but from their perspective, they were playing computer games. After the students gained confidence, we dropped them into a custom touch-typing application with levels, rewards and a leaderboard. Many students have begun programming their own games in scratch, an open-source, visual programming application developed by MIT.
Our pilot program was a resounding success. We found that every party involved in the program was very motivated to see it succeed. Most incentives that we expected to see were powerful enough to hold parties accountable. Students became intrinsically motivated from playing games and we channeled it into learning fundamental and even advanced digital skills. Schools were motivated to host our classes and facilitate payments from parents. Teachers were motivated to work, study and improve the curriculum.
The only remaining piece of our model left to prove is local funding. We did not spend enough time developing collections during the pilot program. We expect to fix that before and during our 2022 goal.
In 2022 we plan to scale our project to 100 more computer labs. This will grow our impact from roughly 4,000 bi-weekly students to 44,000 bi-weekly students. Our operations will change dramatically, too. We will onboard at least 100 new schools, ship and install 2,000 machines, hire and train 200 new teachers, divide our daily meetings and almost certainly introduce a level of management.
For many, this goal will seem small, but as a data-driven organization, we see it as excitingly ambitious. Continuing to grow our program by one-thousand per-cent every year would mean that in six years, we would be running a computer lab in every African school that wants one. We are not claiming that will happen in six years. Building 100 computer labs this year suggests that we may build 1,000 the next. We are an organization of ambitious leaders, driven to see a more equitable world.
In order to reach 110 computer labs, we will move TechLit Kenya towards local profitability. The cost to deploy every computer used in our pilot program was roughly $150. We believe that we can easily reduce it to $50 by modifying our relationship with schools.
First, we will eliminate most of the up-front cost of onboarding a new school by requiring every school to be outfitted with a secure room and electrical outlets before starting classes.
Second, we will improve the collection rate from parents to cover local costs. Recent efforts by our Kenyan team have made large increases in collections. We expect that clearer messaging, electronic options for payment and appearances at events like graduation and PTO meetings will improve collections enough to even fund expansion.
We will expand to nearby schools like we did during the pilot program, and over time groups of schools will form separate hubs. A hub is what we’re calling a central location where teachers meet, as well as store and refurbish computers.
Our teachers will rise to the challenge when given the opportunity. Through rapid and unconstrained knowledge exchange, many of our teachers will become leaders of their own hubs.
We need more computer donations and a reduced footprint in the United States. We are getting more computer donations by increasing our marketing and sales efforts on social media and our mailing list to onboard more organizations as computer donors. We are improving our relationships with our past donors to ensure repeated donations as well.
We need more money for shipping and early expansion in 2022. We will increase our monetary donations from both large and small donors. We are targeting many funding organizations to provide ongoing support for our early expansion and beyond. Also, we will improve our content marketing across social media and our mailing list to drive donation traffic to our website.