Updated July 22, 2022
Nelly Cheboi's talk at the Women in Tech Breakfast

Are we there yet? Our Overnight Success

First published on July 14, 2019
Nelly Cheboi Black Background
Nelly Cheboi (Kosi)
CEO | CNN Hero | Forbes Under 30

November 1992: We have a problem: Poverty stinks.

I grew up in abject poverty. I wanted to move my family out of that shack. We had it bad, but we were average compared to other families in my community. I wanted to help them out too.

January 2000: Study really hard in school

At nine years old, the only way I knew out was through education. I studied really hard. I was top in my district, graduating from primary school and again from high school.

August 2012: Studying hard worked. Landed a full scholarship at Augustana IL. And I can make money too. From Campus jobs.

I planned to make as much money as I can from a 20-hour-a-week USCIS limit and $8.25 Illinois minimum wage. Then take all the money and pay out of poverty.

This is the house I grew up in. We were too embarrassed to take pictures inside.

The house would flood during the rainy season. We had to walk a few miles for water and latrine.

We had only two tiny beds between the five of us (My Mom, four sisters, and my niece). My sister Babra(in the background) and I slept on the floor.

On my path to moving my family out of that shack, I bought 1/8th land, costing $800. I was planning on building a house.

Building a house proved to be very expensive. I only had only $300 after buying the ticket home. So I borrowed $700 from a friend, got to Nairobi, bought furniture, rented a truck to Mogotio, found a $40 two-room apartment with a latrine on-site and water tank, moved in.

The party was not complete without a run to Goodwill to buy those fancy dresses.

December 2013: Minor Glitch. They can't afford that house.

Babra worked as a cashier making $15 a month, Sharon made $10 a month as a waitress. They were barely scraping by on that $4 a month shack. I had increased their rent ten-fold, not including the electricity bill. I was sending $100 a month home to just sustain that apartment.

February 2015: Helping them be self-sufficient

I went back home in February 2015. Sharon had gotten a job running a school. She was phenomenal but only making $30 a month.

I optimistically thought building a school would cost me $2,000. I already had land! So I built Zawadi Prep.

No. It wasn't $2,000.

I have been spending 80% of my income on it ever since.But thinking it would be cheap got me started.

The kids pay ~$100 a year. Now, I only send money for the big projects.

AgroVet Owner

Babra now owns as successful agrovet shop. She only needed a $1000 capital to get started.

At the back of the shop, she incubates eggs. She buys them for $0.1, incubates them for three weeks, feed the chicks for another three weeks then sell them for $2!

On to my community. What to do ....

October 2018: Digital literacy: Build a computer lab

Most people in my village have never used a computer. I, for one, didn't until I was 18 when I traveled to Nairobi to apply to American colleges. I stumbled upon computer science during my junior year in college and I was in love. I went on to become a software engineer.

Digital literacy will give them endless opportunities. So I collected laptops donations to bring it with on my next trip to Kenya.

Tyler and I had been dating for two years when we went to Kenya last October.

We were only there for two weeks. The launch was great. We had about 200 people attending the lab and using computers a day. My niece even started her own classes. She was seven.

March 2019: We Need more computers

We came back and planned to build 10 more computer labs in 2019. We formed a non-profit TechLit Africa.

We had a goal for $300 computers. We were really worried about collecting enough in time. Oh my, I would give anything for my biggest worry to be about collecting computers. Anyway, We had more than 400 within three weeks.

Collecting as an Entity, TechLit Africa, rather than as ourselves helped.

April 2019: Going fulltime

We needed to make room in our apartment to accommodate the computers. We started getting rid of furniture. Our dinner table was the first to go. Our lease was expiring in five weeks.

I quit my job with only two weeks left on the lease. I figured we had enough time to get the computers on a boat to Kenya.

We were planning to pay for everything out of pocket. We thought it wouldn't cost more than $10,000.

May 2019: Fundraising is not fun.

We made a pro forma budget. We needed to raise $80,000. We quickly realize it will take us months to raise that much. Rejections were really painful.

We decided to raise just enough for shipping, $12,000.

June 2019: Fundraising is a walk in the park compared to Customs and Clearance

After weeks of 3 AM Calls, we learned that our budget was way off. We needed $30,000 to get ourselves and the computers there.

We only had $12,000. We tried making a few computers work.

Most of the people we talked to had given up on customs and clearance. They lamented on its unpredictability. We wanted to understand it. There was a surplus of computers in the west and scarcity in rural Africa. If we figured customs, we would make redistribution easier for everyone. So we started documenting it.

Air Ticket Purchased

We bought the tickets. We planned to bring 30 laptops and go through the importing and customs ourselves.

July 2019: Actually, Customs and Clearance is not bad if you get all the documents.

We also got a hold of a customs agent who walked us through the process. He assured us that clearing wasn't difficult if we had all the right document.

First Document: Certificate of Conformity issued after inspection

We needed to get an inspection done. Everything was going well. The inspector came and okayed the laptops.

Inspection failed.

22 hours before our flight. We got a rejection email from the inspector. The US power cords were not acceptable. The inspector said if we get the right cords he could virtually inspect and issue the certificate.

We called a friend. He was on it. He did Amazon Prime now, the one-hour delivery, he had the adapters before we got to him.

We called the inspector saying we have the adapters. He said adapters were not acceptable, only power cords. We couldn't get them in time.

We had to make our flight.

And the learning continues...


How can I contact Nelly Cheboi?

You can find Nelly's contact information on the TechLit website. She manages TechLit's WhatsApp number in Kenya and has a TechLit business email.

About The Author

Nelly Cheboi Black Background
Nelly Cheboi (Kosi)
CEO | CNN Hero | Forbes Under 30

Nelly Cheboi is a celebrated social entrepreneur, Forbes 30 under 30 honoree, and CNN Hero. After growing up in rural Kenya and lifting her family out of poverty, she focused on her community.