Engineering Scalable Impact

by Tyler Cinnamon on Apr 18, 2022
Tyler Configuring The Network

Disrupting Poverty

In 2019 Nelly and I left our cozy corporate jobs to work on TechLit Africa full-time. Today we are completely focused on teaching digital skills in primary schools in rural Africa, but when we started we were focused on a very different solution.

When we started TechLit, we thought that the fastest way to disrupt poverty with digital skills was by finding adults remote work. We were at Nelly's school, Zawadi, early every day and late every night, calling adults who showed interest, gathering curriculum to share, and finding work for adults in Mogotio.

Pushing A Boulder Up A Hill

Our key performance indicator was the number of adults who regularly came back to class, and we tracked it religiously. After months of work, it was stuck between 5 and 6. We never had more than 8 people regularly attending class, even when they made $8 per hour doing data entry.

We were frustrated teaching adults. $8 per hour seemed too good to be true, and life kept getting in the way of their classes.

Kids On A Mission

Meanwhile, we let a few kids use laptops in the next room while we were busy modernizing work in Mogotio. After a few weeks, the next room was full every day. Kids hanging out the windows, lined up outside and walking around the yard waiting for a chance to watch someone use a laptop.

What every business wants is "product-market fit" or some variation of it. Product-market fit is what happens when you demand for your product grows faster than you can handle when you have a very good solution to a very painful problem.

TechLit Africa is a business to us, that exists for a specific purpose: to disrupt the cycle of poverty in rural Africa with technology. We have always chased product-market fit.

Realization

Unfortunately, I caught a serious case of typhoid while hosting guests from the Netherlands (unrelated). After a few days in and out of the hospital, we took a break from village life and booked an AirBnB in the nearest city, Nakuru. That's where we decided to change course.

The founder of a startup in Silicon Valley posted a method for "engineering" product-market fit. In simple terms, you can group your customers by interest level, then focus on customers who are the most interested. Reading that blog post is what convinced me that we should work with kids rather than adults.

Unlocking Digital Skills

Before deciding to work with kids, we were struggling to find many people who were interested in improving their life with technology. We especially didn't have anyone who saw our product (used computers & the internet) as a very good solution to the painful problems they faced.

But if we expanded the scope of our project to include the kids playing games in the next room, we had a very dedicated group of customers. We could easily tech kids digital skills.

As soon as we returned to Mogotio, we started our "open lab" experiment. Finding barriers to learning digital skills and learning how to be equitable with scarce resources.