The 2019 CNN Hero of the Year is Nelly Cheboi, a Kenyan software engineer who quit her high-paying job in Chicago to build computer labs for Kenyan schoolchildren.
Through her nonprofit, TechLit Africa, Ms Cheboi has aided thousands of students in numerous rural areas of Kenya to gain access to upcycled computers that not only improve their digital skills but also increase their prospects of obtaining tech-related jobs in the future.
Ms. Cheboi thanked her mother for her efforts in making sure she and her siblings had an education when accepting the medal, saying she did her best. But thanks to a new partnership with CNN Heroes, the 2022 winners will also for the first time have access to additional funds, organizational training, and support for the Elevate Prize Foundation.
As luck would have it, Ms. Cheboi is also expected to get the Elevate Prize, which entails a $300,000 grant and other support worth $200,000.
Ms. Cheboi, who was up in the small hamlet of Mogotio in Baringo County, stated in her acceptance speech that she knew what it meant to be poor and that anyone could succeed with hard work, perseverance, and commitment.
“I know the pain of poverty. I never forgot what it was like with my stomach churning because of hunger at night,” she said.
Her outstanding academic achievement earned her a full scholarship to Illinois’ Augustana College in 2012. She began her studies in the US without any prior computer expertise. She frequently wrote her papers by hand and found it difficult to transcribe them into a laptop when necessary.
All of this changed when Ms. Cheboi enrolled in a programming course that was necessary for her mathematics degree in her junior year.
“When I discovered computer science, I just fell in love with it. I knew that this is something that I wanted to do as my career, and also bring it to my community,” she told CNN.
Ms. Cheboi described how learning computer basics for the first time was challenging and disclosed that in order to pass a coding interview, she had to practice touch-typing, a skill that is now a crucial component of the TechLit Curriculum, for six months.
Her knowledge of how computers were being discarded by businesses that replaced their technology infrastructure only came after she started working in the software sector. This insight motivated her to begin returning donated computers to Kenya in 2018. They were brought with her in her personal luggage, and she took care of the taxes and customs duties herself. She claimed that at one point she carried 44 computers and spent more money on luggage than on an airline ticket.
She quit her work and co-founded TechLit Africa in 2019, an organization that takes computer contributions from businesses, institutions, and people. She did this with a fellow software developer who also quit her job. Prior to shipping the donated laptops to Kenya, they are cleaned up and given a fresh start. Once there, they are given to partner schools in remote areas where children between the ages of 4 and 12 attend daily lessons and frequently get the chance to interact with professionals.
TechLit Africa now works with 10 schools, and Ms. Cheboi hopes to collaborate with more than 100 schools in the upcoming academic year.