Visa denied! How a broken dream triggered this young Kenyan entrepreneur

The Nairobi Dev School equips youth in East Africa with computer programming skills and helps them build technology-based solutions to everyday challenges. The school was established in 2012 by Martha Chumo, a 21-year-old self-taught programmer, after she was denied a visa to study in the US.

“Looking back, I’m happy my US visa was denied because it made me do something at home,” said Martha Chumo, founder of the Nairobi Dev School.
“Looking back, I’m happy my US visa was denied because it made me do something at home,” said Martha Chumo, founder of the Nairobi Dev School.

Chumo gave up a scholarship to study medicine after bumping into the tech world during an internship. When her attempts to refine her skills in the US failed, she decided to start her own school. The Nairobi Dev School has since conducted skills development training in Kenya, South Sudan and Somalia.

Last year Chumo was feted as a finalist of the Anzisha Prize, Africa’s premier award for entrepreneurs between the ages of 15 and 22. She explains how she hopes to teach children in rural Kenya how to write code, and break the myth of technology being too difficult for young people to develop skills in. 

Give us your elevator pitch.
Our goal is to equip young people with software development skills they can use to solve challenges around them. We talk about technology a lot in Kenya, but what does it really mean for education, healthcare and farming? We want to make technology relevant to us.

We teach beginners as well as experienced people such as fresh graduates. I have found when someone is learning something to get a job, they are motivated to do the minimum required because their aim is a job, not to transform the world. But I like the energy and naivety of young people. At age 14 they have nothing to lose, their parents are giving them pocket money and they have time. They can throw in as much creativity and take risks.

I got into technology right after high school and learned a lot on my own. So I really want to teach children. Next month we will begin training teachers in a number of rural schools that have computer labs. In many, you will find at least one teacher who is passionate about drama, who takes time to write plays and coach students for national competitions. And they do it for free. We hope to reach a few teachers that are just as passionate about technology; who can run clubs and teach code as a co-curricular activity. The myth is technology is too hard and is a reserve only for geeks. But I see it as a skill like music, art or drama any child can acquire with training and creativity.

How did you finance your start-up?
In 2012 I did an online campaign on crowdsourcing platform Indiegogo to raise money to attend a hacking school in New York. I managed to raise US$5,800 but the US denied me a visa because I lacked “social ties”. So I launched another campaign and raised an additional $15,000 which I have used to finance the business. I just made a video using my mobile phone and convinced people to buy into my idea.

The second fundraising campaign enabled me to share photographs and show people the work we are doing. Looking back, I’m happy the visa was denied because it made me do something at home.

If you were given $1m to invest in your company right now, where would it go?
I would invest in technologies centered around farming. There have been attempts to digitise agriculture in Kenya but there are still lots of gaps. My students have developed really good solutions they cannot implement because they don’t have funds. So I’d put that money into implementing some of their solutions – such as one that would enable cooperative groups to get important information from farmers through an app, and store that information in the cloud. Right now coffee farmers in Kenya have to do a survey every three months to prove they are ethical farmers. The documents are 187 pages long and the farmers must complete it so their coffee can be exported.

Some cooperatives have up to 40,000 farmers in their systems. They spend millions of Kenyan shillings to photocopy these documents, and even more in warehouses where the documents are stored for five years. In a modern society I consider that pure insanity. I believe agriculture in Africa has the potential to employ millions and grow our economy, when done well.

I’ll also invest in better farming methods that are sustainable in the African context. This will include cultivating in the arid regions using irrigation methods proven to work in other countries with similar climates. My investment will be in the entire value chain in agriculture – from the farm to factory. It’s about time we stop exporting our raw materials and process them ourselves.

What difficulties do you face running the Nairobi Dev School?
I am trying to figure out how to work with large bureaucratic organisations. I often feel they are slowing me down. I started my business at 19, and people my age tend to do things fast. If we decide to start a business today, tomorrow we are buying furniture and setting up the office. We don’t sit down to do a mission-and-vision statement. We expect to figure out the rest as things go along, but sadly that is not how the world works. I remember once being frustrated by a group we wanted to collaborate with because they kept dragging their feet. We met twice and talked things through, but then they called a third meeting. I refused to go. I was impatient. I wanted to get things done, not meet and talk again.

I have also realised people may like your story and may talk about you, but it doesn’t mean they’ll sign deals with you. As a young person you have to build credibility to attract investors, talent and partnerships.

Any major risks your business faces?
Technology changes every day, yet we invest so much in building our curriculum. For instance, you can train people how to build Android apps and two years down the line Android is dead. That unpredictability makes this a very risky industry. You can become irrelevant in a matter of days.

And finally, what has been your biggest mistake?
I started with teaching for free and have suffered because of that. I did not think things through as much as I should have. While I believe you shouldn’t plan too much and waste time that could have been used to actually build your business, I know that it is also important to think things through.