The Moringa School in Kenya has already produced 110 graduates with a 95 per cent employment rate.
At age 11, the inveterately precocious Audrey Cheng had already begun trading stocks – so it perhaps isn’t surprising that by 20 she had opened up a school. And not just any school; the American set up a school teaching computer coding in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.
When Cheng opened the school in 2014, she treated the venture like any other carefree twenty-something: with a can-do attitude but if it failed, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. She recalls, “When we started I wasn’t really thinking much about it. I was like ‘I have enough saved from my jobs. I can make this work for at least a year. If it fails it fails, at least I put in the time.’ ”
Moringa School, Kenya
As a journalism and global health student at Chicago’s Northwestern University, Cheng got hooked on how technology intersects with health. She saw the problems with the typically inefficient humanitarian sector and decided social entrepreneurship was the way forward.
“How do we bring that to emerging markets so people can solve their own problems? I was really excited about it, I had done no research at all but I was like, ‘Wow this is a great idea,’ ”Cheng laughs. “People can create their own possibilities without reliance on others.”
After talking about her dreams at length with her friends, one of them eventually sent her a website link to Kenya’s Savannah Fund, Africa’s pioneering seed capital funder. This led to a year of pro bono work for the fund whilst she juggled five other jobs at university, before an eventual invitation to come to Nairobi.
What started out as a three-month stint has changed the direction of her life and dozens of others. Once on the ground, the indefatigable Cheng worked to zero in on the key problems the Savannah team was facing. “Every single week without fail they would say ‘We’re still looking for a developer, we’re still looking for talent and we still can’t find it.’ ”
Just months after arriving in Kenya, Cheng launched the Moringa School with her Kenyan co-founder Frank Tamre. What’s more is they did it without ever raising any funding. “The biggest challenge I wanted to give myself was how do I create an organisation that doesn’t need money, which is really hard especially in the beginning.”
Social media advertising drew students in and Cheng says the school was able to turn a profit within the third month. More than two years later, the 23-year-old presides over a school that has produced 110 graduates from its main programme – with a 95 per cent employment rate, something radical in a country with a regional-high youth unemployment rate of 17 per cent.
Moringa Core, the flagship programme, is a 19-week fulltime, immersive course where the students, from a range of different backgrounds and aged primarily between 19 and 25, attend classes up to six days a week. This is part of Cheng’s vision of a whole new education system, one that she hopes to pioneer in Nairobi but take to the world.
“I started going to universities and training programmes to understand how computer science is being taught and it’s super outdated – students write code on paper. They are learning old technologies that aren’t applicable to today’s market.”
Moringa School’s approach to teaching is an integrative system where students guide classes as much as the teachers do, Cheng says. “Instead of being the people who are like ‘I know everything’, teachers are constantly learning with the students as well. We already have the content built so when students get to more advanced topics or when they’re thinking outside the box and building projects, teachers get involved and they co-create that together.”
Cheng intends to both expand Moringa School across Africa, and also its offerings to include other skill sets that are in shortage, such as finance and data sciences. Changing the face of education is all part of her grand plan of helping improve lives in the developing world. “For me, education is definitely a huge part of that. Giving people truly world-class skills will elevate them to a level where they can build high-end, successful companies.”
Cheng says if the market is infused with a skilled labour force, companies will start investing in Kenya – bringing even more employment opportunities. And Moringa’s graduates are a prime example of skilled labour, with a minimum of 30 apps created within its walls – the mandatory projects they undertake are now available on the App Store.
Part of the reason the students have been so successful according to Cheng – herself still a student with just one credit outstanding on her journalism degree that she must complete when back in the US – is because they are filtered during Moringa’s preparatory five-week course. During this phase, staff seek attributes like creativity and dedication. And these are skills in oversupply in Cheng herself. Raised in Maryland by financially struggling Taiwanese immigrants, the forceful young woman learned a wealth of self-reliance, helping to pay for her parents’ mortgage as a teenager after learning to trade stocks at 11 “just to play around”.
While she acknowledges the difficulties she faced guiding her parents through an America that wasn’t always accepting of immigrants, she says it is partially responsible for her successes today. “I learned whatever I wanted to do in the world, I can create.”