Audrey Cheng is showing me around her company’s office in Nairobi, Kenya. She talks fast and walks even faster. Pointing at a classroom full of 20-somethings crouching over computers, she bursts out with pride: “Look! My children!” Granted, she is younger than most people in the room.
Cheng was only 21 when she landed in Kenya in 2014 and launched Moringa School, an innovative academy for aspiring developers. Three years later, her school boasts 600 alumni with a 95 percent employment rate and an average 360 percent salary increase after graduation.
Moringa School aims to bridge the skills gap in Kenya’s job market — a gap that is more like a canyon. One in every five formal jobs in the country requires high ICT (information and communication technology) skills. On the other side, one in every five Kenyans is unemployed. And this is not only an African problem.
Countries the world over are struggling to find the talent equipped to build their digital economies. “So much of our education doesn’t make any sense,” says Cheng. “We need to design courses that reflect what employers are looking for.”
Cheng first came up with the idea for Moringa School while working in Nairobi for Savannah Fund, an early-stage tech investment firm in sub-Saharan Africa.
Watching Kenyan startups, she quickly discerned that their biggest bottleneck to growth was skills, as they would often have to outsource their coding needs to India.
As she began researching Kenya’s available ICT trainings, Cheng was shocked to find university-level students coding on paper.
“I was like… wow,” she says. (Cheng talks like the millennial she is, mixing business lingo with comic exclamations and self-deprecating jokes.) “I used to think I had to act serious, but now I realize that being my true self at work makes me much happier.”
Something else that sets Cheng apart? She does not know how to code. After growing up in Maryland, the daughter of two Taiwanese immigrants studied journalism and global health at Northwestern University while juggling four jobs (including her all time-favorite: a lighthouse tour guide).
“I hated my education,” Cheng admits, but her academic frustrations turned out to be a blessing, steering her away from what failed to inspire. “Now I know how to avoid!”
Despite having worked for an investment firm, Cheng opted to bootstrap her business, using $15,000 of her own savings and naming it “Moringa,” after the African superfood. To develop the curriculum, she partnered with Hack Reactor, an immersive coding school in New York City, then slowly began hiring teachers and testing their methodology to create the school’s signature syllabus.
Moringa is not a conventional coding school. For one, there are no blackboards or pontificating teachers. “You’ll never see anyone falling asleep at the back [of the room],” Cheng brags. Classes are designed to feel like a workday, and students tackle increasingly complex coding projects, with instructors there to facilitate rather than instruct. But the program doesn’t come cheap: Moringa’s core 15-week training costs $1,400 (in a country where the average monthly salary is $140).
Cheng attributes much of her self-assurance to her mother, a Buddhist nun who taught her the benefits of mindfulness from an early age. This practice turned out to be particularly useful during Moringa’s rocky first year. “We could not have started at a worse possible time,” Cheng jokes. In 2015, a huge scandal broke about private academies selling diplomas in Kenya, making it harder for Moringa School to find students.
Its first class had only four pupils, but now Moringa’s classrooms are packed, and 41 percent of students are women. The school is also growing abroad, with partner programs in Hong Kong, Ghana and Pakistan, where the government is sponsoring its efforts. Next up, it will be launching a branch in Uganda.
Meanwhile, the World Bank has chosen Moringa School to be the Middle East and Africa location for its study on the effectiveness of coding boot camps in emerging markets. The school is also launching new courses to keep up with employer demand. First up: cybersecurity.
Moringa’s main office reflects the company’s fast growth — it looks like it just survived a hurricane. Huge rooms are furnished with randomly arranged tables, and its 35 employees migrate from one desk to the next, scribbling notes on glass windows. The classrooms are across the hall, in a large new wing, still covered in wallpaper from the previous tenant.
How much further can Moringa grow? Even if the school rents another floor — which Cheng is evaluating — it will be hard to scale Moringa’s training in a country where most people can’t afford it, says Lise Hagen, director of the advisory firm Herding Cats. In her opinion, thinking about ICT education exclusively in terms of “brick and mortar” is counter to where the workplace is heading, pointing out that online courses will likely be “a more viable option for cash-strapped learners.”
Some doubt the very necessity of private coding schools. “The question is not whether it is possible for private actors to scale ICT education. The question is whether it is desirable to do so,” says Angela Okune, research director at SkyeHI Limited, a Kenyan company that develops mobility solutions in emerging markets. Like Okune, some analysts fear that initiatives similar to Moringa’s are imposing a Silicon Valley mentality — which assumes that everything can be fixed with technology — on issues like education, which call for a more holistic approach.
Cheng flinches at any talk of “trying to fix Africa,” and resents the foreign-savior accusation. All she wants, she says, is to “give people the opportunity to solve their own problems.” As for her own coding skills? They will have to wait. “I know it’s really ironic,” she says, “but I haven’t had the time to learn.”