The only thing you can take with you

The lack of access to quality education is a major manifestation of growing inequality in the world. In 2023, 250 million children—one in ten globally—do not attend school. Of these, 78 million (nearly the population of Germany) are out of school due to conflict, climate disasters, and displacement. The absence of education not only deprives these children of any chance at a career but also increases the likelihood they will be forced into child labor and/or child marriage: “We are talking about the most isolated, the most desolate, the most neglected children in the world.”*

“Education is the only thing you can take with you” is a lesson that Rudayna Abdo learned from her parents, who fled Palestine. Rudayna earned her degrees in architecture and urban planning from MIT and McGill University, yet she has always been involved in initiatives that advocate for more equal access to quality education. In 2015, Rudayna founded the NGO Thaki (pronounced “the key” and meaning “smart” in Arabic), which employs a straightforward and lean model to deliver a significant impact: Thaki collects used laptops, equips them with high-quality educational software that works offline, and provides them to schools serving refugee and vulnerable children in the Middle East.

To date, Thaki has saved nearly 6,000 laptops from landfills and provided more than 30,000 students in 157 schools with access to quality education. This initiative has evidently improved students’ math and literacy skills while also providing general digital skills. Thaki has won several prestigious awards, including from the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and MIT Solve.

We talked with Rudayna about how the “rocket-ship AI” is widening the digital divide even wider and with concerning speed and about the possibility of ensuring financial sustainability by monetizing Thaki’s services. And everything around that.

Digital divide
Using what we (used to) throw away
About impact and return
A scalable model
The entrepreneurial side of an NGO

Disclaimer: The numbers of internet users that we mention in our conversation are slightly off. The correct numbers are (according to ITU): 67% of the world’s population is now online. In low-income countries, 27% of the population uses the internet and in high-income countries it’s 93%.

How it works

Thaki collects used laptops, equips them with offline educational software, and provides them to schools in the Middle East. Through collaborations and donations from various ed-tech experts and companies, these laptops are loaded with a range of high-value educational tools, including apps that teach coding, basic mathematics, and literacy skills. The laptops are then sold to schools at minimal prices—not for profit, but to sustain Thaki’s operations.

Big challenge

AI is (also) disrupting education, further deepening the divide between those with access to technology and those without. A common saying in the workplace is, “AI won’t replace humans, but humans with AI will replace humans without.” Therefore, Thaki’s mission to bridge the digital divide by providing refugee and vulnerable children with educational software has become even more relevant with the rise of AI. While Thaki has successfully made edtech software available offline over the past year, doing the same for AI processes remains an unsurmountable challenge for the moment.

Key takeaways

*UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown (