Just when it seems the Mombasa heat has become insufferable and the day too long, the 30-odd students break into singing, softly drumming their hands on the tables. Perhaps it is a way to relieve some of the intensity with which they focus on their instructors' words. Perhaps it is a song of celebration as they reach the weekend and the midway point of a unique 22-day leadership and business-skills course.
The students, field workers for the regional office of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), are taking part in a class taught by Tototo Home Industries. Tototo is perhaps the first indigenous development group on the continent to establish a program to teach people how to set up income-generating projects, and actually sell its services - in its community and in other nations.
For decades, workshops and training courses such as this have been run by Western development officials - or by locals under the scrutiny of a Western agency. But Tototo, which has its own income-generating unit and works with about 40 agriculture and commercial projects in and near Mombassa, has set out to break this status quo.
``What Tototo can provide, that Westerners cannot, is real understanding of and sensitivity to the problems of Africa - especially its women,'' says Elvina Matua, head of Tototo's training and consultancy services.
According to World Bank and national statistics in sub-Saharan Africa, unemployment and poverty are on the rise. Everywhere small self-help, income-generating projects are springing up. Their members are crossing borders to share information, experience, and advice. But Tototo, founded in 1963 by Anglican church members, has taken the next step by selling its services: first to a Swaziland ministry, and more recently to the Mombasa YWCA.
In 1985, the local YWCA asked Tototo to train a field worker and work with five of its income-generating projects. ``Immediately,'' says YWCA director Louisa Dwiti, ``there was a change in those five groups. They're really coming up.''
Based on this success, the YWCA hired Tototo to run a 22-day session for its field workers. The course includes 10 days of learning to recognize and develop leadership skills within a group activity. That is followed by 12 days of learning basic business skills: selecting a feasible, profitable project; production tactics; marketing and sales skills; and money management.
The interest in Tototo's services shown by Swaziland, the YWCA, and most recently some groups in Malawi, has dovetailed with Tototo's own desire to reach a broader audience.
``There had been some criticism,'' says Ms. Matua, ``People saying, `If your method is so good, why have you not helped more groups?' We realized we could only support so many groups. So we wanted to offer this training so that others could teach the methods and systems we have found successful.''
Its techniques have taken Tototo in the last 25 years from a group marketing women's handicrafts to an organization that runs its own projects and supports 40 other project groups. It has a production unit, a marketing and sales unit, and a rural development unit.
Tototo is best known for producing very high quality tie-dyed material. The groups which it has helped develop produce everything from food crops to household goods.
The United States Agency for International Development considers Tototo ``very strong'' among the many groups supported by its Rural Enterprise Program, according to Doug Kline, chief of AID's office of projects in Nairobi.
World Education Services, a Boston-based development agency, was one of Tototo's first funders and has worked with it closely through the years. The group no longer funds Tototo, but still provides consultation services, and sees Tototo as one of the most successful operations it has worked with, according to two WES staffers.
Tototo remains almost entirely dependent on outside funding - mostly from the Ford Foundation, Lutheran World Services, and AID. Tototo estimates it could become financially independent if it were able to sell two weeks per month of its leadership and business skills course, says business manager William Kabugo.