Cisco’s story.

Posted on April 29th, 2020

Training to be a builder and helping construct two innovation centres and four trading kiosks in Uganda’s – and Africa’s – largest refugee settlement, Bidi Bidi, was Cisco’s first proper job since he fled his home in South Sudan in September 2016.

Cisco was consistently the first and last trainee on site each day.

Until the environmentally-friendly construction and training programme started last May, led by award winning NGO, HYT Uganda, Cisco helped distribute food to other refugees once a month, earning 10,000 shillings (£2) and sometimes a bar of soap. More usually, however, Cisco says he would sit with his aunt at his new home in the settlement, ‘waiting for food’, while other young refugees would spend their days ‘gambling or chewing miraa (khat),’.

Cisco is now able to support his aunt and two nieces.

Cisco fled Otogo Payam his South Sudanese village when word came of the imminent arrival of government soldiers, who accused men of being rebels, burned houses and killed many of Cisco’s friends. It took Cisco and his aunt five days to get to the Ugandan border. Two days after they had left, the government soldiers arrived in Otogo Payam, ‘chasing people away,’ burning more homes. Cisco had not been able to work in the nearest town as it was too dangerous, with government soldiers imprisoning or killing locals, stealing their possessions and animals. ‘We lost many friends,’ Cisco says. ‘Youths who were like me were killed.’

Bidi Bidi covers 250km²; much of this area is densely packed with stick and mud huts.

After being registered as a refugee at the Ugandan border, Cisco and his aunt were taken to Bidi Bidi, the sprawling settlement for 230,000 South Sudanese refugees, where they were given blankets and mats for sleeping and tarpaulins, food rations and a 30 by 30 metre plot, on which to build a home. There is still a regular monthly food distribution, as few refugees have sufficient land – or the means- to grow their own crops. Some of this food aid is sold to buy seeds, cooking oil or clothes from the new roadside market stalls.  

Uganda’s progressive refugee policy has meant that refugees – there are 1.3 million, mainly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo – can stay, settle and work. And many do stay: often for years, preferring the peace and stability of Uganda to the uncertainty of their own countries.

Refugee and Ugandan vendors work side by side in Yumbe’s vibrant market; a testament to Uganda’s progressive refugee policy.

The local Ugandan population is poor, so interventions have to support the host community too. This aid helps integration between Ugandans and refugees and so Cisco worked alongside Ugandans as well as South Sudanese in the project, often translating instructions to and from English.

Sustainable construction workshop
Cisco played a vital role in HYT’s workshops in the settlements.

But there were enormous challenges in these emerging settlements. Infrastructure had rapidly to be developed in what had been empty bush just a few years before the refugees arrived. Water had to be located and distributed and sanitation needs met; roads, health centres and schools all had to be built, as well as the many thousands of homes. This has taken its toll on the fragile Ugandan landscape, with huge numbers of trees cut down for cooking but also to fuel the kilns that make the traditional local brick for building. The environmental damage caused by cooking and in making fired bricks is devastating.

Over the course of five months, Cisco has learned all aspects of construction, but in particular the use of an innovative building material, the Interlocking Stabilised Soil Block [ISSB] that is an environmentally-friendly alternative to the fired brick . The ISSB is a compressed earth block made from mixing soil with a little cement and sand, which is manually compressed and air cured. The blocks are not fired, saving hundreds of trees and tons of carbon emissions. The results are impressive: the blocks, made on site, are strong and durable and with their interlocking feature, require little or no mortar between courses, making them even more sustainable.

Open for business: Cisco and the other trainees built this environmentally friendly trading kiosk.

Cisco says the last five months has made him ‘somebody different.’ He is now a skilled mason and has already worked on another building site with HYT, again using the compressed earth block, the ISSB. He hopes to become a project manager himself one day (‘that it was I am hoping for’) and describes the trainers he learned from as ‘great men.’  

Will Cisco go back to South Sudan one day? He smiles. ‘Of course. That is my homeland. Why not go back?’

Cisco hopes to keep working with HYT until he can go back home.

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Winners of the Ashden International Award for Sustainable Buildings 2017.

Watch our exciting video, or check out our work at

In the first of a regular series, we tell the story of the award-winning HYT and its ground- breaking work in Uganda.

Posted on April 3rd, 2020

We begin with the Trust’s recent project in Africa’s largest refugee camp, Bidi Bidi, northern Uganda.

Until a few years ago, Bidi Bidi was an empty tract of land in northern Uganda, occupied only by a few scattered villages, whose people eked out a meagre living in the swathes of inhospitable bush. Bidi Bidi is now home to 240,000 refugees from South Sudan who fled that country’s bitter civil war, at the height of which up to 6000 crossed into Uganda every day. Bidi Bidi is now a sizeable city, administered by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

HYT assistant country manager Ed Brett and long-serving operations manager Philip Yiga.

Led by Assistant Country Manager and Old Haileyburian, Ed Brett, HYT working with international NGO, Mercy Corps and its Mercy Corps BRIDGE project, successfully trained 26 refugees and Ugandans in building, constructing a large meeting space and two kiosks for trades people in Bidi Bidi‘s Zone 3. The camp is so huge, it is divided into Zones, each a small town, with up to 50,000 inhabitants. During the Bidibidi project HYT trained 26 youths in all aspects of construction.

The first day of training for our Bidi Bidi cohort!

The project began last May, when HYT recruited 26 youths (20 refugee and six Ugandan) who then had four months of intensive construction training, led by HYT’s outstanding training managers, with a special focus on HYT’s innovative, environmentally friendly building technology, the Interlocking Stabilised Soil Block (ISSB),

HYT’s innovative building technology, the Interlocking Stabilsed Soil Block in action

An important aspect of working in refugee areas is to include the Ugandan host community as well as the refugees themselves, so benefits are equally shared in what is one of the world’s poorest countries. Another consideration was gender balance. Like in the UK, the construction industry in Uganda is male dominated and so HYT was pleased to have 10 female trainees on this project.

10 female trainees completed the four months of training.

In September, after four months of hard work, the trainees celebrated their graduation. The commitment and skill of both trainees and staff can be seen in the quality of the buildings, which were met with approval and appreciation from UNHCR and the Office of the Prime Minister. Most importantly, the refugee community itself was thrilled to have these new facilities in which to meet and trade.

All HYT’s blocks were produced and cured on site.

The environmentally-friendly approach to building was also greeted with increased respect. Before the project started, there was some doubt that a compressed earth block, one that wasn’t fired in the local way, would be strong enough. Lab testing proved that HYT’s blocks are both durable and strong, as well as being a sustainable method of building.

Compressive strength tests measure the maximum load a material can bear before fracturing. HYT’s blocks were on average 43% stronger than the minimum requirement.

The project saved the equivalent of 19.1 tons of firewood or more than four mature trees.

This two-roomed ISSB kiosk is home to small businesses providing goods and services to communities in the heart of Bidi Bidi refugee settlement.
Graduation day!

Following HYT’s successful project in Zone 3, Mercy Corps invited HYT to construct another meeting centre in Bidibidi’s Zone 4. HYT’s first project in one of the world’s largest refugee settlements was an outstanding achievement and paved the way for more life changing work to come.

In our next piece, we will tell the remarkable story of Cisco, one of the stand out trainees from Bidi Bidi and a refugee determined to make the most of his new found skills.


Keep up-to-date with HYT’s work by following us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Winners of the Ashden International Award for Sustainable Buildings 2017.

Watch our exciting video, or check out our work at