Chapel time


Impromptu praise and worship on site at the Amazima School project last year

(Posted by Laurence)

It’s been fascinating to see how ‘chapel’ on site has evolved in the two years I have been here with EMI. When I arrived, chapel at one of the ongoing projects consisted of a half-hour talk from one the site management, followed sometimes by questions from workers; last year at the Amazima School, a small group of workers started leading impromptu praise and worship songs before each chapel session; somewhere along the way this developed into an expected part of ‘chapel time’, with traditional drums making a regular appearance; also at Amazima we trialed the Alpha course with positive results, and Richard (the EMI foreman working with me) has been keen to use it again at Cherish Uganda.

So now ‘chapel’ on my current project site starts with praise and worship led by our cooks, followed by a short talk from the Alpha programme, then discussion groups. Here’s a clip of the praise and worship…




Amazima update: chapel roof


(Posted by Laurence)

I have fully relinquished management of the Amazima School project to Matt, one of my fellow EMI project managers, but of course I’m still taking an interest in progress on site! Matt sent me a photo update this weekend showing the roof installation under way — the design team and I put a lot of time into working with the steel contractor over the last few months, and seeing the trusses now fabricated and quite literally dropping into place is really satisfying.

EMI: a day in the life

Mason at work

What do I spend my days on site doing? Not playing with angle grinders, sadly…

(Posted by Laurence)

A typical day for me looks something like this…

07:30  I arrive on site, drop my bag in the site office, and join the crew to pray before they start work; then it’s back to my office to reply to any emails that came in the evening before.

08:00  By now the site is up and running for the day so I take a walk around to check progress and chat to the foremen (Richard and Yusuf) and their assistant foremen who, while they aren’t EMI staff, are experienced workers who often join our projects.

09:00  I review the project accounting spreadsheet and make any adjustments to the forecasted costs, and if it’s near the end of the month I will prepare a monthly report for our partner ministry; we make a lot of payments in cash, so keeping on top of accounting is key, and I am ably supported in this by Cossy – our Construction Management Administrator.

10:00  It’s time for the workers’ morning porridge break, although I decline my cup… in the meantime I am on the phone to the sub-contractor who is supplying steel trusses – their latest fabrication drawings need some technical feedback.

11:00  Back to finance again – our ability to estimate the cost of projects relies on up to date information, so I collate some recent prices and send them to our Quantity Surveyor in the main office.

12:00  One of our suppliers has dropped by the site office to deliver an invoice, so I chat to him for a bit and check that he is happy with our payment system.

13:00  I join the workers on site for lunch – a carb and a sauce – my favourite is mashed matooke (plantain) with groundnut sauce!

Site office

Our rather luxurious site office (in a storeroom).

14:00  Once work is underway after lunch, I call my two foremen into an informal meeting in the site office to discuss the tasks they have planned for the next few days.

15:00  I head out around site again, stopping to discuss a design detail with one of the foremen; back in the office I send an email to the Project Architect to seek clarification on this aspect of the design.

16:00  The foremen have prepared their material purchasing requirements for the next week, so I check how much cash we have on hand and put in a request to our partner ministry for more funds.

17:00  I’m off! As with most jobs these days, several emails have come in just as I get up to leave, but they will have to wait until tomorrow…

Construction insights

(Posted by Laurence)

The recent visit of my father-in-law, and his questions about the construction site, made me realise some construction methods that I am already seeing as ‘normal’ might be worthy of comment for the benefit of UK readers, so here is a little insight into some aspects of construction in Uganda.


To date, we have exclusively used manual labour for the excavation of foundations; that is, one metre deep trenches in a varying quality of soil.  There are two main reasons for this: job creation, and quality control.  First, our ethos at EMI means that we would rather pay twenty workers for a week, than one digger operator for a day; this isn’t a black-and-white argument, and opinions vary, but that is where I stand for now.  Second, I am wary of using machinery with operators of unknown skill; I have seen before how quickly excavations can go wrong due to an operator’s lack of skill or misunderstanding, resulting in wasted time or extra cost.

There are, however, some situations where machinery is the only option: mass grading for example.  We need to move thousands of cubic metres of soil to create level benches for the two classroom blocks, which means cutting away the hillside in some areas and filling and compacting in others.  To do this by hand, while technically possible, would take far too long and in my opinion would be too mammoth a task to comprehend.  So for mass grading we have hired a contractor who turned up with bulldozers, graders and rollers and reshaped a hillside in a week.

You may be wondering what the cost implications of these choices are, and it depends a lot on the scale of the work of course.  For the foundation excavations we have been doing it works out as comparable or cheaper to use manual labour, even more so if you consider the risk of having machinery on site for longer than planned.


Next up, concrete: our method here is not so unusual, but might seem so to the casual observer (we used a similar approach in the Royal Engineers).  All our concrete is prepared on site using a 350 litre mixer in a central location; from there it is carted in wheelbarrows and poured, before being rammed into place and settled using a mechanical poker vibrator (yes, that is a technical term!).

Our biggest single pour so far has been for the chapel floor slab.  The floor will be finished by grinding the exposed concrete, and so we were anxious to avoid cold joints; to that end we cast the slab in two pours, each of 25 cubic metres (see photo above, right).  Once poured, the concrete was floated using a bull float (think of a metal paddle on the end of a long pole), which continued late into the night to achieve the smoothest possible finish.

For the real construction boffins out there, you will be interested to know that we have been doing cubes tests on our concrete (a service provided in Jinja by the Uganda Ministry of Works).

So there you have it.  Comments? Questions? (which I may or may not be able to answer!)

D is for Discipleship

(Posted by Laurence)

Engineering Ministries International has three core values: design, discipleship and diversity (affectionately called ‘the 3 Ds’) and these interplay every day at EMI, both in the office in Kajjansi and on our construction sites.  Discipleship takes two forms within EMI: spiritual and professional.  Professional discipleship most often appears as informal training of casual labourers, spearheaded by EMI foremen but also enacted by experienced workers who pass on their skills.  At other times we might run more formal training (on site safety for example), or instill a certain ethos through our site policy and management style.  EMI doesn’t dictate this to me, and likewise when it comes to spiritual discipleship I am given a relatively free rein.

EMI site routine includes group prayer at the start of the day (led by the foreman) and a weekly ‘chapel’.  Involvement in both of these is optional for our workers – they can sit elsewhere on site if they please, and still be paid for their time – but generally all are present.

When I was thinking over our approach for chapel on this project, I was keen to involve the workers as much as possible, and avoid just a weekly sermon.  We aren’t a church; our workers come and go from projects, and although we can disciple them through our management of the crew I think that any lasting spiritual development will come from their own thought and initiative.  To that end, Yusuf and I are trying out Alpha, a course started in the UK but now used worldwide that explores the basics of the Christian faith through short talks and discussions.

I was dubious about how the discussion part would go down – based on my experience of awkward silences in groups of mature adults in the UK – but I was put to shame!  After my introductory talk last week (theme: truth) the discussion points, questions and counter-questions came thick and fast, and before we knew it we had filled forty-five minutes just discussing “Can more than one religion be true?” and “Is it OK to switch religions when it suits you better?”.  I was amazed by how engaged the crew seemed to be, and how thoughtful their responses.  Maybe I’m doing my countrymen a disservice, but I’m not sure British labourers would engage so quickly in theological discussion.  The reason for that, I think, is that the average person here is much more spiritually aware than in the UK; I haven’t questioned each worker but I know that we have a mixture of Christians and Muslims in our crew (and possibly other belief systems), who might have varying levels of adherence to their religion but at least have some awareness of a spiritual realm rather than the outright denial often found in the UK.

Finally, I was overawed to see how easily Christians and Muslims can not only work side by side but also discuss their religious beliefs.  I know that many Brits of both religions would do the same, but it just seemed to come so naturally to these men and women.  Jane and I were musing as to whether this good relationship between religious groups could also breed apathy to personal faith… I don’t want to make that claim, because I don’t know, but I do hope that our weekly discussions on site over the next two months will lead to people analysing their assumptions about faith and finding new personal beliefs that are based on clear thought and understanding, rather than just tradition and culture – regardless of what those beliefs turn out to be.

Breaking ground


(Posted by Laurence)

Two weeks ago the first pickaxe bit into the soil on the site of the Amazima School chapel, and since then I have had a growing sense of satisfaction and contentment as construction has bounded ahead.  Prior to breaking ground Yusuf, the project foreman, had conducted two weeks of site preparation: erecting around 400 metres of timber and corrugated iron hoarding (no quick-assemble hoarding here); building a ‘temporary’ pit latrine to provide for up to 100 workers for the length of the project (no porta-loos here); and starting to induct new workers into ‘the EMI way’.

Forming an EMI construction crew

In the planning stages of this project I had asked one of our foremen how we would find workers at the start of the project, and he said “They will come!”.  I was slightly dubious – my approach to project planning would involve having a list of workers before the first day of construction – but I knew this was one of those areas where my western approach wouldn’t work, and lo and behold on the day Yusuf and I turned up at 7:30am to kick off the project we found 40-odd prospective labourers waiting outside the school gates.  The effectiveness of word-of-mouth advertising and the keenness of these men and women to take on relatively low-paid manual labour was impressive, but it also demonstrates the lack of employment opportunities in Uganda.  We only took on 25 workers that day, and told the rest to come back in a few weeks time as work starts to ramp up.

Below is a snapshot of the crew we have had on site over the last couple of weeks – it fluctuates depending on the work available, but the principals remain the same.  I think in organisational pyramids and line diagrams (due mainly to my military background), and so that is how I present the crew.

pmMy role as a project manager here feels very familiar, because as a Royal Engineers Troop Commander I had around 30 soldiers under my command, and I mixed planning and strategy with on-the-ground leadership.  So while I lack some of the mainstream construction experience that my peers have, such as managing multi-million dollar projects with large contractor firms, it’s great to see how God prepared me so well for this role even while I was working in the military, which is in many ways a polar opposite to the NGO sector.


The typical make-up of an EMI-managed construction crew

foremanThe man who is really in the driving seat is Yusuf.  He has worked on EMI projects in some manner since 2008, starting as a casual labourer while studying for his diploma in construction and working his way up into the Foreman position.  One of EMI’s core values is Diversity, and it’s great seeing how Yusuf and I bring different skills and experience to the project from our differing professional and cultural backgrounds.

new-piktochart_20609067_f47a27886364660b0ea0315afe82661ec852f000Still to join my crew is Cossy, another EMI staff member, who’s role (Construction Management Administrator) encompasses project accounting and materials procurement.  This is an essential role, ensuring value for money and transparent accounting for our partner ministries, and I am feeling the extra workload in Cossy’s absence and looking forward to his arrival in a week or so.

emi-skilledYusuf’s right-hand man at the moment is Edison, an experienced mason who has been a casual labourer on EMI projects for some time, and just finished one of our projects over near Kampala.  Our remaining experienced workers are a mixture of people known from previous projects and others who are new to EMI projects and are undergoing a trial period while Yusuf confirms their ability – this week we had a self-proclaimed mason who didn’t know the difference between feet and inches.

emi-unskilledThe remainder of the crew are generally referred to as ‘unskilled’ or ‘helpers’, and have joined our crew from the local area.  This is where EMI strives to have an impact beyond the site boundaries: providing employment, skills training, and a gospel message.  And somewhere among these workers could be future EMI foremen!


Yusuf (EMI Foreman) checking foundation levels

Early days… challenges and successes

The most unique, or new, management situation I have encountered in these early stages is the nature of employment for our casual workers.  First of all there is the sheer volume of people looking for work, and then there is the fact that if we shut down site for a day because I misjudged the scheduling of tasks and there is no work while the concrete cures… then 30 people don’t get paid that day [this happened on Monday].  I’m sure similar employment situations exist in the west and I just haven’t encountered it – but the scale of it here is different.

Other than that, the main issues so far are site safety, security, and weather – this could be the UK!  But so far Yusuf and I are keeping on top of these areas: we have provided each worker with helmet, overalls and gumboots, and so far they are being worn consistently; our site fencing gives us good separation from the staff and children on the operational area of the school site; and although we have had several night-time storms, we are currently steaming ahead with concrete footings before rainy seasons sets in for real… although it is always a matter for debate as to when rainy season really starts!

More insights on these topics in the future: especially site safety, as that is something that I am very conscious of and opinionated about.

The Amazima School video tour

(Posted by Laurence)

Just released by Amazima Ministries, this video gives a great perspective of the school site near Jinja that I will be starting work on shortly.

Everything you see in the video was built over the past 17 months during Phase 1 of the project, with EMI acting as an owner’s rep giving oversight to a general contractor.

For Phase 2, starting soon, I will be the Project Manager with an EMI foreman running a crew of local labourers and tradesmen, with the occasional sub-contractor.  This is a fundamentally different approach to using a general contractor, as it allows us to manage a crew directly and instil the work ethos and quality standards that we desire. We will be building the school chapel and two classroom blocks: if you pause the video at 48 seconds in, you can see a bare piece of ground to the right of the Administration Block where the chapel will be built; the two classroom blocks will be on the hill behind the Administration Block.

Project planning (part 1)

(Posted by Laurence)

I currently have two upcoming projects on my plate: Phase 2 of the Amazima School in Jinja (commencing March 2017), and the Cherish High School in Rakai (slated for August 2017).  I want to share some thoughts I’ve had recently as I plan for these projects: this post will deal with the Amazima School, and I’ll write about the Cherish High School next week.

EMI have been involved in the Amazima School for several years now, from conceptual design through to supervision of a general contractor during the first phase of construction.  I have already introduced Amazima in a previous post, and I have shared some photos from Phase 1.  Due to challenges experienced while working with a general contractor, Amazima have asked EMI to self-perform the next phase of construction: this means an EMI project manager and foreman will manage the construction, using locally employed casual labourers and sub-contractors.  I will be the project manager initially, as Matt (our other field project manager) will still be tied up with another project.  Once Matt is available I will hand the Amazima School over to him, and move to Rakai to start a new project (more on that next time).

A dormitory from Phase 1 nearing completion.

A dormitory from Phase 1 nearing completion.

Some of the challenges and opportunities I anticipate for the this phase of the Amazima School project:

  • Design scope.  We will be building a chapel

    Wooden doors: an example of an aesthetic feature, not detailed in the designs, which must be matched with Phase 1.

    and two classrooms; the classrooms will be similar in design to some of the completed Phase 1 buildings, which will make it easier to visualise some of the design details and finishes.  The challenge will be if the general contractor in Phase 1 has made alterations from the original designs; these will have been tracked, but not necessarily reflected in the separate designs for the Phase 2 buildings.  My natural inclination will be to build purely to the designs I have been given, but I will need to be alert to the fact that Amazima will want their buildings to be uniform, and these two factors may contradict each other.

  • Cost.  The EMI Construction Management (CM) team have some good tools and practices that aid project budgeting and accounting, but often a project is tracked as a whole.  Both the owner’s rep and I are keen to track the cost of each building during Phase 2 separately, which means that I will need to track exactly where materials are being used on site.  For example, if we buy 100 bags of cements I need to know how many went to each building, which may be under construction simultaneously.  This will require an organised store manager and some disciplined working practices on site.
  • Quality.  I have full confidence that work done by labourers under the supervision of our Ugandan staff foremen will be up to scratch, but the buildings include some sizeable steel trusses that will be subcontracted to a Kampala-based firm (yet to be chosen).  We have had issues in the past with poor quality steel fabrication, and so this is a key focus for this project.  The challenge starts now, as Carey (my line manager) and I prepare a bid package to issue to potential contractors, and will continue through fabrication and installation of the structural steel.  We need to ensure we make our expectations clear from the start, and hold the subcontractors to account.


    The chapel design, featuring curved steel trusses.

  • Personnel development.  This project presents an ideal opportunity to develop the leadership and site management capacity of some of our CM team.  For the first few months we will have two staff foremen on site, along with one or two up-and-coming assistant foremen (casual workers, but with an existing relationship with EMI).  My hope is to place our senior foreman in overall supervision of the site, with our second foreman and assistants responsible for individual buildings.  When I move projects in the summer the senior foreman will move with me, requiring a shift of responsibilities for those remaining.  The challenge will be growing individuals’ management skills, and transitioning between lead foreman, without affecting project success.


The Amazima School – aerial photos

(Posted by Laurence)

Following on from my post about the Amazima School project, here are some amazing photos that Amazima took recently.  These really show the site in a way that I couldn’t capture from the ground with my compact digital camera, and give a good idea of the scale of the site and the progress being made.

The buildings under construction here are just the first phase of the project (you might remember that the school will eventually accommodate 800 pupils).

These photos also show how green and lush Uganda is at this time of year!

The Amazima School

(Posted by Laurence)

This is perhaps not a typical eMi project (if there is such a thing), but I went on a site visit to the Amazima School last week and so it seems as good a project as any to start with.  As far as I am aware this is the largest (and hence atypical) project eMi has helped manage: a 70 acre greenfield site that is being turned into an 800 pupil secondary school.  I happened to visit this site in September (during my two week trip to Uganda), and at the time the contractor was just breaking ground, i.e. plant machinery was removing vegetation and building foundations were being marked out.  Six months on the site is a hive of activity, and orange-brown brick dormitories and classrooms are sprouting up on a fertile green hillside.

Amazima Ministries

I won’t do justice to Amazima Ministries, but I will try and give a brief introduction.  In 2007, 18-year-old Katie Davies from the USA came to Uganda on a short-term trip to volunteer at an orphanage.  Sure, plenty of 18-year-olds do something similar.  But what was different about Katie was that she ended up moving her life to Uganda and starting a sponsorship program to fund the schooling of orphans and vulnerable children.  Not only that; to date she fosters 14 Ugandan children.  Aided by support for her autobiographical book, Kisses from Katie, she founded Amazima Ministries which has programmes dealing with education, nutrition, agriculture, womens’ livelihoods and medical outreach.

I don’t know all the details of Amazima’s work, and I haven’t read Katie’s book, but regardless I would challenge anyone to say that isn’t an amazing and inspirational story.

eMi’s role in the project

04 eMi staff

eMi staff at the Amazima site (L-R): John (eMi EA director), Yusuf (Clerk of Works) and Jeff (Project Engineer)

Back to the bricks-and-mortar… Amazima were wanting to build a secondary school near Jinja, and eMi were able to partner with them to produce detailed designs and construction drawings.  For the construction phase, due to the size of the project, Amazima have hired a Ugandan construction firm called Pearl Engineering Company and eMi are acting in an advisory role.  Yusuf, one of our Ugandan staff, is on site permanently as a Clerk of Works, and Jeff (Project Engineer) makes weekly visits to oversee the technical design details.

An alternative CM model

It’s great that eMi can be involved in a project of this size, and the work that our design team has done has been invaluable for Amazima and definitely needs follow up by the CM team to ensure that the construction drawings are correctly interpreted and turned into an acceptable build quality, but there are potential drawbacks to this method of CM involvement.  I had a good chat with Yusuf on site, and we talked about the fact that when a general contractor is involved it is much harder to coach tradesmen and instil higher standards.  At the end of the day Pearl Engineering can do what they want with their workers, and they don’t answer to eMi.  The alternative (and commonly used) CM model is what eMi calls ‘self performed’, which means eMi directly manages the project and employs labourers to work on site.  The advantage of this is that the eMi CM team can set standards for quality, safety and management, and influence the future site foremen and project managers of Uganda.  This is where I hope to find myself in due course.

05 Site dog

Every Ugandan construction site needs a dog!