How a network of bridges is connecting 1.7mn isolated people
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Ken Frantz was flipping through a copy of National Geographic Magazine while waiting for his car to be serviced, in 2001, when he came upon a feature about a rafting expedition on Ethiopia’s Blue Nile. It wasn’t the story that entranced him so much as an accompanying photograph of locals traversing the partially collapsed Sebara Dildiy (“broken”) bridge. One man, dangling precariously from a frayed rope, was being pulled across the abyss. This was part of the daily commute.
Frantz, who owned a construction company in Virginia, was determined to repair the bridge. This was no small feat, especially for an outsider, as he had to get the support of both the village elders and government officials. He also had to find the right company to design the new section of bridge; the only way to transport construction materials was via donkey; and locals would have to help with the labour. But within a year, foot and cattle traffic was safely making its way across a section of river that was previously impassable.
Its success, now more than 20 years ago, was the spur for Bridges to Prosperity, a US- and Africa-based charitable organisation dedicated to building bridges to improve lives in rural communities. Its goal? To end poverty caused by rural isolation. To date, the organisation has built more than 480 trail bridges in 21 countries, connecting 1.7 million formerly isolated people to the resources they need. Most are completed within 12 weeks, using local labour and materials contributed by the host country’s government, at an approximate cost of $100,000 each. On average, each bridge pays for itself within two years. This year, the organisation hopes to complete eight bridges in Uganda and 35 in Rwanda, with a three- year plan to build 150 in Ethiopia.
Bridges to Prosperity is now led by Kenya-based CEO Nivi Sharma (Frantz remains on the board of directors). A 2016 document produced by the World Bank found that approximately one billion people worldwide – one in seven – are rurally isolated, meaning they live more than 2km from an all-season road. Bridges to Prosperity used this information, plus other inputs including population density and topographical studies, to determine that a river or gorge was blocking about a quarter of this number from accessing those roads, and that an overwhelming number of those live in sub-Saharan Africa.
“One study found that [after building a bridge there was] a 75 per cent increase in farm profits and a 30 per cent increase in household income; other evaluations in the sector suggested a 60 per cent rise in women’s literacy and employment income, a 22 per cent increase in school attendance in general, and a 200 per cent increase in attendance among girls,” notes Sharma, adding, “We can, literally, bridge [people] out of poverty.”
“The impact is huge,” agrees Imena Munyampenda, director general of the Rwanda Transport Development Agency, which first partnered with Bridges to Prosperity in 2019. The “land of a thousand hills” has 82 per cent of its population living in rural areas. “If it took one hour to cross a river, with a bridge, it takes 15 minutes maximum.”
The bridges are standardised cable-suspended designs with steel decking, modified from plans by Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation, which are not complicated to build or maintain. Sharma jokes that in terms of infrastructure, the trail bridge plans were akin to “telling a fancy restaurant to put a cheese sandwich on its menu”. Which is good, because Rwanda alone needs 1,500 of them and, Sharma maintains, it isn’t the job of Bridges to Prosperity, or philanthropy in general, to build all of them. “We want to pivot from being the builders of infrastructure to being the enablers. We want to support, assist and influence these bridges to get built, but infrastructure should be built by the government and by the private sector. That’s the most sustainable way to roll this out at scale, and solve the problem at scale.” Within our lifetimes, no less.
With its success, the organisation has become a magnet for countries seeking help with infrastructure concerns. It has conducted needs assessments in Tanzania and Zambia and is in discussions with the government of Malawi to explore solutions for trail bridges and larger rural frameworks. There is also a corporate programme where companies involved in architecture, engineering and civil planning can send 10 employees for a two-week stint to help complete a bridge and share best practices.
“This day was going to come,” says Sharma. “We’ve been horribly studious for the past 20 years. We’ve put our heads down and looked at the data, the evidence, the engineering. Now it’s time to let the learning leave the building.”
Four more organisations harnessing the power of architecture
Engineers Without Borders
For two decades, this network of engineers, with chapters in two dozen countries around the world, has provided services to support communities in meeting their basic needs. This ranges from building footbridges to installing solar panels and digging for water, in partnerships between the communities served and volunteers. ewb-international.org, ewb-usa.org
Habitat for Humanity
The 47-year-old global non-profit housing organisation has helped more than 46 million people in around 70 countries to build their own homes, aided by volunteers. The company, based in Georgia, USA, announced a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to support 15 million people living in “informal settlements” to gain access to decent housing by 2028. habitat.org
Archive: Architecture for Health works with communities to fight preventable disease through improved housing design (such as mosquito-proof housing in Namibia to decrease malaria). This year it joined forces with the International Society for Urban Health (ISUH) and continues to partner with local groups to build cost-effective and scalable improvements. archiveglobal.org
Architectes de l’Urgence
Emergency Architects focuses on re-establishing infrastructure (hospitals, schools, water supply, roads) in post-disaster situations, from damage assessment and emergency assistance to reconstruction and development. Founded in 2001, the organisation now has branches in France, Canada and Switzerland, with more than 125 programmes in 41 countries. archi-urgent.com
A randomised control trial found [after building a bridge there was] a 75 per cent increase in farm profits, 60 per cent in women’s literacy and employment income, 30 per cent increase in household income, a 22 per cent increase in school attendance in general and a 200 per cent increase in attendance among girls,” notes Sharma, adding, “We can, literally, bridge [people] out of poverty.”