It was supposed to be the dry season! But mud from the previous day’s heavy rain sucked the wheels of our bus into deep ruts, so the board members of Bridges to Prosperity, attending the June 28 dedication of the Gasyogogo footbridge between Kinihira and Mwendo sectors in Rwanda, joined the walking world for the last leg of the journey to celebrate the bridge opening with the communities being served.
Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) works to alleviate poverty caused by rural isolation by building footbridges across rivers that flood in the wet season—keeping communities connected to jobs, markets, schools and health care. I’ve been on the board of directors since 2015, and this was the second bridge opening I attended. The previous one, in Bolivia at 11,500 ft, involved a challenging descent down a dirt path with a 700-ft vertical drop—and a breath-gasping climb back out.
In Rwanda, the bridge site across the Kiryango River was close to a sometimes-passable unpaved road that gave us a chance for an “African massage” as our driver called the intensely bumpy ride. B2P CEO Avery Bang talks often about the 1 billion people around the world who live in a walking world—that’s one in seven people who “walk everywhere,” she said. “If you are physically isolated, something as simple as a pedestrian footbridge can be the difference between an education and a healthy lifestyle or simply being left at home.” Safe and secure footbridges also save lives. Like many other sites, the Gasyogogo crossing had experienced a tragedy the year before. A bride and groom crossing an inadequate structure had been swept away, reported B2P Project Engineer Evariste Mushakashatsi.
A B2P corporate industry partnership teamed with the community to build the Gasyogogo bridge that will serve more than 2,500 people. “A number of villages are scattered around the hills here, but the schools, markets and medical centers are all on the other side,” said Simon Frazier, leader for Balfour Beatty members of the build team. The bridge is a 30-m-long standard B2P suspended design with abutments on either side supporting the cables, which go back into anchor blocks. The bridge decking is fabricated on site from Rwandan hardwoods and steel reinforcement. Tim Smith, team leader for the Mott McDonald members, noted that the team added to the side protection on the bridge and customized a method to “launch the deck out and minimize the work-at-height issues.” He adds that the bridge will clear the river by 3 m even at flood stage in the wet season.
The industry team worked with 46 community members, training them on power tools, construction and safety methods. “Ten of them were specifically selected as the bridge committee and were trained about how to maintain the bridge after we’ve left, and they will be getting certificates here today,” said Frazier.
The span at Gasyogogo is one of 49 bridges B2P has built in the country in the past seven years—serving 275,000 people in 15 districts. At that rate it would have taken 22 years to address the country’s footbridge needs, said Hannis Whittam, B2P Rwanda program director. B2P set up meetings with government officials and said, “we think we can do this in 10 years,” Whittam recounts. “They came back and said: ‘How about three?’ We compromised on five.”
The Gasyogogo bridge opening came the same week that B2P launched its national partnership to connect 1.1-million Rwandans by building 355 bridges, implementing a national-level memo of understanding signed in March between B2P and the central government for the scale-up program. “Our government partners ranging from the Ministry of Infrastructure to the Ministry of Finance to the Ministry of Local Planning as well as the Rwanda Transportation Development Authority have come together and said that rural isolation is a root cause of poverty here in Rwanda, and it’s something they are willing to put money, resources and publicity behind,” said Bang. The B2P and government partnership assessed over 1,200 places where people are isolated and pared that down to 355 high-need sites most suitable for B2P bridges (the spans for the others may be too short for a B2P bridge design to be economical).
Financing for the scale-up program will be 40% Rwandan government support, contributions from institutional funders such as Wellspring Philanthropic and a major fund-raising campaign by B2P.
Evidence in Africa
Critical to future efforts is documenting the results achieved when a community receives a bridge. Abbie Noriega, B2P vice president of evaluation, described the Rwanda research pilot under way this summer on 24 sites—12 sites that received bridges and 12 that will receive them later in the scale-up program. The research is independent, conducted by the Mortenson Center for Global Engineering at the University of Colorado, Yale University and the University of Notre Dame. The pilot will evaluate health, education and economic outcomes, building on research that was done on B2B bridges in Nicaragua. “We want to understand how many people are actually affected by the bridge and where they live,” she says. The Nicaragua study was important, demonstrating that household incomes increased by 30% after a community received a bridge. This will be a much larger study and involve many more people—Rwanda is the most densely populated country on the African continent. “And we are investing in Africa, so we need evidence in Africa,” said Noriega. The results will inform a full study and help develop funding strategies, she added.
B2P Board Member Ben Brahinsky said, “Rwanda is our first major scale-up. In a short time, we are having a major impact. It will be a model for us to learn how to scale our program to help large numbers of people in multiple places around the globe.”
I have seen Bridges to Prosperity achieving its dreams year by year. I’m excited to see the next chapter unfold.