Filling Economic Gaps In the World’s Rural Areas: Bridges to Prosperity

Chris Latham
Contributor

Workers in America may not love their daily commutes, especially those who have to pay tolls to drive through gridlock on bridges and tunnels. But for many people in rural areas of under-developed parts of the world, the absence of even pedestrian bridges over impassable rivers prevents them from reaching local markets, earning a decent living, and receiving healthcare and education.

A Denver-based nonprofit, Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), is trying to fill those gaps with the help of individual donors as well as companies that serve as Industry Partners. Since its founding in 2001, B2P has built more than 300 walkable footbridges in 22 countries, connecting nearly 1 million rural people to broader economic resources. Each year dozens of Industry Partners donate more than $1 million and supply hundreds of volunteers working in the field on about 40 B2P projects.

“Engineering and construction companies are a natural fit to partner with us. They understand the importance of well-built transportation infrastructure,” says Bridges to Prosperity Industry Program Director Devin Connell. “Beyond that, companies choose to get involved [as Industry Partners] and send employees into our program countries because it gives back to the company as well. It creates a sense of excitement and pride in employees that can help boost morale, increase recruitment and retainment, and excite junior leadership in a company.”

A study conducted in Nicaragua by researchers at the University of Notre Dame and Yale estimates that constructing footbridges in isolated rural areas leads to a 30% increase in wages, a 75% increase in farmer profitability, and a 59% increase in women entering the labor market. In fact, local women are often major beneficiaries of these projects.

“While a relatively unknown need in the world of international development, we believe rural isolation is one of the root causes of poverty in the communities we work with,” says Connell. “With the total cost of each of our projects hovering around $100,000, and the resulting impact they have on household incomes and farmer profitability, the ROI on pedestrian bridges will be huge.”

SPARK OF INSPIRATION

Semi-retired construction executive Ken Frantz first got the idea for what would become Bridges to Prosperity when he was looking at a photo in National Geographic magazine. The picture showed locals in Ethiopia dangling from ropes in a dangerous attempt to cross a crumbled and broken bridge over the Blue Nile River. B2P’s first project was to replace that bridge.

Now Bridges to Prosperity has more than 90 team members, over half of whom are based internationally. It has garnered recognition in news outlets including CNBC Africa, the Denver Post, and the Chicago Tribune. How has such a small nonprofit team generated such outsize results? A rigorous combination of cross-cultural collaboration, engineering skill, and data analysis.

Before any footbridge is built, B2P’s team communicates with local government officials and community members. Together, these groups help B2P assess the locations where bridges are needed. Then B2P establishes buy-in from these stakeholders, while working with them alongside Industry Partners to provide the proper resources and expertise. This entails finding sturdy raw materials and effective tools that workers can manipulate safely in a short amount of time. Local residents also have been known to help out on bridge construction.

It is essential to train local people in these rural areas on the inspection and maintenance of the footbridges. Likewise, B2P gathers feedback from locals who use each completed footbridge so the nonprofit can make more effective designs in the future as well as quantify its real-world impact for donors. Limiting reliance on subjective interpretations is key for B2P’s goal of achieving objective improvements.

2020 & BEYOND

Over the next decade, B2P plans to scale up its operations to start meeting the global needs of pedestrian infrastructure. According to Connell, the organization will work with governments, communities, corporate partners, and philanthropists to boost funding and interest.

“We are starting off in the right direction by partnering with the government of Rwanda to build out the entire pedestrian cable bridge need in the country – 355 bridges – over the next five years. We hope to then take this model to other countries in the region and around the world.”