Bridges to Prosperity Making Big Infrastructure Play in Rwanda
By Richard Massey
Rwanda. For many, that one word is synonymous with civil war and genocide, and reminds them of the news snippets of human misery that flashed across American TV screens back in the 1990s. But that was over two decades ago. And since the end of the genocide, in 1994, the small, landlocked east African country has climbed the charts of economic development while plunging down the index of governmental corruption. Rwanda, emerging from ruin to embrace trade, is now considered a beacon of hope, even if many of its people still live in poverty.
Enter Avery Bang and Bridges to Prosperity, also known as B2P. The Denver-based nonprofit recently inked a memorandum of understanding with the Rwandan government for a five-year, $28 million program for 355 footbridges that will serve an estimated 1.1 million people, or nine percent of the population. Rwanda is putting in $12 million, B2P will provide $5 million through a capital campaign, and the rest will come from the non-profit’s foundational support as well as its industry partners like Balfour Beatty, Bechtel, Kiewit, and Parsons.
The deal was under negotiation for over a year, and to date represents the nonprofit’s biggest agreement. While Bang, B2P’s president and CEO, has a BA in Studio Art and a BS in Civil Engineering from the University of Iowa, and an MSc in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of Colorado, it might have been her MBA from the Säid Business School at Oxford that was the deciding factor in the Rwanda deal.
“This is as much a financial problem as it is a technical problem,” Bang said, referring to the fact that in Rwanda, the real innovation was in the multi-pronged funding package. Having great technical people is one thing, but having the money, and knowing where to spend it, is another.
In terms of complexity, the list of stakeholders speaks for itself. The Ministry of Infrastructure, the Ministry of Local Government, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, the Local Administrative Entities Development Agency, and the Rwanda Transportation Development Agency, are all involved. On the B2P side, key negotiators included COO Christina Barstow, Rwanda Program Director Hannis Whittam, and Partnership Development Advisor Jean Ntazinda.
B2P’s big play takes place as Rwanda has emerged as a can-do country under the long-term presidency of Paul Kagame, who was re-elected in 2017 to another seven-year term. Kagame’s growth strategies, forged in the wreckage of a war he himself helped to end, have been heralded by the international press. Last year, Forbes Africa reported that the “Made in Rwanda” campaign, launched in 2016, has reduced Rwanda’s trade deficit by as much 36 percent and increased the value of exports by as much as 69 percent, from about $558 million to $943 million.
The same Forbes Africa piece cites the World Bank’s 2018 Ease of Doing Business Report, which puts Rwanda 29th globally. For context, France, Poland, Portugal, Czech Republic, and The Netherlands were ranked 32 through 36, Somalia was ranked last, and New Zealand and Singapore claimed spots one and two, respectively. In terms of the Corruption Perceptions Index, Rwanda is considered one of the least corrupt nations on the African continent.
While Bang’s team and its partners will handle the boots-on-the-ground building of the footbridges, Bang will focus her efforts on the non-profit’s $5 million capital campaign, an essential element in the funding model. It’s a serious challenge, but there’s plenty of upside if all goes well.
“If we can prove it in Rwanda, we believe other countries are going to take notice,” Bang said, referencing Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.
Even if the fundamentals of the financing have evolved, the mission of B2P has remained the same – serving isolated communities and giving them enhanced access to education, healthcare, and markets. A typical footbridge can cost as much as $90,000 and take eight weeks to build. According to B2P data, the expense and effort are warranted. A single span in an isolated community can increase income by 30 percent and increase school attendance by 12 percent.
While footbridges might not generate breathless international headlines, as they relate to the context of the areas in which they are built, they are monuments to practicality.
“It’s a waste of resources thinking of infrastructure for vehicles,” Bang said. “You need to reach [people] at their most basic level. It’s an infrastructure play, but it’s a human thing to do.”
B2P has mapped 1,500 sites in Rwanda, and selected the 355 locations included in the current scaling program due to their suitability for the nonprofit’s standard designs, which have been tailored to be cost-effective and extremely durable in remote areas. The nonprofit’s geographic and operational data sets are housed in an integrated Salesforce database.
During the remote needs assessment phase, pre-existing information is gleaned from sources such as WorldPop, satellite imagery, and records created by governments and NGOs. B2P has also developed a machine-assisted bridge identification tool that can point evaluators to where a footbridge might need to be built. B2P has constructed over 300 bridges in more than 20 countries.
Operational field assessments are carried out on the ground with the use of tablets and TaroWorks. Those in the field, of course, also rely on local officials and the practical knowledge they have. In Rwanda, where B2P has operated since 2012, local knowledge was crucial for a program of such scale. For the most part built for the benefit of subsistence farmers, the footbridges serve their highest purpose when they link people to markets, healthcare, education, and even houses of worship.
Looking ahead, the nonprofit wants to create a fully automated evaluation process for remote assessments. Even with the tech innovations underway, the “why” of B2P is basic: Where do people need to go and what are their barriers?
Bang says she feels safe walking the streets of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, a city of hills situated over 5,000 feet above sea level, just like her home city of Denver. The weather is temperate year-round, and every morning a hazy fog hangs over the middle of the city, which makes for spectacular sunrises. She enjoys the international food scene – especially Indian – and appreciates the hotels and facilities, some of the best on the continent. From Kigali, visitors can venture out to B2P sites, or take a trip to see the gorillas.
Something good is going on in Kigali and Rwanda, and B2P is playing its part.
“We’re there and we’re on it,” Bang said.
Richard Massey is managing editor of Zweig Group publications. He can be reached at email@example.com.