Kit Wolverson, senior bridges engineer at Mott MacDonald, shares her experience helping build the Nyabihunyira Trailbridge in Rwanda.
The work of B2P – and the benefits it brings – remains the same as when it was first started.
Over 20 years ago, Kenneth Franz saw a picture of people crossing a broken bridge over the river Nile in Ethiopia.
Franz brought together his Rotary club in the United States, travelled to Ethiopia and built an alternative bridge to provide continuous safe access, forming B2P in the process.
An American non-governmental organisation, B2P envisions a world where poverty caused by rural isolation no longer exists.
In 2022, I was fortunate enough to be part of the Mott MacDonald-Balfour Beatty (MMBB) partnership with B2P to build the Nyabihunyira Trailbridge in western Rwanda.
Joining the team
I was selected to be part of the fourth MMBB Bridges to Prosperity team two years earlier alongside 10 others.
Our team had a mix of engineering, project management and quantity surveying backgrounds.
I was the communications lead but also became involved in construction to ensure my background in bridges was used.
Our planned start on site was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, so we used that time to bond with our UK team, “Team Gogo” remotely and learn the Rwandan language of Kinyarwanda.
In February 2022, our bridge construction was confirmed, and it was all systems go.
Providing safe crossing all year round
We were set to construct the 78m long suspended Nyabihunyira Trailbridge over the Rubiyro River.
This bridge would connect six communities, with a total population of over 10,500 people, providing crucial safe access to local healthcare, markets for employment and education.
The previous bridge was low-lying and impassable during Rwanda’s two rainy seasons.
The dangers of using the existing bridge were highlighted by one person losing their life and two people being seriously injured when attempting to cross the river in 2021.
One of the local community team members, Obed, also sadly lost his father to the river 10 years ago.
Bringing in fresh ideas
While the bridge design, optioneering and groundworks were undertaken by B2P, our team was able to raise awareness, fundraise and optimise the existing methodology.
Through careful consideration of working at height, we adapted a launch method first established by MMBB colleagues in 2017.
This method suited our bridge span and topography as our swingers (beams and suspenders) were winched from one side of the valley to the other, removing around one and a half days of working at height.
This also meant that manual handling on either side of the river was reduced.
Our first day was not without its challenges due to the rocky, undulating, slippery terrain – as we know, travelling to site can often be the most unpredictable element of site visits.
We were greeted by the locals and got started on our bridge build in earnest.
The bridge building process
The bridge build was such a rewarding process.
Apart from our UK team, we had four members from B2P and 20 members of the local community.
As we reached the final push to finish the bridge, the team grew to 45 people, with additional members hired from the community to ensure we met our bridge inauguration date.
We faced some challenges with the weather, including two-hour rainstorms and the location of our bridge being rural, in a valley and around a 90 minute commute from where we were staying meant that our programme was tight.
As part of our communication strategy, we wrote daily blog updates on construction progress and life in Rwanda.
How the bridge build has helped the community
The Nyabihunyira Trailbridge provides continual safe access for over 10,500 people to healthcare, education and employment.
Indeed, it also provided employment for local people during the bridge build.
It upskilled the local workforce in areas like masonry and concreting, alongside the health and safety knowledge that we shared.
Ten members of the local community were voted to become the bridge committee and are now guardians of the bridge.
They were trained to maintain the bridge in future years, continuing the legacy and future impact of the bridge for many years to come.
When the bridge opened on 27 May 2022, we shared in the community’s relief and joy.
Providing access to vital services
Every year, B2P produce an annual report that looks at the average impact of bridges built in the previous year.
These demonstrate the importance of what we might see as simple footbridges, for they connect communities to vital services while removing the need to risk their lives to undertake daily tasks.
Statistics from the 2022 Bridges to Prosperity report highlighted that new trailbridges led to:
- 32% more health facility visits
- 22% more student attendance
- 200% increase in academic attendance for girls
- 30% increase in overall household income with access to markets to sell wares and farm goods
“Bridges are an effective development tool but have the power to expand the reach of other development interventions...” says B2P. This is known as the multiplier effect.
Applying what I learned
Upon returning to the UK, I was back to working on HS2, undertaking a different type of bridge design.
I threw myself into showcasing our experience and raising awareness.
I spoke at the ICE and Institution of Royal Engineers annual joint lecture on Engineering in Extreme Environments, where I presented the challenges that we faced, parallels to UK projects and B2P’s incredible work.
I also presented our experience at Mott MacDonald and took part in Instagram takeovers and podcasts with the SheBuilds collective.
The B2P experience has heightened my awareness of putting people at the heart of our projects, considering the end user as a person or community, rather than just a statistic.
I became an engineer because I had a desire to solve people's problems.
The work that our team undertook alongside B2P did just that by directly solving the problem of a dangerous river crossing.
Murakoze (thank you) for allowing me to showcase this experience and the impact of B2P.