Member Peter Robinson has been a practising structural engineer since 2007. Here he discusses a project to build a 60 metre pedestrian footbridge over the Akanyaru River in Rwanda, providing a huge boost to local people and showing the way structural engineering changes lives.

I travelled to Rwanda as part of a team of 10 colleagues from COWI’s London and Copenhagen offices, volunteering for the charity “Bridges to Prosperity”. I got involved after hearing good things about their work and I wanted to see Rwanda and meet the people out there.

Our bridge is a standard design used by Bridges to Prosperity across their projects - incorporating four cables of diameter 1 ¼", anchored in gravity foundations on the river banks. Two cables are used for the walkway and two cables are used for the handrail. Most of the bridge deck is prefabricated to minimise work at height. 

Peter in Rwanda

The site is near a village called Rugerero in the Kivu district. It's not really on the map and is about an hour from any paved roads. The new bridge makes local people safer (replacing a log structure which washed away in the rainy season) and increases their mobility, connecting two villages and allowing people to take their produce to market. It will also mean children can cross to safely attend school.

The village employed 10-15 local men and women, which was brilliant. I hope they gained some useful skills in the process and some pride in the bridge they built.  We took time to involve them in all parts of the construction and for everyone to take a turn at the different tasks.

I enjoy structural engineering because of the people – and this project was no different. It was very special to meet the locals. Our day off coincided with the once-a-month community work day called “Umuganda”. We decided to get involved, so we borrowed tools from the site and joined in. There must have been nearly 100 of us working in a long line to dig over the hillside. I found myself digging next to someone from the army, which was quite surreal as he carried his machine gun throughout - so I was very careful not to hit him with the hoe!

Supervising bridge construction

We completed the bridge in just under two weeks, and it is very special to know the difference it will make to the communities it will serve. Three people from Rusuga died crossing the Akanyaru River in 2016 alone, so the bridge will literally save lives. 

Watch a timelapse video of the bridge under construction.

Learn more about Bridges to Prosperity.


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