Building bridges for a better future

Lee Franck and Nicolas Wohlwend are One Young World Ambassadors from Luxembourg and Liechtenstein respectively. They both work at global engineering and manufacturing firms and met at the One Young World Summit 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa. They initiated bottom-up social responsibility schemes in their organisations that allowed them to use their engineering skills to make a difference to low-income communities around the world.

The new Calabase foot bridge

It’s 2pm in Calabase village, Panama, and we are surrounded by a cheerful villagers all eager to take their first walk over the newly completed Calabase footbridge as part of the opening ceremony. Although this is a low-tech piece of infrastructure, the bridge will have a significant positive impact on the previously isolated village by creating a safe crossing point between the primary school and village center on one side and houses and fields on the other side - even in the rainy season when water levels rise.

This project is about much more than constructing a bridge. By sharing knowledge and building up local engineering skills, these projects can have a much broader and more sustainable impact on local communities. We worked hand-in-hand with local residents and masons, passing on our construction skills and safety standards, while at the same time learning from their craftsmanship. We also gave a lecture to 3rd year Civil Engineering students at the local technological university about bridge design and the Calabase project. They were then invited for an afternoon of bridge building activities on site, in the hope that it would encourage and inspire them to use their engineering skills to shape a better future for their community and region.

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How it all began ...

So how did this bridge get here? And how did two young people from Luxembourg and Liechtenstein find themselves in the middle of this project?

The story begins at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg in 2013, where the two of us met at the opening ceremony of the One Young World Summit. Since all flag bearers were grouped according to the first letter of the country they represented, we were waiting in line next to one another and started chatting. Reflecting back on that moment, Nicolas recalls: “Lee had just come back from building a suspension bridge with the NGO Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) in Rwanda and told me about the amazing experience she just had. She had been able to utilise her skills as a young engineer to support and empower a community by building a bridge, so that they could gain safe access to schools, hospitals and markets. I became instantly excited about projects such as this one and how Hilti, the company that I work for, would be a perfect partner for any future initiatives. After successfully pitching and securing support to build a bridge from Hilti’s board - a partnership between firms Bridges 2 Prosperity, Hilti and Arup was born."

The partnership is unique in several ways as all members are able to bring something unique and complementary to the team. Arup contributed its design skills and technical guidance on site to the project - and Hilti provided a full set of construction tools, financial support, as well as sending six staff members to volunteer with the Arup engineers. Most importantly, the project was driven from the bottom-up in both organisations as a direct result of One Young World delegates meeting at the 2013 Summit in Johannesburg.

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The challenges

Once the full team arrived on site, we faced some interesting challenges straight from day one: The excavation for one of the bridge foundations hit impenetrable rock and required a complete redesign on site, which led to an initial two days delay in the programme of our ten days on site. On day four, after a very rainy and stormy night, we discovered that the provisional construction bridge had been destroyed by the water currents and left us with no access to the other side of the bank. Also, without powerful machinery such as excavators or cranes, basic construction tasks often became an almost insurmountable physical challenge. Unrolling a two-ton cable spool or mixing and pouring 5m3 of concrete became a day-long, combined team effort, which left us exhausted. But there was immense personal satisfaction once the bridge had been completed.

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Partnerships create success

Although the Calabase footbridge will only benefit a small community of 30 to 40 people, most of those are young children who won't have to endure isolation and long walks. We had experienced the isolation for a short period of time ourselves after the heavy storm and it was hard to believe that this was something they had to endure. After seeing Kari, one of the young girls in the village, swimming across the river on her return from school, holding her books up high over her head to keep them dry, the impact of the project truly dawned on us. According to Kari, she often had to skip school during the rainy season when the river got too high to cross. Thankfully, this will not be the case anymore.

The building of the Calabase footbridge has been a life-changing experience for all of us. The numerous unexpected challenges on site pushed us all to the limit of our physical and mental capacities, but the relationships we made with the local community, and seeing the bridge's impact, made it a truly rewarding experience. Building on the unique network of One Young World and B2P’s vision, we hope that more young enthusiasts such will get involved. We also hope to see more major companies bringing big changes to small communities.