New Funding Model, New Opportunities

Talk about the intersection of engineering and business. Avery Bang, the president & CEO of Bridges to Prosperity, has inked a deal with the Rwandan government to build 355 footbridges in remote areas throughout the country. The $28-million program, expected to last five years, will ultimately benefit as many as 1.1 million people. In a place like Rwanda, where many people live in isolated villages, this counts as an important infrastructure play.

But, as Bang said, the real innovation in the Rwanda deal was the financing package, not the construction of bridges. Bridges to Prosperity, known as B2P, already knows how to cross a river or a gorge. Connecting people and places is what they do. But how do you scale a program from the community level to the national level, and in a country that is not bondable? Be creative and think big. Rwanda will pledge $12 million, B2P will pledge $5 million through a capital campaign, and the remainder will come from the nonprofit’s partners. That’s essentially a 40-60 split, with the 60 side on the shoulders of B2P. While there’s certainly risk involved in a deal like that, the formula allows for lots of opportunity. For an organization that previously built footbridges by the handful, this represents a transformative step forward. If the program in Rwanda proves successful, B2P could use that business model in other countries.

While Bang is rightfully quick to credit her talented and passionate team, she’s the president & CEO, so it goes without saying that her opinion, and her background, are influential in the direction the nonprofit takes. And that’s where things get interesting. Bang has undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, but the real differentiator is her education in business. In 2016, Bang took a sabbatical to complete her MBA at the Säid Business School at Oxford. In England, she served as the managing director for the Oxford Seed Fund, where she worked with other MBAs to oversee deal flow, due diligence, and term negotiation for Oxford-led startups. We’re sure that experience, surrounded by some of the brightest minds in the world, came into full play as she and her team conceived of, and executed, the Rwanda plan.    

According to its 2018 financials, B2P is a $6.3 million operation, up from $2.8 million in 2014, for an increase of 125 percent. For a nonprofit dedicated to helping people access markets, schools, and health clinics, those are astounding numbers. And think about the infrastructure that the nonprofit has built over the years. Kiewit, Parsons, Bechtel, Thornton Tomasetti, Balfour Beatty and Arup, among many others, are listed as partners. With firms like those in your corner, anything is possible, including a 355-bridge program in an east African country like Rwanda. With that said, the support from partners must be earned, and maintained, with ethically achieved results – something B2P can deliver.

As B2P has gone about its business building bridges, it’s also honed its process for identifying where the structures will be built. Rather than rely on a static system, over the years B2P has developed a machine-assisted bridge identification tool used by its evaluators. The nonprofit wants to take this a few clicks further and create a fully automated process for remote assessments. Inside of every good engineering firm beats the heart of innovation, and that can certainly be said of B2P.

The nonprofit’s team and its partners are going to install the bridges in Rwanda. Bang, meanwhile, is going to spearhead the fundraising campaign. Five million is a lot of cash, and there’s a lot on the line. But if you’ve seen her TED Talk, you know Bang can hold the room and make her case. The money, and the bridges it will build, will be there.


Chad Clinehens, P.E., is Zweig Group’s president and CEO. Contact him at cclinehens@zweiggroup.com.

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