Facing a figure that staggering, Frantz has had to be smart with his time and money in order to make the biggest impact he can. While other organizations spend money on consultants and feasibility studies, Frantz prefers to take action, building “demonstration bridges” that cost anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 in an effort to provide incentive for communities to build more.

“Why spend money on feasibility when you get a lot more accurate information by just going in and building a demonstration bridge and in the process start collecting the partners you need?” he asks. “Instead of spending money on consultants, you actually do something that’s a tremendous benefit to the community.”

That’s how Ken Frantz works: He identifies the problem and gets straight to work. In 2001, he was waiting for his pickup truck at a repair shop when he picked up an old copy of National Geographic and saw a picture of the Sebara Dildiy, a 400-year-old stone bridge over the Blue Nile in Ethiopia; its center span was missing.

“It struck me like a lightning bolt,” he says. “This was what I was here for. I was supposed to go fix this bridge.”

Frantz grew up in California and had worked on the Alaska pipeline after graduating from Washington State University with a pre-law degree. He eventually returned to his home state, where he earned a master’s degree in public administration from Golden Gate University and became a residential builder and developer. In 1992, he and his wife moved to Virginia to be closer to her family. When he opened the issue of National Geographic, he was finishing a major development in Gloucester, Va., and had started thinking about what he would do next. Looking at the picture, he knew. It was that bridge, half a world away.

The 230-foot-long bridge had linked the regions of Gonder and Gojjam in the remote northwest corner of Ethiopia until it was intentionally collapsed in 1936 in an effort to prevent Benito Mussolini’s Italian army from invading. With the bridge remaining inoperable nearly 70 years later, villagers who needed to cross the river were forced to make a 93-mile round-trip hike on foot to the next nearest crossing point or take their chances being pulled across the gap by a rope, a method that had at times proved fatal. Those living on the side of the river isolated by the missing span were poorer and had difficulty accessing health care and getting to the market, both of which were located across the river.