Frantz’s solution was to build a lightweight steel truss to straddle the open span between the arches. He financed the trip largely with his own savings and spent six months organizing the transport of 25,000 pounds of gear — 250 mule-loads — for the eight-hour trek into the gorge. After 10 days of construction, villagers were finally able to safely and quickly cross the river.

But Frantz learned a valuable lesson on that initial trip: Dropping in and building a single bridge wasn’t the answer. At that rate, he couldn’t possibly raise enough money or manpower to meet the worldwide need. Instead, he realized, the key was to teach local villagers the skills — both manual and administrative — to continue the work on their own. “When I started, I did not see this as a mission to teach people to build bridges. I saw it as going and building bridges,” he says. “It only took one bridge to learn that lesson.”

Now, through the bridge-building ventures, villagers are taught not only the mechanics of footbridge construction but also how to write a contract, how to work in cooperation with villagers in neighboring communities and how to go to the local government to request funding for materials. These villagers are so well trained, in fact, that some in Ethiopia were even hired by Helvetas, a large Swiss-based charity that has partnered with Bridges to Prosperity and is undertaking a million-dollar, multiyear bridge-building program in the African nation.

Bridges has benefited from other partnerships as well, notably with engineering firms that commit design expertise as well as manpower, such as Parsons Brinckerhoff of New York City and Flatiron Construction of Denver. Various sponsor companies, including Rotary International, have also been vital in funding the organization’s work.

Frantz hopes to be in more than 20 countries by 2020. The goal of his organization, he notes, isn’t just to leave behind footbridges. “If your primary goal is to eliminate extreme poverty — and that’s what we’re truly about — then building a single bridge just isn’t going to get it done,” he says. That’s why Bridges aims to have 200 “local lead engineers” who can continue to independently build bridges in their home countries. Frantz’s goal is to eventually turn the programs over entirely to locals; he touts the importance of self-sufficiency. “They have to want this really bad,” he says.

In order for locals to continue the good work Frantz has started, however, it’s crucial for Bridges to come up with sustainable designs that can be replicated in any environment with readily available materials. Frantz recognizes that in most cases, shipping in a steel truss the way he did with the Sebara Dildiy project is not feasible in terms of time, money or skills. That’s why he and his engineering and construction partners have begun to use more cost-effective methods and regional materials in their recent projects, even looking to historical techniques for ideas to reinvent modern footbridge design. Frantz is set to try new prototypes on projects in Guatemala and Zambia this year. “The only interest we have is whether or not we can do a design that can be replicated elsewhere,” he says.

That’s because Bridges to Prosperity ultimately isn’t just about spanning gorges and floodplains. It’s about uplifting people.

“What you’re doing is you’re doing a heck of a lot more than building a footbridge,” he says. “You’re really building a whole local infrastructure development model that works.”

Stories by longtime American Way contributor Jim Morrison have appeared in Smithsonian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Wildlife and numerous other publications. He’s crossed a few nerve-racking footbridges in countries like Zambia, Mexico and Costa Rica during his travels.