© Helvetas / Meinrad Schade

Our Expertise and Services: Rural Access

© Helvetas / Meinrad Schade

We help local actors develop the rural transport sector to improve access to markets, schools, and health centers. Roads, bridges, and tracks connect people from different places and across rivers and deep valleys. They create opportunities.

Why roads and bridges matter

An estimated one billion people in low-income countries lack access to all-weather roads. Effective rural transport is a crucial driver for sustainable development, connecting people to education, jobs, and health services. Access to rural transport can boost school attendance for young girls, prevent maternal deaths by enabling timely access to health centers, and can connect farmers to new markets - increasing and diversifying their income.

Helvetas: The Strategy for Rural Access

What we do

At Helvetas, we are committed to strengthening the autonomy of local actors in developing their own rural transport sectors by helping establish standards, norms, and policies; building the capacities of local and national governments, communities, and private sector; devising technical school and university curricula; leveraging finances; and promoting innovation. We build on several decades of experience in the sector and a systemic approach. Our accomplishments include developing a sector-wide approach for trail bridges in Nepal, and integrating labor-based road construction in Burkina Faso’s national policy.

Based on the demonstrated impact of trail bridges in Nepal, Helvetas has been promoting the replication of the trail bridge model in 10 countries through South-South Cooperation. Helvetas created the Trail Bridge South-South Cooperation Unit (SSCU) in 2007 to provide access to basic services and expand economic opportunities for rural populations worldwide. Helvetas trail bridge experts based in Nepal generate feasibility studies, develop projects, coach surveys, design and construction of trail bridges, monitor the quality of civil works and steel parts, and prepare trainers in a number of countries. The SSCU implements projects for influential organizations, including the African Development Bank. 

Our impact

Every year, we help about one million people improve their access to markets, schools, hospitals, and other important services by supporting the construction of 500 bridges and 150 km of roads.

Helvetas has been contributing to closing the transport-access gap by promoting safe river crossing through the construction of trail bridges for decades in Nepal. An average of 500 new trail bridges are built here each year. About 8,000 trail bridges have been built throughout the country’s dense river network using Helvetas’ technical assistance and funding from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Almost half of the country’s population – about 14 million people – have benefitted from this improved access, with about 1.4 million people crossing a trail bridge each day. Despite a sustained expansion in the nation’s rural road network, trail bridges remain critical for poor people living in marginalized areas. Their usefulness was again demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many were able to return to rural areas.

The bridges promote safety and save time (on average, a new bridge shortens a roundtrip commute by three hours). The construction of a new trail bridge also increases school attendance by 16%, while leading to a 26% increase in health centre consultations, and an 18% increase in people accessing markets. Bridges often become an economic hub as well. In 20% of cases, new businesses open up near a bridge. The construction of one bridge also injects life into the local economy, providing an estimated 2,600 days of paid labour for a community.

The economic, social and environmental impact of rural roads cannot be understated. In villages in Burkina Faso, our labor-based rural road project has led to increased profit margins in 90% of households courtesy the improved market access, and supplemental income generated through labor-based construction. Monetary gains have enabled local citizens to improve overall health (79%), increase capital (74%) and improve housing conditions (72%).

A Helvetas study showed that in one village, the percentage of pregnant women who travelled to give birth in a health center increased from 57% to 97% as a result of road construction. The timely access to a health center helped these women avoid potential complications from giving birth at home. In terms of the environment, higher water retention levels have led to an increase in roadside land productivity. The water course crossing structures allow for longer periods of animal watering (‘road water harvesting’).

Our vision

Helvetas is committed to working to help achieve Sustainable Development Goals. Connecting people to jobs, education, and health services, while enhancing market connectedness, is a central building block of the 2030 Agenda. Helvetas plans to expand our rural transport initiatives, with a special focus on vulnerable populations by promoting South-South Cooperation. In particular, we advocate for stronger investments in first/last mile access and promote integrated mobility solutions (combining rural roads, trail bridges, and tracks). We continue to encourage learning and innovation and support roads for resilience (such as building social cohesion, enhancing market linkages, optimizing road water harvesting, and ensuring climate-resilience).

To further maximize the impact of our initiatives, we will continue to nurture and develop key partnerships with governments, development actors, academic institutions, donors and private investors. Helvetas, Bridges to Prosperity and other like-minded organizations propose to build a coalition to “end rural isolation” by promoting capacity building and leveraging national government funding for first/last mile access globally.

© Helvetas
Nepal © Helvetas
© Helvetas / Narendra Shrestha
Nepal © Helvetas / Narendra Shrestha
© Helvetas / Christian Bobst
Ethiopia © Helvetas / Christian Bobst
© Helvetas / Pia Zanetti
Ethiopia © Helvetas / Pia Zanetti
© Helvetas / Hanspeter Bundi
South-South Aid, Ethiopia © Helvetas / Hanspeter Bundi
© Helvetas
Road construction, Burkina Faso © Helvetas
© Helvetas / Simon B. Opladen
Completed Road, Burkina Faso © Helvetas / Simon B. Opladen

What we offer

  • 50 years of experience in the trail bridge sector: from designing bridges to developing a sector-wide approach
  • A global trail bridge expert team that provides training, technical assistance and oversees implementation
  • Extensive experience in labor-based rural road construction, including the planning, construction, and maintenance of rural roads, and strengthening governance and building policies

Contact our Team

Our South-South Cooperation Unit provides technical assistance on the construction and maintenance of trail bridges. The team coaches local actors in developing trail bridge sector skills and policies.

Contact our experts for rural access
Programme Development Coordinator
South-South Cooperation Unit
Technical Officer
South-South Cooperation Unit
Technical Officer
South-South Cooperation Unit
Technical Officer
South-South Cooperation Unit
Trail Bridge Expert
South-South Cooperation Unit
Technical Officer
South-South Cooperation Unit
Manager Labour-Intensive Infrastructure Programme
South-South Cooperation Unit

Selected projects

Helvetas supports our partners in effectively organizing projects and assisting key actors, including local authorities to better assume their responsibilities, a key ingredient of sustainability.

Trail Bridges for Safe Routes (Nepal)

Trail bridges in Nepal are a highly successful, long-standing Swiss development intervention. The Trail Bridge Support Unit (TBSU) is an Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) project implemented by the Nepal government with technical support from Helvetas. Bridge construction is now fully integrated into the budgeting and planning processes of local governments (rural or urban municipalities). The formation of local, socially inclusive bridge user groups, introduced through TBSU, has become a standard national procedure for most bridges.

A Road to Change the Life of the Villagers (Burkina Faso)

With the support of Helvetas, rural communities of Burkina Faso plan and build rural infrastructure that allows them to access basic services and develop economic activities.

Suspension Bridges: Lifelines to the World (Ethiopia)

Large parts of Ethiopia are rugged mountainous areas with deep gorges and rivers that swell to dangerous levels in the rainy season. Remote villages are then often cut off from their surroundings for long periods. Helvetas’ suspension bridges are the population’s only weather-proof connection to schools, health centers, and markets.

Developing the Trail Bridge Sector (Burundi)

Based on the findings of a pilot phase that demonstrated the technical feasibility of and demand for trail bridges in Burundi, the African Development Bank and the Burundi government launched a partnership with the Trail Bridge South-South Cooperation unit of Helvetas to coach local actors in developing the trail bridge sector. A second phase is being completed, further building the capacity of Burundian actors in building bridges, while also piloting a bridge maintenance model.

Enhancing Access to Basic Services and Markets (Indonesia)

Based on a request from the Government of Indonesia for technical assistance in the field of trail bridges, Helvetas designed an initiative aiming to ensure year-round connectivity between settlements or farms and the nearest road network to improve access to basic services and economic opportunities. The initiative will include the development of a standardized approach for trail bridges, strengthening capacity, and enhancing sector leadership. Additionally, the project aims at triggering livelihood through enhanced market linkages. Helvetas and the Islamic Development Bank are partnering in this initiative in the form of Triangular Cooperation involving the Government of Indonesia, the Government of Nepal & Helvetas, and IsDB (Reverse Linkage).

© Helvetas / Narendra Shrestha
Nepal Bridges & Roads

Trail Bridges for Safe Routes

© Helvetas
Tajikistan Bridges & Roads

Organic to Markets

Rasht Valley Tajikistan | © Helvetas
Tajikistan Gender and Social Equity

Improved Nutrition and Health for Rural Families

© Helvetas/Simon B.Opladen
Burkina Faso Bridges & Roads

A Road to Change Village Life

Our quarterly newsletter “Highlights”

For development practitioners and anyone interested in our projects and approaches.

Further information

Download and read our publications on different rural access related topics.

Partnerships, alliances and networks

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