Trail Bridge Project Shows Resilience and Triumph in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region

BY: Hunde Tamene - 19. June 2024

It’s well documented that rural access is a challenge in Ethiopia. Out of Ethiopia's population of 110 million, approximately 80% reside in rural areas. Around 57% of this rural population is estimated to live beyond a two-mile radius of any road that is accessible throughout the year. This limited access makes simple tasks like going to the market or attending school arduous – or not possible at all. “With schools situated on one bank of the river, students from the other bank are deprived of education during periods of high water levels," said Melka Belo Woreda, deputy head and project coordinator in the East Hararghe Zone of the Oromia region.

A lack of reliable, year-round access to essential goods and services has also led people to make dangerous crossings—with tragic results. The Melka Muda River in the Guji Zone has claimed approximately 30 lives and 300 livestock over the past two decades.

And even when rural isolation doesn’t end in tragedy, it can still end in heartbreak. A resident from the Kofelchisa river area in the Chole Woreda of Arsi Zone, Oromia region, said, "In the rainy season, the river Kofelchisa—aptly named 'the one that kills with laughter'—becomes impassable. When a community member passes away, we cannot transport the body across the river for burial. Instead, we must temporarily bury the deceased within the village. Once the rains subside, we exhume and relocate the body to its final resting place. This ordeal subjects the bereaved family to grief twice."

As a Helvetas Ethiopia project manager for the Transformative Rural Access for Improved Livelihood (TRAIL) project, I feel that it's essential for leaders to visit project sites. Through these visits they can hear these stories and experience firsthand the challenges rural communities face. Below, I share the learnings and memorable experience of a project site visit in April by the Helvetas Ethiopia team and our many TRAIL collaborators.

The TRAIL project

The TRAIL project is a collaborative effort between Helvetas, Bridges to Prosperity and the government of Ethiopia. The project is funded by a $10 million USD, three-year grant from the The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. It was designed to operate through cost-sharing with the government—particularly regional road bureaus, which finance 80% of bridge construction costs, with Helvetas contributing the remaining 20%. In addition to financial support, Helvetas helps ensure the sustainability of the project by providing capacity building and institutionalization assistance.

Following the project's approval by the Oromia regional government, the government allocated 130 million birr ($2.5 million) for the construction of 28 trail bridges in the fiscal year 2023-24. To date, 27 trail bridges are under construction at various stages.

The construction sites for the bridges are often in remote and challenging locations; reaching these hilly, rocky areas can require a 2–3-hour trek across difficult terrain. Despite these hardships, local communities have no choice but to endure these conditions to access essential goods and services.

«It's essential for leaders to visit project sites. Through these visits they can hear these stories and experience firsthand the challenges rural communities face.»

Hunde Tamene (far right), Project Manager for Helvetas Ethiopia

In April, the Helvetas team and our collaborators set out to conduct a site layout in East Hararghe, Goro Gutu Woreda (district) at the Adami site. The group included Counterpart Engineers (who oversee the construction process) from the Oromia region, an engineer from the woreda, others from woreda administration, a contractor and Helvetas’ staff. This site was inaccessible by vehicle, necessitating a 3.5-kilometer (2.2 mile) descent over a steep, rocky mountain. Heavy rains added to the difficulty of the trek.

Helvetas’ National Coordinator, Tsehay, was part of the group. She wanted to experience the challenge of visiting the site firsthand. Her descent to the site, supported by the local community, was a surprise to us all, given the terrain conditions. But we were concerned about how she would manage the perilous return climb.

Throughout the day, the group sought refuge from the relentless rainstorm, missing lunch, and faced the daunting question: On the way back, who would have the strength to assist others when they were struggling themselves?

As the evening approached and darkness began encroaching around 5:30pm, we had just completed the layout and handover of Adami site. The descent had been challenging; the ascent promised to be even more so. Even for the most fit in the group, the climb would take more than an hour. Concerns mounted for Tsehay's ability to undertake the journey.

In a unanimous decision, we committed to a collective, paced return. Pausing for breathers, we managed to reach the halfway point in 50 minutes. The most arduous part of the climb lay ahead. At the junction, I led a group down one path, while another group that included Tsehay took the gentler, albeit longer route.

My group decided to quickly make our way to the vehicle to reassure those waiting that we were all safe and that the rest of the group was on their way. We reached the car at 6:55 PM. Upon arrival, I was greeted by the sound of villagers calling out to one another in loud voices, reminiscent of the calls made during funerals or times of mourning. Puzzled, I inquired about the commotion. An elder explained that they were mobilizing the community to assist us, particularly the women in the group. The call to action was made in the Afan Oromo language, “nama mootummaa nu jala dadhabe, kootaa gargaraa,” translating roughly to an appeal for help from the villagers because visitors had descended into the valley and were struggling. They even brought a stretcher from the local clinic in case anyone needed carried.

I expressed my gratitude for their readiness to help and assured them that the other group was fine and approaching. Skeptical, they suggested trying to call them. Attempts to reach my colleagues by phone failed due to signal issues. Undeterred, the villagers with the stretcher moved ahead to meet the second team. Moments later, my phone got a signal and a message I was able to confirm everyone's safety. Relief washed over us when the second group arrived at 7:25 PM. The day's trials were over, but the arduous experience would be etched in our memories forever.

The bridge team (including the counterpart engineer, woreda engineer, BUCs and Helvetas staff). Tsehay is in the pink shirt. 
Working on the site layout. 

The villagers' gesture was a profound display of community spirit and solidarity.

This eventful day not only tested our resolve, it also highlighted the spirit of cooperation and community support that underpins the TRAIL project. As we look forward to completing the construction of 28 trail bridges in this year, I reflected on the valuable lessons learned thus far in implementing the TRAIL project in the Oromia region.

Lessons learned in the TRAIL project

1. Be persistent and seize opportunities as they arise

Our journey to secure budgetary commitments and construction contracts for the project required patience and determination. Each time we resolved one issue, another emerged. Initially, the Oromia Roads & Logistics Bureau’s (ORLB) hesitance was particularly trying. When decisions stalled at ORLB, we approached the regional Finance Bureau (whose approval and budget oversight is also required to move forward), starting our explanations from scratch to engage them. Despite the frustration and difficulty of beginning anew, we managed to convince the bureau’s decision makers.

Two months ago, we had nearly completed all preparations, and the ORLB was expected to award contracts to the construction contractors. Then a change in leadership occurred; the deputy head of ORLB, who was spearheading the project, was replaced. This meant we had to start from the beginning with the new deputy head—introducing him to the project, outlining the progress, and presenting all documentation and correspondence. It was challenging, and sometimes our efforts to continue with previous decisions were unsuccessful.

It was during this period that we experienced a stroke of luck—while visiting a fabricator, I encountered the President and Vice of the Oromia region while visiting a fabricator.  Seizing the moment, I approached the high-ranking officials, apologized for the interruption, and requested a few minutes to discuss the TRAIL project. I quickly briefed them on our work, the support we needed, and the potential future impact of our success. After this encounter, the Vice President, who oversees urban and infrastructure cluster (including ORLB), is now actively following up with the road bureau.

2. Social media can serve as a connector

The TRAIL team's management of various social media platforms has been instrumental in effectively spreading information and showcasing progress, thereby fostering a spirit of positive competition among the zones and woredas we’re working in across Ethiopia. Our Telegram group, which has around 400 members—including government officials, consultants, contractors, community leaders, and the Bridge Users Committee (BuC)—serves as a dynamic forum for sharing updates. Posts by the BuC, zone engineers, woreda heads, or engineers highlight progress in each area, inspiring others to follow suit.

The ORLB Facebook page has also consistently reported on trail bridge activities, enhancing program visibility and follower engagement. The positive feedback received is a source of encouragement, spurring us to intensify our efforts.

Traditional media outlets can play a key role, too. The Oromia Broadcasting Network (OBN) has covered the trail bridge initiative and Helvetas' contributions, broadcasting developments during news segments on two separate occasions. This coverage has been instrumental in raising awareness among rural communities and generating demand for the project.

Our experience has underscored that communication is the cornerstone of this project. It enables us to raise awareness, influence decision-makers and lay the groundwork for the project's success and future strategic collaborations.

3.  Institutionalizing trail bridges drives lasting progress

It's been over a year since we constructing the first bridge under the TRAIL initiative. Now we are on the cusp of completing several bridges within the next few months, setting a new benchmark in Ethiopia.

The Oromia Construction Authority (OCA) has equipped its engineers with the skills to review and apply trail bridge designs. To date, they have sanctioned 29 designs following standard approval protocols, demonstrating their capacity to validate both design and cost metrics.

ORLB has delegated six Counterpart Engineers (CE) to oversee the construction process. I have observed these engineers independently conducting and instructing on site layouts and excavation operations. Engineers have been appointed in all zones to monitor construction quality, with each woreda allocating 27 engineers for this purpose.

The program is gaining momentum and attracting considerable attention. The Adola Reddie woreda has even taken the initiative to allocate its own funds and commence work on a 29th bridge.

As we collect these lessons and make adjustments to our plans where necessary, the TRAIL team continues to tirelessly advocate for governmental support and diligently collaborate with our partners to address emerging issues. We look forward to all that we’ll keep accomplishing together to end rural isolation in Ethiopia.

About the Author

Hunde Tamene is a Project Manager for Helvetas Ethiopia. Hunde is a civil engineer from Hawassa, Ethiopia, with more than 16 years of experience in engineering and project management. Since May 2022 he has been leading projects at Helvetas Ethiopia with a dedicated focus on improving rural connectivity to elevate the quality of life for rural communities.

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