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Publication Date: Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Menlo couple wins $50,000 award for building bridges in Nepal Menlo couple wins $50,000 award for building bridges in Nepal (October 22, 2003)

By John Flood
Almanac Staff Writer

David and Haydi Sowerwine of Menlo Park received a $50,000 award for their innovative work installing bridge systems in Nepal.

They received the award at a black-tie gala attended by 1,000 people, including Silicon Valley leaders and delegates from the United Nations. The event was held at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose on October 15.

The Sowerwines, who have lived in Nepal since 1991, spearheaded an effort to plan, fund, and install more than 24 bridge systems since 1996 in rugged and remote areas. The bridges make once-impassable rivers safe for villagers.

The Tech Museum of Innovation Awards, in association with several high-technology companies and organizations, recognizes people, companies or organizations that develop or use technology in creative ways to address global challenges and benefit humanity, say Tech Museum officials.

This year, 25 winners in five categories were chosen from more than 500 nominations representing 70 countries.

The Accenture Economic Development Awards committee, which chooses the innovation awards recipients in the economic development category, recognized the Sowerwines for their work.

"These awards recognize the innovators who use technology to improve people's lives," says Peter Giles, president and chief executive officer of the Tech Museum.

"It was a great feeling to be appreciated and recognized on the basis of merit," says Mr. Sowerwine.

The Sowerwines first traveled to Nepal in 1991 to work with a United States aid agency on an agribusiness project. But Mr. Sowerwine quickly noticed that there were other immediate needs in the country: Villagers kept asking him to help them find a reliable way to cross ravines and rivers.

"During the monsoon, local travel becomes nearly impossible as rain-fed streams cut off supply routes and block heavily used trails," he says.

Children are unable to attend schools and people requiring emergency medical attention often die because of the inability to cross treacherous monsoon-swollen rivers, he says.

So, in 1996 Mr. Sowerwine founded EcoSystems Pvt. Ltd. in Katmandu with the sole aim to provide inexpensive and safe transport options for villagers in rural regions in Nepal, says Mr. Sowerwine.

He and his team developed a bridge system based on a rural transportation system that he saw in Latin America on banana plantations when he worked for Dole/Castle & Cooke, he says.

The system resembles a monorail, says Mr. Sowerwine. It's simple, reliable and based on a cable-and-pulley system.

"For Nepal, we use existing industrial technology that's re-worked for common applications," he says.

Mr. Sowerwine, who holds chemical engineering and MBA degrees from Stanford, designed the components of the bridge system to be easily transported to the installation site.

"Nothing exceeds 230 pounds," he says. This makes it possible for men to carry the components into remote areas without mechanical transportation, he says.

The bridge system is made up of cables, posts and a carriage; components are a snap-to-fit design, says Mr. Sowerwine.

Once the foundations are in place, the components themselves go up in a day or two, say the Sowerwines.

"An entire bridge system can go up in six to eight weeks. We even put one up in two weeks," says Ms. Sowerwine.

The are between 1,500 and 2,000 potential bridge sites in Nepal, according to the couple. "The only thing that holds us back is the funding required from the villages," she says.

The Sowerwines have five grown children, who live in the United States.

"We look forward to their visits in Nepal," says Ms. Sowerwine. "Sometimes we take them on 10-day treks. There are no cell phones, just the time to enjoy each other," she says, adding, "And there's e-mail too. It's a great way to stay connected" with family and friends.

For more information, contact EcoSystems,


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