Giant rats to the rescue

Bart Weetjens, founder of APOPO

At the bottom of the Uluguru mountains in Tanzania, a team of African Giant Pouched Rats are being trained how to sniff out landmines.  If your first thought is, like us, that blowing up rats can’t be right, then panic not. These creatures, fondly known as ‘HeroRATs’, are not being sent on a suicide mission. They just sniff out the explosives and then we humans do the detonation job. Who ever knew rats were that clever?

Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling, or APOPO for short, is Dutch for Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development. Originating in Belgium in 1997, APOPO grew out of research conducted by its founder, Bart Weetjens, who first discovered his love of rodents as a young boy. For his ninth birthday he was given a hamster, which he adored so much that he used to take it to school under his arm. When he discovered how easy they were to breed, he started selling the babies back to the pet shop in return for a nice packet of pocket money.

Sadly, we’re not going to tell you that Bart went on to set up a rodent breeding empire or an international pet store chain. Like so many of us, he was persuaded to take a much more conventional career path. After gaining a first class degree in Product Design, Bart landed a great job designing everything from ski boots to high speed trains. Or at least everyone else thought it was great job. “I didn’t really find my place in society”, Bart explained. Far from being a city slicker, Bart had become a punk rocker with an active interest in Zen Buddhism. His rejection of consumer society made working in product design impossible, so he quit, signed on to receive unemployment benefit and dabbled at being an artist.

So where’s the link with landmines? Well, during this period of drift Bart became captivated by the coverage of Princess Diana and her work on landmine clearance. When he shared his interest in this area with his old professor and student mentor, Mic Billet, he was encouraged to delve into it further. Living off nothing, but with the backing of Mic, Bart embarked on his own research. Focusing on Africa as his subject area, he did an analysis of the severity of the landmine problem and the technologies being deployed to solve it. He discovered that, in general, the techniques were costly, slow and heavily dependent on expertise.

Searching for a new solution, Bart’s breakthrough came when he discovered a paper written by a Jewish American scientist who had trained gerbils to identify explosives for airport security purposes. Bringing together his extensive landmine research with his childhood knowledge of rodents, he had the light bulb moment that would lead to the birth of APOPO. Rats could be trained to sniff out landmines! When he shared his thinking with two friends the general consensus was “That’s a stupid idea, let’s do it!” So they applied for a grant from Belgium’s Development Corporation and to their delight gained a positive response.

With this support APOPO began to take shape and by 2000, five years on from their light bulb moment, they had proven their concept. At this point they decided to move out to Tanzania, keen to be working in the southern hemisphere where the issue of landmine clearance is greatest. Though a range of countries were considered, Tanzania was the most enthusiastic about the project and ticked the boxes in terms of its political stability. Subsequently APOPO was donated a plot of land by the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) in Morogoro and within three years the staff team had grown to 30 people.

APOPO’s landmine clearance solution is fascinating. African Giant Pouched Rats are bred at APOPO’s training centre in Morogoro. At 4–6 weeks of age, they are familiarised with humans and their training begins. Over nine months the rats learn, through a process of positive reinforcement, to identify the presence of TNT (the explosive compound found in landmines). Then, once training is complete, the rats are the flown out to Mozambique to join the team at APOPO’s flagship mine action programme. Tanzania is not a landmine affected country, but Mozambique is. There are estimated to be three million landmines in Mozambique[1] owing to two distinct phases of conflict – the war for independence and the civil war. This makes it the ninth most landmine-affected country in the world. APOPO is one of three demining organisations working in Mozambique, supporting the country to achieve its goal of becoming mine-free by 2014.[2]

Once the rats touch down, they must first pass an official accreditation test with the National Institute of Demining, which is designed according to International Mine Action Standards.[3] Then, once initial ground preparation is complete, the rats are attached to bungee cords and they get to work. When they indicate the presence of a mine, the space around it is marked out and then a manual detonation team moves in.  The reason they don’t get blown up in the process is that is takes at least 5kg of pressure to set off a landmine and the rats only weigh in at 1.5kg (not small for a rat!). APOPO has been operating its own Mine Action Programme in Mozambique since 2006 and, to date, the rats have cleared an incredible 2.8 million square metres of land, uncovering over 1800 landmines and many more small arms and ammunitions.

As total novices to the process of demining, we knew this approach was innovative but we didn’t know why. So we did our research and found out that more conventional demining organisations either send in a team of people with metal detectors or use dogs to sniff out the TNT. Bart, a staunch advocate of environmentally friendly technology, explained to us the beauty of it. “We’re faster, more efficient, less costly and locally sourced”, he said proudly.  In APOPO’s model, rats can cover 100 square metres in 20–30 minutes (this takes human de-miners a full working day). APOPO can clear the land at a cost of $1.50 per square metre (50 cents cheaper than the average of their competitors) and the rats are indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa, whereas often the dogs brought in are not. In addition, APOPO’s rat training technique can be taught to locals, rather than relying on  imported expertise as other organisations do.

Despite being somewhat apprehensive about spending the day alongside giant rats and explosives, Bart was one social entrepreneur we’d been longing to meet. His organisation epitomised the quirky kind of projects we were looking for and in terms of prizes, he’s got the lot. Skoll, Ashoka, Schwab, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum have all recognised Bart’s work, so it’s not just us who think this project ticks all the boxes. Despite these accolades, Bart is tremendously modest. “You put the spotlight on me, but it’s the whole team”, he said to us many times.

Despite living in Tanzania where Buddhism is near-on non-existent, Bart still practices as a Buddhist Monk and encourages the whole team at APOPO to join him in meditation classes. Though he’s married with kids, he follows Buddhism as a way of life and this gives him extra reserves of patience – an essential quality when you work in research. “It was a bit of a challenge at first because the rats just wouldn’t detect these mines out here”, Bart explained. Although these initial problems are now resolved, Bart and his colleagues have been continuously perfecting their rat training techniques through trial and error since they moved out to Tanzania 11 years ago.

Bart is also a big believer in the huge potential of rats, seeing them as capable of advancing humankind in a whole host of ways. Indeed, mine action isn’t the only application of rat technology that APOPO is pursuing. Their second flagship project is the use of rats in the detection of Tuberculosis (TB). In 2005, Bart saw a World Health Organisation (WHO) report that declared tuberculosis an emergency in Africa – a response to data which showed that the annual number of new TB cases in most African countries had more than quadrupled since 1990.[4] According to WHO, an estimated 1.4 million people died from TB in 2010, with the highest number of deaths in the Africa region. The positive news is that the incidence rate is falling across the world but nine countries in Africa, including Tanzania, are considered still ‘high-burden’ by WHO.[5] So, working with his wife Maureen, Bart decided to put the rats to the test again – could they sniff out TB?

It turns out that yes, they can. What’s more, they’re not bad at it. In a process called second-line screening, suspected TB patients provide a sample of saliva which is assessed under the microscope at the hospital and then sent on to APOPO for a second opinion. It takes the rats seven minutes to sniff their way through forty samples (this volume takes lab technicians a whole day) and, to date, the rats have detected over 2300 cases of TB that had been missed by the hospital. Given that on average every TB patient infects 10–15 others in a year[6], this means the rats have prevented at least 20,000 people from contracting TB.

The TB detection programme is still in its research phase and though the results are seriously promising, the funding is proving tough to sustain. In a profession where rats are typically associated with disease, Bart explained to us that “It’s more difficult to persuade the medical community of the benefit of rats.” These are two of the greatest challenges facing APOPO.  When it comes to landmines, fundraising is marginally easier and the rat solution is moving from being seen as alternative to much more mainstream. However, the industry is heavy with commercial competitors and, over the years Bart believes that landmine clearance has fallen down the list of priorities for international aid.

Though Bart is open-minded about exploring the commercial viability behind APOPO’s outputs, he’s a big advocate of the NGO model. When it comes to landmines, he’s convinced that becoming a company would compromise their high humanitarian standards and believes that “The NGO approach is the fairest way.” Whether this hinders their growth remains to the seen. They are currently working on expanding their mine action efforts to the Thailand-Cambodia border, and have plans to take their solution worldwide.

Interestingly, as they grow their efforts, APOPO isn’t planning on protecting their intellectual property. “We create science which is open source and accessible for anyone. As it’s done with public funding, it’s only right to open it up”, Bart shared. Bart is not precious when it comes to sharing power with those inside and out of APOPO. He admitted, that until a couple of years ago, no-one even had job titles (not necessarily a bad thing). Now that they’re beginning to raise their heads above pure research and development, the team is starting to work more strategically and titles have been introduced. Taking a step away from the science, Bart is now focusing his time on the fundraising and business development conundrums which lie ahead for APOPO.

APOPO is one of those organisations where you have to see it to believe it. By the end of our day, we saw rats in a totally different light. Watching them trotting along behind their trainers, they seemed to rather enjoy their job. Given that they only work for 30 minutes every morning, leaving the rest of the day for playtime and sleep, we don’t blame them! Bart believes that by challenging our perceptions of the resources we have around us, we can find answers to every problem on the planet. Given what he’s achieved with animals commonly called vermin, we were left feeling that Bart is probably right.

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Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011