They’re called Hero Rats.
Can rats help clear Africa’s landmines? Landmines – brutal and indiscriminate weapons – are depressingly common in the developing world. Can the highly developed sense of smell of rats help to clear this scourge?
In this episode of Helping Social Entrepreneurs, Alvin Hall is advising Apopo, the social enterprise behind this remarkable idea, how to secure their financial future.
We travel to Mozambique where we visit the largest remaining mine field in the country. There, Apopo are drawing on the rats’ remarkable sense of smell and are training them to sniff out the TNT in mines.
We already had filmed them being trained in Tanzania and now it was time to see them at work in Mozambique.
One of the biggest hindrances to development in rural Mozambique is tghe presence, or even just the suspected presence, of a mine.
This was the legacy of Mozambique’s brutal civil war, which lasted more than 15 years, led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and left an estimated three million unexploded mines.
Apopo is the brainchild of Bart Weetjens, a Flemish rodent enthusiast, who realised that many African communities are too dependent on foreign expertise to tackle many of the ordinary activities essential for their development, let alone clearing mines. He believed he could train indigenous people to use a local resource, well suited for the job – African Pouched Rats. Like Pavlov’s dogs, the rats are conditioned to associate a stimulus with food – only it is the smell of TNT. rather than the sound of a bell.
When we visited Bart and his team in Tanzania, where the rats are trained, it was all very light-hearted and fun. The large, yet surprisingly cute rats climbed all over the camera crew. Now in Mozambique, the rats’ nickname – Hero Rats – suddenly began to feel more appropriate and serious.
CHEAPER THAN DOGS
We all had to don protective clothing. Heavy and incredibly hot, it offered some protection but probably would not have saved us from deadly fragmentation mines.
Rats, according to Apopo, are much faster than men using metal detectors and are not distracted by metal contaminants.
They are much cheaper to maintain than dogs and are easily passed between different handlers.
NEW INCOME NEEDED:
So from a business and economic point of view, the rats seem to make sense. Apopo provides a service paid for by a customer, usually a donor government or UN agency, so it is a business relationship.
However the whole process is costly and time-consuming, the money available usually only covers costs, so there are no profits to be had. This means that demining is never likely to be a commercially viable business.
Up to now, Apopo has relied on research and development grants. The problem ironically is that now the rats are a proven technology, these grants may begin to dry up.
New sustainable sources of income are needed.
This is where our financial expert and presenter, Alvin Hall, had some advice to offer. Apopo raises some funds through their website and its Hero Rat campaign. Members of the public and companies can pay to sponsor and name a rat.
Alvin was keen for them to maximise these opportunities, not least by increasing the minimum payment.
And he advised them to try to establish a large endowment fund, which wealthy individuals, corporations or trusts could pay into, to give Apopo a secure source of income.
But Bart’s big hope for the future is to train the rats for a host of other detection applications, from finding smuggled drugs to medical screening. Apopo is already running trails in Tanzania using the rats to detect tuberculosis in the saliva of sick patients.
The rats can process as many samples in a matter of minutes as a lab technician can in a day. The rats have even detected TB in samples that had been missed by conventional means.
Apopo hope to become a centre of excellence for the training and development of rodent detectors, leasing out their handlers and animals as needed and training different communities to use their own indigenous rodent species for their own detection needs.