Bart Weetjens is a Zen Buddhist priest and product designer by training. He founded APOPO with support from Antwerp University and initiated the use of trained giant African pouched rats, so-called HeroRATS, as an alternative landmine detector and as an appropriate tuberculosis screening tool. Bart is also an Ashoka Fellow and a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year Awardee.
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APOPO is a social enterprise that researches, develops and deploys detection technology using rats for de-mining and detecting TB. This technology comes in the unusual form of the African giant pouched rat, a species prevalent throughout sub-Saharan Africa. APOPO trains rats to detect landmines based on vapours emitted by the buried explosives. Since APOPO’s rats are saving human lives, they are called HeroRATs.
HeroRATs indicate the location of a mine or unexploded ordinance by scratching the soil surface on top of the mine, since the rats are too light to set off landmines. After two animals have screened a stretch of suspected area, manual de-miners take over to uncover and neutralize the mines. Two trainers with their rats can cover 400 sq. km in 1.5 hours, whereas manual de-miners take two days to search the same area. Rats are tested and accredited according to International Mine Action Standards before they enter into a suspected area, just like mine detection dogs.
Mine clearance in developing countries is expensive and largely based on foreign expertise and equipment. By employing locally available resources and people, the APOPO model allows for price reduction of 50-75% of the currently accepted US$ 2 per square kilometre. APOPO has been endorsed by 11 governments in the African Great Lakes region, and tasked by the Mozambican government to clear the country’s Gaza province of landmines by 2014.
APOPO is also applying its Detection Rats Technology to the rapid detection of pulmonary TB, another humanitarian challenge where much can be gained from a quick, cheap and effective screening tool. Operational research in Tanzania showed that HeroRATs enhanced case detection rates in eight clinics in Dar es Salaam in 2009 and 2010 consecutively by over 43%. Apart from its humanitarian applications, APOPO is pursuing Detection Rats Technology for more commercially oriented applications, like security and customs screening.