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Bart had a personal affection for Africa that had developed as he traveled in Africa as a student. Quitting his job as a product designer in Belgium, he began exploring the pressing issue of landmines in Sub-Saharan Africa. The continent is the most landmine-affected region in the world and these remnants of war not only pose a dire humanitarian challenge but are also significant structural barriers to development. Where mines are buried, whole communities must be displaced, and potentially sustainable land cannot be utilized. Moreover, vulnerable communities remain dependent on imported expertise to address the complex problems of landmine detection and clearance of suspected areas. After thorough analysis, Bart concluded that the methods employed in landmine detection were dangerous, costly, time consuming- and could be markedly improved upon.

The inspiration

While researching this issue, Bart came across an article about gerbils’ ability to detect explosives in a laboratory setting. The article had been published in the 1970’s but he added a fresh twist to the research. He weighed the perspective of subsistence farmers with limited resources as he approached the global landmine problem. Rats were cheap, efficient and could be locally sourced. Bart began experimenting with rats to harness and employ innovative scent technology for application in landmine detection. The Belgian Directorate for International Cooperation (DGIS) provided the initial financial support to develop the concept in 1997. APOPO vzw was registered under Belgian law as a non-profit, and started its first research in early 1998.

The solution

In 2000, Bart and team moved the research operations to Morogoro, Tanzania, where the organization entered a partnership with the Sokoine University of Agriculture to host APOPO’s training and research facility. APOPO established a 24 Ha landmine detection testfield and started with training rats to sniff out TNT in deactivated landmines. Three years later, while the first landmine detection rats were tested under real conditions in Mozambique, APOPO won the World Bank Development Marketplace Global Competition, which provided seed funding for its Tuberculosis (TB) detection research program. APOPO’s very successful TB division is a step towards addressing the millions of TB cases that go undetected and can lead to death, in Africa and throughout the world.

With the help of this effective combination of vision, innovation and technology these rodents, which we call our HeroRATs, help us solve some of the most pressing humanitarian challenges quickly, cost-effectively and accurately.

Her Royal Highness, Princess Astrid of Belgium

Her Royal Highness, Princess Astrid of Belgium

Hearing about APOPO's HeroRats is one thing, but actually witnessing their work firsthand was astonishing. During my visit to Tanzania and Mozambique, I discovered a lot more about the rats from the people who work closely with them every day.

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Discover a multitude of different ways you can support APOPO and the HeroRATs' work in communities affected by landmines and tuberculosis.

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