For this week’s Small idea, big impact, I bring you the story of a man who is minimizing land mine-related deaths in Africa by using rats to detect land mines. His story blew my mind (no pun intended), so read on!
When I hear the word “rats,” one word comes to mind: gross! But for Belgian innovator Bart Weetjens, it’s music to his ears — and the key to reducing mine-related deaths in Africa. Bart and his Tanzania-based NGO, Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development (APOPO), train rats to sniff out landmines, a weapon that kills or seriously disables about 12,000 people across 21 countries in Africa a year, 80 percent being innocent civilian women and children.
In the last 50 years, millions of land mines have been planted in Africa from numerous war breakouts and conflicts. Unfortunately, traditional demining tactics — which use dogs, vehicles or metal detectors — are expensive, dangerous and inefficient. Bart discovered that the African giant pouched rat have a keen sense of smell, and are significantly cheaper to train than dogs and will not set off the detectors from their weight. Rats can also survey twice as much ground in a day than a human.
Since 2007, Bart’s 23 accredited teams — many of them staffed by locals — have opened more than 170,000 square meters of minefields. In Mozambique alone, they found 1,800 landmines.
What makes Bart’s project even more exciting is that he is now working on using the same technique with rats to detect tuberculosis in humans, which could ultimately be a huge feat — many people die from this infection because it goes undetected for too long.
So I guess rats aren’t all that gross after all…
Photo credit: Sylvain Piraux/APOPO
Small idea, big impact is a weekly blog series on simple products and innovations that are helping reduce poverty in the world’s poorest places.