The following is a conversation between Christophe Cox, President and CEO of APOPO, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: APOPO is a global nonprofit that trains African giant pouched rats, nicknamed HeroRATS, to detect landmines or tuberculosis using their extraordinary sense of smell. APOPO’s scent detection technology has a massive potential to relieve human suffering, not just in these two areas but potentially in other unexplored fields as well.
Christophe: Thank you very much for having me, Denver. I’m glad to be here.
Denver: Being a co-founder, you were there right at the start. How did you come to this, discovering that these rats had this extraordinary ability that could be used in a life-saving fashion?
Christophe: Well, in fact, it was my colleague and the founder of APOPO, Bart Weetjens, who was a schoolmate of mine… We both studied product design… who came up with the idea of using rats for landmine detection. I think Bart was very interested in the landmine problem. As designer, he was looking at the personnel and this kind of stuff, but at the same time, he had the passion for rodents and when he analyzed the problem of landmines, he quickly found out that finding the landmines is the big bottleneck, right?
And we looked at what’s on the market. And we looked at analogies, and of course there are dogs… and then we came across some rodent research which had been done for detection. Of course, rodents and rats are one of the most described animals in the scientific literature. So, that was kind of the start of it.
Denver: Talking about the challenge of landmines, what is it exactly? How many do we estimate there are? In what countries are there? Are they replaced? How many people are either killed or maimed annually by landmines?
Christophe: At the moment we have about 59 countries, which are still suffering from a landmine problem. The total amount is a guess, but there must be still over 60 million landmines in the world, and we’ve got about 5,000 incidents per year. Now, 5,000 accidents might sound low compared to other perils, but it is an obstruction for any development.
You have internally displaced people. You have a few accidents, it is enough to kind of terrorize a whole village. People are afraid when their kids go outside. Imagine, you live in those rural areas. Many kids here in these areas and kids go playing outside. It’s really the fear of landmines which is terrible for the local communities.
Denver: So, absent these rats, Christophe… What are the current methods of the demining?
Christophe: Well, the most common method is the use of metal detectors, and that is still the gold standard. Of course, we also work with metal detectors. Once the rat has indicated a land mine, we will use a metal detector to verify it. Now, the problem with metal detectors is a lot of false positive indications– up to a thousand percent– because often there have been explosions on those mine fields. So all those thousands of particles of metal, each time you have to imagine… it’s a beep, the guy has to follow procedure. You go backwards. Find that piece of metal. Put it in a pot. Check again. Okay. Now he can go forward again. So, that method is quite slow and especially; it depends, a person can do from five, maybe to 80 square meters per day. Other areas for example, have a lot of tree roots and things like that so it also doesn’t make it easier.
Besides that, they are the mechanical methods, the heavy machines. But of course they can’t reach everywhere. They’re good to be used in some areas, but not so good in others. There are even drones now, but the drone community claims a lot, but unless it’s a beach, I don’t think they’re gonna really get rid of a lot of landmines.
And then of course we have the dogs which have been used longer than rats. In fact, we had also started training dogs some years ago. And in fact, for a new technology, technical survey dogs– the dogs which cover big areas. And then you have some ground penetrating radars which are used in some circumstances.
But in general, we use the toolbox, and we use what is best, for every typical minefield has its own characteristics.
Denver: And thinking about dogs, I always suspect that, number one, they’re probably pretty expensive. And number two, they might even be heavy enough to set off a landmine themselves. Correct?
Christophe: Exactly. They are expensive… You’re absolutely right, and they are trained to sit once they smell the explosives. So unlike rats, they are not allowed to scratch. Rats are so light, they can scratch on the surface. They can be on top of the mine, but the dog is not allowed to do that.
Denver: All these things sound so expensive, and it does seem, at least from the way I follow this, is that donor interest in this issue has probably waned a little bit. So you really do have to find an inexpensive alternative. Has donor interest dropped some over the last couple decades?
Christophe: Well, I think the US government has been increasing its contributions again this year. The US government is the biggest donor worldwide for the mining by far. But of course, now on the Ottawa Treaty, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. So every country has its own deadline by which it should clear its own landmines, and that is quite well monitored.
So, if current donor funding remains what it is, we hope to have the mines… the global, let’s say in the next decade. But of course there is pressure for more cost effective methods, and our rats and also our technical survey dogs, they lend themselves well to reduce the price because they are fast and cheap.
Denver: And I guess that’s their biggest advantage. What are the advantages and the other advantages of using these African giant pouched rats to detect mines?
Christophe: Well, first of all, of course, the rats are trained on explosives. So, they will not indicate every piece of metal. That really speeds up the work. And then they are cheap animals. They’re easily trainable. They like doing very repetitive tasks. They are also… how would I say… less complicated than a dog. Maybe less intelligent because if you are a trainer, and you make a mistake with the dog, you take time to correct it. While a rat is a bit more mechanical. It doesn’t attach so much to the handler and all of that.
So basically, it’s easier to build a large staff capacity for training rats than to build a big team of good dog trainers, and of course, we also save a lot in transport, especially now since the Corona crisis, the prices of transporting dogs have really gone through the roof. It’s really ridiculous. You’re talking about $10,000 or more for tickets and the rats, of course… we’re going to send a bunch of 20 more rats to Cambodia in the coming month, and that will be much, much less.
“We will start on a table, but then we go to a bigger field, and then we’ll put those tea eggs on a real outside field where there are birds and insects and grass. And then we start burying them, and then they will become real mines; then they have to do more.”
Denver: Christophe, how do you train them?
Christophe: Well, we train them using positive reinforcement, using a click. It’s an old method developed in the seventies to train dolphins. So, first of all, we start with the breeding. We breed the rat indoors, and then after 10 weeks, they’re taken away from the mom for socialization…It takes a few weeks to socialize them. Then we make them get used to different sounds and environments and people and put them in the truck, and on top of the car, on top of the radio and the grass so that they’re not afraid later. Maybe start clicker training that goes like click… banana, click… banana, click… banana. So they quickly associate now to click sound with the banana.
The next step is that I have to do something before they can hear the click sound. So, they will have to approach a sample. Typically we use the stainless steel tea eggs, which you use to put tea in your cup, and this can have some explosive smell inside TNT. So the plan is to test to approach this target, and then this click reward.
The next step is that we put several targets, some without TNT and some with TNT. That is now the phase of the order discrimination, and that could take a month before they do that very well and consistently. And then we make it always more difficult. We will start on a table, but then we go to a bigger field, and then we’ll put those tea eggs on a real outside field where there are birds and insects and grass. And then we start burying them, and then they will become real mines; then they have to do more.
And let’s say after 10 months, we accredit them according to the international mine action standards. So, they have to find a certain amount of mines in 400 square meters. We often do 800 square meters here, and then they’re eternally accredited. Then they are ready in fact for export. Like when we send, for example, to Cambodia. When they arrive there, the national authority will accredit them again. So they first have some weeks to get used to the local climate and also to the local mine types. Then they are accredited again by the National Authority, and then they qualify as full mine detectors and can start their work on the field.
Denver: Like trying to get a PhD. I mean, they have to go through an awful lot. What do they eat other than bananas?
Christophe: Well, during the week, we give them standard lab food pellets. And during the work, we give them mashed bananas which are mixed with those food pellets. During the work, we have to give them the mash bananas because it’s a soft food. These are pouched rats. They like putting food in their pouches. So if you give them hard food during the job, they will be filling up their pouch. You steal their food, and then they have to put it somewhere so it disrupts the activities. But then on Friday, we call it food cheat Friday… Friday afternoon, which is like, now this time here at the office, all our rats are now given as much food as they can eat, and that is fresh fruits – avocados, apples, bananas, pineapples, dried fish, peanuts, maize. And that is taken away on Sunday afternoon so that on Monday they can start a week again motivated to work for food.
Denver: Sounds like my pattern. I go to town on the weekend. I like that a lot. How many years will a rat work at this? I mean, are they good for 3, 5, 8? How many years are they usually working in the fields?
Christophe: Well, that was also the reason for selecting this type of African giant pouched rat because they live up to eight years. Like, we recently had Magawa who was much in the media… He worked very long. He was one of those examples. But on average, we say five years. It takes about a year to train, and eight years is of course among those who live very long. But, that’s really one of the advantages of these rats because the normal small rodents, they only live two to three years.
“They’re checked by microscopy or PCR, but a lot of positive samples are missed in the hospitals. So, on a daily basis here in Tanzania, we would check a few hundred samples, and some come in as positive on which we can reward the rat. They are put in a rectangular cage… like under 10 sniffing holes are 10 on a line. We have 10 bars like that. So one session is a hundred samples. They do that in about 15 minutes, and we pick out about 40% more positives than the hospitals. And these are patients which are basically sent home saying “You are negative,” and they will continue infecting other people because you have to know: One TB patient on average infects about 10 to 15 people per year.”
Denver: The other thing that we mentioned at the very top was tuberculosis. Tell us a little bit about tuberculosis in terms of what it is and how it’s currently detected, and the great advantages that the rats are bringing in their ability to detect it.
Christophe: Well, tuberculosis has been, up to COVID, the biggest infectious killer in the world, killing about 1.5 million people per year. And in fact, it is difficult to understand that there’s not more global attention on tuberculosis because it’s so comparable with COVID. It’s kind of slow-Covid, as they say. And the treatment for tuberculosis is a lot of antibiotics for half a year. So it’s really… you need to eat so many tablets. It’s really terrible. And it affects mostly the poor people in the world where people stay together in dark spaces, cramped areas. And typically, this is detected now by microscopy or PCR tests. Now, the microscopy has been not changing for the last, since ‘80, ‘84, when Dr. Koch identified tuberculosis.
And the PCR is also introduced now, with the gene expert here in Africa. It is more sensitive when compared to the microscopy, but then it’s also very slow and rather expensive. So for us, APOPO here, for example, in Tanzania, we work with 78 hospitals, and we have small motorbikes going to those hospitals every day, collecting all the samples they tested, and these are sputum samples, which you cough up.
They’re checked by microscopy or PCR, but a lot of positive samples are missed in the hospitals. So, on a daily basis here in Tanzania, we would check a few hundred samples. And some come in as positive on which we can reward the rat. They are put in a rectangular cage, like under 10 sniffing holes are like 10 on a line. We have 10 bars like that. So one session is a hundred samples. They do that in about 15 minutes, and we pick out about 40% more positives than the hospital. And these are patients which are basically sent home saying “You are negative,” and they will continue infecting other people because you have to know: One TB patient on average infects about 10 to 15 people per year.
So as I said, it’s like a slow spreading COVID almost in the same way of transmission. And COVID had a big impact on TB of course, because people didn’t dare to go to the hospital.
“So rats, as I told you, in 15 minutes, they can screen about a hundred samples, and a lab technician by comparison, he will do 25 samples per day. So one rat does in 15 minutes what a lab technician could do in four days. It’s not perfect but we can really help, and we have already identified tens of thousands of people which were missed by the conventional system and then detected by the rats.”
Denver: Yeah, absolutely.
Christophe: Some of this coughing, you know, with the diagnostic capabilities here. Even sometimes, we have a project in Ethiopia– the people who tested negative for COVID, they were told to go home, but they could have had TB. So, the COVID crisis has really set the fight against TB back for more than 10 years. And every year, you have to know, there are 10 million people getting TB, getting infected. They don’t die. One and a half million die, but 3 million of those 10 million are not diagnosed.
So rats, as I told you, in 15 minutes, they can screen about a hundred samples, and a lab technician by comparison, he will do 25 samples per day. So one rat does in 15 minutes what a lab technician could do in four days. It’s not perfect, but we can really help, and we have already identified tens of thousands of people which were missed by the conventional system and then detected by the rats.
Denver: That is really amazing. So these rats are truly a mass screening tool. They’re fast. They’re inexpensive. Let me ask you about the personality of the rats as you’re beginning to engage them initially. I mean, do you find that some might be better out in the fields with the landmines and maybe the shyer ones, let’s say, better in the lab with the TB?
Christophe: Well, that’s a good question. And those are things which we are researching together with the students of the university lab at the moment. And I’m sure there are differences in characteristics of course. It is not so outspoken, as for example with dogs, where you have all those different breeds and a much more broad spectrum of personalities.
So I’m sure we have, and we had rats which were a bit afraid in the field and which would function inside and which have been retrained to do TB. But at the moment, of course, over the years we learn, and at the moment our attrition rate is very low. More than 95% of the animals we train, they succeed.
Denver: Pretty good. You’re a social entrepreneur. Knowing what you know now, Christophe, is there anything you would’ve done differently when you first started out?
Christophe: Well, that’s a tough one. Yeah. One thing I’d probably have done differently in the first years when we started– we were so much focused on training the rats, but we should have been more focused on training the trainers. That is of course, what we are doing now and why our results have also really improved.
And, in these first experimental stages, we started the trial and error of course because there was nothing like it. And then of course there’s also getting into the market. It has taken a very long time, for example, for the demining community to accept this technology, and now it’s looked upon as much more common. Of course, we would have done some things differently, but if you asked me exactly what, it’s difficult to say. Of course, especially in terms of technology. It’s pure trial and error, and both Bart and myself, we were designers so we love building all kinds of prototypes to train the rats like this and like this and like this and we could almost open a museum of all the training equipment.
Denver: Picking up on that. Christophe, do you have an approach to innovation, a philosophy, a method that you follow to have these continual breakthroughs?
Christophe: Oh yes. And in the school of product design, it’s a design process, and its innovation is one of our core values as well. And, we are constantly innovating on all levels.
So we are now also developing new technology. We’re always looking for new applications for the rats, and one of them is for example, search and rescue application which is very exciting because we are developing a backpack for the rat, a high tech backpack with a miniature camera and location technology so that the rat could go underground, in cavities after an earthquake, where dogs can’t reach or no other technology can reach, and then we can train them to find the people. And we’ll be getting all the images and the location where the rat is. So that’s very interesting and that could have a number of other applications, of course. We are constantly looking into new ways of using the rats because there are so many demands out there. We get a lot of demands also. Hey, can your rats do this and that?
Of course we have to analyze all those demands very well because we can’t do everything. But at the moment we are looking into new diseases as well. We are looking to see if the rats can detect smuggled wildlife products which are often smuggled from this part of the world to Southeast Asia. And, yeah, various other applications.
Denver: Let me ask you about leadership. How has the nature of leadership changed? And how have you adapted your leadership style to what has occurred across the world over the course of the last two years– because there are certainly new expectations of NGO leaders now than there were before?
Christophe: Well, I think our organization has been, maybe, has been a bit ahead of this new wave. We have always worked a lot with the people, and our concept, our managers are spread all over the world. In fact, our head office in Belgium has only one person. The rest of our management is in the field working with the people.
Well, in our structure of APOPO, I think I see many organizations have moved to a lot of home working and this sort of stuff, but we have always been spread out, and we have always been doing that because our management is working… 95% of our management is working in the areas with the people, with the beneficiaries, with the stakeholders, with the partners. As I told you, our head office in Belgium has only one person, in fact, and the rest of the managers spread all over the world. So these virtual meetings, these kinds of things, we were doing already; and distance work we were doing already long before the COVID crisis. And I prefer our decentralized model compared to the typical NGO which would have a big head office in Europe and send out money to the partners to do various implementations.
While here, we work with the people; we learn together; we develop new technology, and that’s really rewarding. Like for example, Tanzania, this moment, they’re really proud that this technology from Tanzania is developed here, and it’s national ownership.
Denver: Let me close with this, Christophe. Having worked with these rats for 25 years, what have you learned from them, whether managing them or observing how they behave, are there any takeaways that you’ve been able to get from that?
Christophe: Well, working so long with animals, well, you realize that us as human beings, we always position ourselves superior towards the animal, towards the animal kingdom. And, myself, I have transformed. I’ve even begun loving animals more. I’ve even become vegan in the process, and it’s amazing what these animals, but also other animals… the more you know about animals and nature, the more interesting it gets.
Denver: Yeah. Certainly a dose of humility for all of us when we work with animals that closely. You realize we ain’t all that much different. For listeners who want to learn more about APOPO or financially support this wonderful work, tell us about your website and what they can expect to find on it.
Christophe: Well, our website is called, you can find it at www.apopo.org.
Christophe: The best way to support us is : Adopt a rat, and if you do so, you’ll get an update on your rat every month and update stories from the field, how the rat is creating impact, and how the project is creating impact with the local communities.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, thank you, Christophe, for being here today. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Christophe: Thank you so much. Thank you so much.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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