Kristen E. Strubberg and Paul K. DiCostanzo had the opportunity to interview Mr. Robin Toal, Online Development Manager for APOPO who are responsible for the incredible HeroRats TGNR reported on last July . In the interview we were introduced to APOPO’s unique HeroRat Valentine’s Day fundraising campaign, as well as future directions of the HeroRats program. We also discussed the greater mission of the HeroRats, and learned about the amazing heroes behind the front lines…
TGNR’s Kristen E. Strubberg: My name is Kristen E. Strubberg, and I’m speaking with Robin Toal representing the amazing APOPO. Welcome! First things first, please tell us about yourself, APOPO, and all about APOPO’s current Valentine’s Day Fundraiser?
APOPO’s Robin Toal: Thank You. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m the Online Development Manager for APOPO. We’re a social enterprise. We are headquartered in Tanzania, and we’re most famous for training giant pouched rats for humanitarian purpose such as landmine removal and tuberculosis detection.
TGNR KS: They’re adorable by the way!
APOPO RT: Yes, they are quite sweet.
APOPO RT: So it’s Valentines. We know there are a lot of things out there. We know most people at this point have gone through a few Valentines themselves; they’ve bought chocolates, they’ve bought flowers and increasingly people are looking for something a bit different, a bit more creative.
Increasingly, especially with younger people, they’re looking for something that contributes to a better world. So that’s why we developed a platform called HeroGifts. It’s a way of people donating to our work where they target specific areas. Whether they want to help us detect land mines, detect tuberculosis, or to just generally support, train, and look after the HeroRats themselves.
So for the Valentine’s one we’ve developed three products:
First is a “Love Bomb.” What that is basically is whenever our rats have found a land mind or an explosive device in the field, we clear the area, we bring in the technicians and assemble a small explosive charge ourselves to destroy the land mine on site. Rather than to try to carry it away. It’s a safer process to get rid of it there and then.
TGNR KS: Absolutely.
APOPO RT: So, if somebody were to buy a Love Bomb for their Valentine or someone that they love, it will directly support the detonation of landmines in countries like Cambodia, and Mozambique, Angola whereby they (landmines) continue to kill people. Particularly innocent people, and children especially long after wars have ended.
APOPO RT: The second one is our “Love Nest” and this supports the breeding of our HeroRats. We’ve been going nearly twenty years…
TGNR KS: Wow! I didn’t realize it was twenty years.
APOPO RT: We only realized that the other day ourselves!
APOPO RT: I’ve been with the organization a year and a bit now, but we’re (APOPO) still very young.
APOPO RT: The final one is basically just a treat for the HeroRats. So every Friday we give them a big meal It’s to give them a nice special treat with some extra food to reward them for their hard work, and their life saving detection activities for the week.
They’re all quite affordable, and there all under thirty dollars. You get a nice virtual certificate, you can send it directly to your friend or loved one, and it will tell you exactly what the gift does and you’ll be helping us to save lives.
To donate to the Valentine’s Day Fundraiser click here.
TGNR KS: Awesome. Changing gears some: How many HeroRats are currently working in the various countries APOPO currently operates?
APOPO RT: We have about two hundred and eighty rats. That spans the breeding rats that I just mentioned, the operational rats in Cambodia and Tanzania, Mozambique, and Angola.
We also have some retired rats. When they get old enough, the way the system works, they’re like working dogs, they’re excitable, they are enthusiastic for their work, they enjoy conducting repetitive tasks for rewards. But when they start to not show that same enthusiasm in the morning when we come to get them, we just allow them to gracefully retire. They just don’t have to get up in the morning. Lounging around, eating avocado, playing with their friends, running around.
TGNR KS: I’ve worked with rats before, and I know they are very social creatures.
APOPO RT: They’re fantastic creatures. They’re like little puppies. Very curious, very sociable.
TGNR KS: That’s wonderful. In the countries APOPO is currently working, what specifically is your purpose in each?
APOPO RT: We are currently detecting Tuberculosis in Tanzania and Mozambique. We are detecting landmines in Cambodia; the rats are currently there waiting to deploy. We are just trying to get the final documents signed and sealed, everything processed, so they should be stating soon. They’re working in Angola and Mozambique as well.
TGNR KS: You mentioned getting things “signed and sealed” in Cambodia. What type of obstacles, if any, does APOPO face when trying to start a new program in a new country?
APOPO RT: Like many non-profits it’s funding, ultimately. Demining is typically a very expensive process which is supported for the most part by governments and organizations like the United Nations (UN). We also rely on the very generous support of our fan base. So it’s funding.
Once we get over that it’s a case of finding local partners, and demining is very heavily regulated. So we work with the UN, we work with national bodies, and a local partner. In Cambodia we work with the Cambodian demining organization there.
APOPO RT: When we go in it’s not just a case of us bringing in our rats and doing the process and leaving again. We’re interested in supporting the local community. We do capacity building, we provide specialized training.
Rather than sending our own staff from Tanzania with these rats, we brought Cambodian staff over to our headquarters for six months. We can do training, introduce them to all the rats, and then we send them back with those skills so they can teach their colleagues. It’s a much more sustainable way of doing things. It supports local families as well.
TGNR KS: When I was first reading about choosing the pouched rat, it was because they’re endemic to Africa, in addition to the benefit training local peoples in these skills. It’s an excellent idea! I’m glad it’s carrying on in Cambodia.
TGNR KS: Do you face any government difficulties when exploring a new country, or are they welcoming to assistance in the demining process?
APOPO RT: Again largely it is the problem of money. Demining is typically very expansive, and that’s one of the reasons why Bart (Weetjens), our founder, was interested.
For nearly seventy years people have detected landmines in the exact same way with somebody, a man or a woman, with a metal detector, very laboriously, very slowly going up and down the ground, inch by inch, and every time that metal detector goes off, whether it’s a land mine, or where its more likely to be a coin, a bit of scrap metal, or a piece of tin in the ground, they have stop, clear the area, we have to excavate and that is just, very, very slow.
At the current rate, we’re going to be demining around the world for another seventy years. And there are lots of land mines. Millions and millions.
APOPO RT: Where our rats make a real difference is they are substantially quicker.
Rats can survey a full area in about twenty minutes where it would take a deminer with a metal detector five or six days. There’s a huge difference.
TGNR KS: That is a big difference. Are there any new countries you are looking into?
APOPO RT: Yes! So as far as the TB goes; we have been talking to partners in Ethiopia as well as India to see whether there are possibilities there. TB is second leading cause of death from an infectious disease. It kills 1.5 million people a year, nearly nine million are infected every year. And the very sad thing about this disease is it’s easily treatable once you catch it. All these deaths every year are easily preventable. And our rats, again because they’re able to speed up the detection rate so significantly.
We think there is enormous potential for them in high density areas whether that’s slum dwellings, cities, or prisons as well.
APOPO RT: And on the landmine side we’re very keen to get Cambodia started as soon as we can, and then we’re also hoping to start in Zimbabwe. That’s not signed yet, but we’re optimistic it will happen toward the end of this year.
TGNR KS: That’s great. Paul, our Managing Editor has a few questions for you Robin.
TGNR’s Paul K. DiCostanzo: Robin I’ve been thinking about APOPO, and I am looking back very much as a historian. My background – which is wonderful for a dynamic good news media platform – is deeply rooted in American national security and American foreign policy. So, history and politics all fall deeply within my personal sphere of education and expertise.
I look back, and right now I know for a fact that if you travel to a place like the Mediterranean coast of modern day Egypt and Libya, there are still millions of un detonated and unidentified landmines laid from the Second World War.
Or perhaps you go to the same conflicts Eastern Front in Europe, and visit locations like Kursk, or modern day Volgograd (previously Stalingrad), these devices are constantly emerging from the ground. Especially during times like the annual spring thaw. Each side placed mines because they were highly effective and exceptionally cheap to produce.
Has APOPO looked into or projected contributing into those areas where there is an immense amount of work to be done given the tremendous danger at hand? Even after seven plus decades?
APOPO RT: Our focus has typically been on developing countries. The biggest demining efforts have traditionally been very slow; it’s very expensive. Whereas our rats are quicker we can provide the services on a much cheaper level. So therefore we go to developing countries who are all part of an international treaty committed to remove landmines.
Creating that financial money to afford to do it is difficult. They have a lot of other pressures from healthcare, and other problems to solve. So by us targeting those countries which may not be able to afford normal demining services, we can focus our efforts there.
We are aware that there are lots and lots of landmines in more developed countries. Another example from the World War’s are great swaths of France, and they just leave those areas.
You know Afghanistan is another nation, which I think the most mined nation in the world. We typically wouldn’t go somewhere where there is still conflict ongoing, we need it to be relatively safe and for that work to have a lasting benefit.
One of the problems of landmines is it stops natural development. It just denies areas so much. Whether that’s access to water, or buildings supplies. Whether you want to build a school, or roads, or transport links, or any of these kinda things; it just stops everything being a possibility. By removing land mines we open the doors to development; people can take control of their own lives, and return to their land.
TGNR PKD: You mentioned you work specifically in developing countries which definitely need your help. Of course Afghanistan is not what we would call the most stable nation on earth at the moment. Granted fundraising is an issue in developing nations, but as far as greater safety standards, and your organizations ability to physically send people to do their work without worry they will be harmed due to some sort of civil unrest; where is the line drawn on that issue? Further, who makes that call?
APOPO RT: It’s typically a collaborative exercise. You need the organizing agencies at the top. The UN’s mine removal organization called UNMAS, and then you need to be able to identify a donor, and to support the government. Then you need a local partner in national government as well. So it’s a complicated process, but demining is not something that people do while conflicts are still fresh.
APOPO RT: We’re not, you know…Afghanistan isn’t likely until that region is settled for some time. We do get asked about it.
Colombia now that it’s become much more secure is possibly on the horizon. We get asked about that as well. And so we start to change the way that we work, to some extent. Where previously we would always try and manage and train people to use the rats ourselves. We’re now looking to the point where we will essentially provide the rats as a resource for other demining organizations as well. Which basically just increases the capacity, it increases more people to access this life saving technology.
So if it was a case of another demining organization, a competent organization in a more developed country were to look at the landmines in their areas and wanted to use the rats, that would be something we could consider supplying. But as far as our own personal ethics, we will be focusing on the countries which are unable to afford these solutions normally.
TGNR PKD: On a much lighter note here: Something I heard Mr. Weetjens say that I’ve heard others tell me; I know most readers who will read this interview will probably have not traveled to Africa, but he mentioned something very fantastic that credible people in my life have echoed to me. He mentioned that as far as Africa is concerned, there is an amazing ineffable and intangible quality about it. If you visit and immerse yourself, you spend time there, work there, even though it may not seem likely at first, there is just something about it that just illuminates one’s soul. In which there is an incredible attraction and attachment to it. Some never wish to leave!
Have you been to the sites in Tanzania, and how would you explain that particular phenomenon from anyone whose expressed it and you hold in esteem?
APOPO RT: Yes, I have been down to our training center a few times in Tanzania.
So one of the important things for us, as soon as the organization was established, we wanted to be in the heart of the people we were trying to help. So many NGO’s will have their head offices in London or New York; and ours is in Morogoro, Tanzania. Now that certainly creates it’s own problems with internet, infrastructure and other things. We feel it is crucial to be a really a part of that community, rather than prescribing solutions to communities.You want to be part, and give them the voice and let them participate, to be a collaborative solution whereby we can help them to take control of their own lives.
Africa is a very special place. A very diverse place. The people are wonderful, by and large very friendly, very welcoming. APOPO itself is wonderfully welcoming. The people…it’s just a permanent smile there, there’s a general warmth in the environment wherever you go. An appreciation of life. You know this, Tanzania is not an especially wealthy country. These aren’t people with huge amounts of money, or material possessions or anything else. But there is a real sense of community and connection to one another.
So for me personally, I would echo the thoughts of Bart, what he says about Africa and from an organizational perspective we’re very happy to be right in the heart of Africa.
TGNR PKD: You definitely seem to have a definite reverence with well founded reason for Mr. Weetjens. There is an old saying that history gives every person one sentence. In your evaluation of your founder and leader, what do you believe when all is said and done, what should be his one sentence based on what he is doing and what he will do?
APOPO RT: For, me, personally? I would look at Bart as…
TGNR PKD: One sentence!
APOPO RT: Someone who wants to inspire positive change throughout the world.
TGNR PKD: Awesome.
TGNR KS: That’s a good sentence. Changing directions, what does APOPO mean precisely?
APOPO RT: It’s Dutch and basically translates to “Anti-Personnel Land Mine’s Product Development”
TGNR KS: Okay, so it’s an acronym.
APOPO RT: The organization was simply known as HeroRats. That’s what we got the funding for, and that’s what we first started off with. Yet demining is a very professional, formal, serious, and dangerous environment. The same as TB, and you’re working with deadly diseases, and its was sort of a podge to try and become more respected in the industry. Especially as an innovative different product, challenging the status quo. We thought it was best to transfer to something a little bit more professional. It changed about ten years ago, actually.
TGNR KS: With the Tuberculosis mission, do you think or foresee that the rats may be able to detect other diseases that again could be easily treated but are difficult to detect?
APOPO RT: Absolutely. We are very very confident of that fact.
TGNR KS: Do you know which diseases show the most promise?
APOPO RT: We’re looking at couple different types of cancer currently. Increasingly we see around the world that animals are being used to detect these kind of things.
In the UK, where I’m based, the National Health Service has recently started a trial with dogs to detect different types of cancer as well. There was a remarkable story six months ago of a British lady who was convinced that she could smell Parkinson’s in her husband. She was convinced that when the symptoms started to develop that she could detect a smell. Obviously that was met with some skepticism initially, but it ended up that a couple years later there was a formal official trial of her under medical conditions and this lady managed to identify 10 of 10 Parkinson’s patients mixed in with number of 10 people who didn’t; she got it 100% right.
TGNR KS: Oh my gosh!
APOPO RT: Further to that, she actually went to the researcher and said that she was absolutely convinced that there was an eleventh man who also had Parkinson’s. Low and behold, about six months later, unfortunately that man was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Not everybody has those kind of smelling abilities, but lots of diseases have smell and if we have a way of capturing those smells, creating a system whereby the rats can quickly evaluate them, then the potential’s great. It can really help speed up the detection process.
So I don’t know if you how TB is detected currently, but basically its just with a microscope. Very old, 70 year old process. You need to look at each sputum sample for about 20 minutes each according to regulation. But because that’s quite intense on your eyes, and the laboratory technicians are restricted to only doing ten a day. Which significantly slows them down. Whereas our rats can do ten in a minute, and we can keep doing it. The speed difference is incredible and that enables us to save more lives and get the treatment out faster.
APOPO RT: All of APOPO’s past research is online, we publish everything, it’s open source. So we really try to contribute to this area. We’re one of leaders in this area of scent technology.
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TGNR KS: Is there any particular anecdote about the HeroRats that you know of that you’d like to share…
TGNR PKD: Or at least one you found to be memorable personally in your own experience?
APOPO RT: I think what’s really important to underline is that working in partnership with these animals, it’s our responsibility, and we’re very proud to take the very best care that we can. We like to say that we treat them like the heroes they are. Animal welfare is a top priority. And only happy, healthy, relaxed HeroRats are able to help us save lives.
It’s really about working in partnership and respect, both with the animals and also in different culture and different communities. It’s a culture of collaboration, a positive endeavor to try and create a better world really.
TGNR KS: Do the rats have names?
APOPO RT: All of the rats have names, yes. We have lots and lots of them! A few you might recognize is we have a Taylor Swift, we have have an Angelina Jolie, and an Oprah actually… We opened our US office last year and so he named a couple of them for that. They’re also named by our trainers in Tanzania, so we have quite a few football soccer players as well.
TGNR KS: That’s wonderful!
APOPO RT: We have a good variety.
TGNR PKD: If there is one thing you want somebody who is not familiar with your organization in any way prior to this article to know that they should know on the deepest, organic human level about your efforts, based on your personal experiences, what would that be?
APOPO RT: What I want people to know about APOPO?
TGNR PKD: Naturally, but more to the point: You personally Robin, what brought you into this? Why do you continue to do what you do? Not everybody chooses to work for an NGO like this.
APOPO RT: So my story goes back to when I was seven years old. I come from a decent enough background. You know I didn’t have to worry too much as I grew up as a child. My parents took me to Egypt when I was seven years old. And I hadn’t been exposed to any…I’d seen the news but it’s so quite intangible. But I remember very clearly to this day, after we’d spent the first day in the hotel just getting accustomed, and by the pool, you know it just seemed nice, like being on holiday in Florida or anywhere else. I didn’t see the difference. Then you walked outside and you see children younger than me, my age, with malnutrition, struggling, trying to offer to clean your shoes, sell any trinket they had.
That was a very visceral experience to me…
TGNR KS: I can imagine.
APOPO RT: I didn’t really understand that I had so much and these people had so little. At the same time I spent a bit of time in our hotel. We had some people make our cots and I’d spend time with them. And you see that these people are just the exact same as you are. They have the same things, they want to be happy, they want to have fun, they want to be secure. And ever since then I always felt that I’d like to do something which makes the world a slightly better place.
So I’ve been involved in charities and different organizations since I graduated from university. But APOPO I discovered about five years ago, and I just fell in love to an extent really. I initially just volunteered. I just donated some. I was a consultant at the time and I happily just donated some services to them. I tried to make a difference to an organization which I thought was very inspiring. Both as to what they were trying to do, and as far as their actual impact in the world was very positive.
Then I stayed more involved in that. So now I consider myself extremely fortunate both generally, but also to be involved in an organization which is doing so much good. I’m very realistic, I know I’m just a guy who sits behind a computer in the UK talking to people, but there are some very brave, passionate people, men and women, out in the front lines, standing on land mines, detecting dangerous diseases…who deserve the credit.
TGNR PKD: Every conflict has many different important fronts, and not all them are on the front lines.
TGNR KS: I would say the world needs more people like you, Robin. Any final thoughts? Because I think we’re about wrapped up.
APOPO RT: No that’ll do me. You’ll make me emotional otherwise.
TGNR PKD: Then we’ve done our job! You have represented your organization with a great deal of valor and clear reverence for your team, and its mission. When it comes to APOPO, I have yet to experience otherwise.
TGNR KS: It’s been a pleasure.
APOPO RT: Thank you for having me.
APOPO also has an “Adopt a HeroRat” program. For more information click here.