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Bart Weetjens
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Problem-Solving Tips from a Changemaker
Bart Weetjens and APOPO

Compassionate, Curious, Creative, Courageous: Training Rats and Empowering Communities to Tackle the Landmine Problem

Trying to realize a new idea can be fraught with many challenges. Perhaps no one has more experience of this than the social entrepreneurs out there solving the world’s social problems called Changemakers. In this short series, ANA BLUE WING interviews the Changemakers it supports through its ANA BLUE WING Program to learn more about their concrete problem-solving strategies and ideas. Whether you are embarking on a new business project or just trying to solve life’s little problems, these articles may provide helpful hints to assist you in your endeavors. In this article, they interview Changemaker Bart Weetjens and his friend Christophe Cox, co-founders of APOPO, an NGO empowering local communities to clear landmines faster and more safely using trained rats. At the end of the article, there is information about how you can help support their work.


Landmines and other explosives remain deadly long after wars end. In 2020, there were more than 7,000 landmine casualties in over 50 countries worldwide. Half of those killed or injured were children. Clearing landmines is the first step in restoring land to productive use and keeping communities safe, but it is also difficult, labor-intensive work. APOPO pioneered the use of trained rats to sniff out explosives. By the end of 2021, APOPO’s “HeroRATs” had helped find and destroy over 150,000 landmines and other explosives and returned over 70 million square meters of land to communities.

How did Weetjens come up with the idea of using rats to detect landmines, and how did he and Cox successfully create an organization that helps thousands of people annually?

Focus on the “How,” Not the “What”

“The ‘how’ of social change work,” says Weetjens, “is more important than the ‘what.’” Which social and environmental goals we pursue may be important, but if we seek to change the world, how we engage with others matters even more.

Weetjens begins every problem-solving project with a thorough, complete analysis of the problem itself. Here, the practice of sitting meditation or zazen plays an important role. The stillness of zazen makes rigorous analysis possible. Once the true needs are clarified, Weetjens explains, “solutions often appear naturally.”

画像An approach to the global landmine problem is possible from many angles, but careful analysis revealed that the true bottleneck—the “How” that needed attention—was detection.

Demining an area, known as “land release,” is a multi-stage process that begins with surveying and clearing vegetation. Integrating rats into the existing procedure empowered those in the field and local communities to accelerate one of the process’s most challenging and time-consuming parts.

Adopt a Solution-Oriented Mindset

画像To feel grief or anger at the enormity of the issue is only natural. For Weetjens, however, this only makes it more important to stay focused on finding a solution. Dwelling on the problem, he explains, can mean remaining in a mental space of anger, fear, and grief, which is “not a space where a new vision of a better, more just and equitable future can thrive.” Change comes from focusing on the problem in a “compassionate, curious, creative, and courageous” way.

Cox and Weetjens studied product development together at college. This involved iterating concepts through sketching and drawing. No surprise, then, that when Weetjens sent Cox a letter about his radical new idea of training rats to detect mines, it included a drawing of his idea. Even today, Cox uses diagrams and drawings to communicate new cage designs to builders.

Training in product development also stressed the importance of lateral thinking. It teaches you to generate ideas by looking for inspiration in unexpected places. This echoes Weetjens’ realization that “everything is profoundly interconnected,” which guides him to this day.

Start with the End-User

画像Weetjens always starts by identifying the needs of the end-user. For APOPO, the end-users were disenfranchised subsistence farmers in the Global South. The goal was to offer a solution that empowered them to tackle their problem independently, without expensive imported know-how or equipment. That, Weetjens explains, required “appropriate technology, based on the renewable, natural resources available to them.” Framing the problem this way inevitably led him to animals and their keen sense of smell.

The same mindset extends to APOPO’s operations. Unlike other NGOs, which tend to have their center of gravity in the country they were founded, 97% of APOPO’s organization is working where their end-users are—those affected by landmines. Working on the ground with end-users, other local experts, and organizations addressing the same problems open up more possibilities than simply importing and exporting knowledge.

Be Opportunistic Like a HeroRAT

Rats are opportunistic, taking their rewards where they can—no chance of earning a reward is too small.

Notwithstanding its global operations, APOPO is a small organization with a niche market. As a result, it never enjoyed structural funding such as annual government grants. Instead, it had to become resilient and agile, surviving yearly by taking what opportunities were available.

画像Weetjens has been comfortable with this approach since childhood. He came from a humble background and received little pocket money, so he began breeding rodents to sell to pet shops. This early experience with rats may have allowed him to develop APOPO’s foundational idea—another example of profound interconnection.

APOPO is now a more mature organization with room to plan and maneuver strategically. Of course, it still faces challenges—but these are also learning opportunities. As Weetjens puts it, “Failure doesn’t exist.”

Future Challenges for APOPO

画像The main challenge for APOPO now is rapid scaling: investing in people and investing in capacity-building.

This year, APOPO is expanding into Azerbaijan, and it sees possibilities for further operations in Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and other areas with immediate concrete interest from Senegal, Columbia, and Ukraine. New projects now in the pre-operational stage include: training rats for search and rescue, locating soil pollution, and detecting illegal wildlife products at customs. The HeroRATs’ work helping to save the world has only just begun.

All images copyright © APOPO

バート・ウィートジェンス 画像

Bart Weetjens

Bart Weetjens came up with the idea for APOPO, a social enterprise that trains African giant pouched rats to identify dangers such as landmines and diseases, ultimately returning safe land back to communities and freeing people from serious illness.



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