A view from Dave Trott: Sniffing out the problem
A view from Dave Trott

Sniffing out the problem

Every year, 4,000 people are killed by landmines.

Nearly half of them are children.

There is no shortage of landmines in the world’s poorest countries.

The people who live there know this.

Consequently they are terrified of the areas where mines have been placed.

Which means the locals can’t use those areas to grow crops.

Which means there is also a shortage of food and work.

Of course, there’s also a shortage of mine detection equipment.

There are no metal detectors, or computers, or even electricity.

But a Belgium called Bart Weetjens spotted the one thing there is no shortage of in poor countries.


And he knew that rats have plenty of something that humans don’t: an acute sense of smell.

So Bart Weetjens began training rats to detect TNT.

He would feed them when they indicated they smelled it.

The rats were so light, they could run right over the landmines without setting them off.

They’d sniff and start digging where the mines were.

Because they got fed a mix of peanut butter and mashed banana when they found one.

Bert Weetjens and his team set up "APOPO – Hero Rats".  

And they began clearing landmines.

A rat can clear an area of 2,200 square feet in 20 minutes.

It would take a man with a metal detector four days to do that.

Because, unlike the metal detector, the rat isn’t distracted by coins, or scrap metal, or nuts and bolts.

All the rat wants to smell is TNT, because that’s when it gets fed.

APOPO harness a rat to a line, which they stretch across a field, and the rat then runs up and down like a plough horse.

Around difficult areas, trees or pylons, they harness the rat to a line on the end of a fishing rod.

The rats are proven to be 100% effective.

So far, APOPO has found and destroyed 105,024 mines or other explosives.

They’ve cleared 22 million square metres of land for cultivation.

They’ve cleared land in Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and along the Thai/Cambodia/Laos border.

That means 900,000 people can now use that land without worry.

All because Bart Weetjens saw a creative way to put two minuses together to create a plus: we have lots of landmines which are a problem, we have lots of rats which are a problem.

Why don’t we use one problem to solve the other problem?

Brilliant, unconventional thinking is truly creative.

It isn’t just finding a slightly better version of an existing solution.

It’s looking at something everyone else has looked at, but seeing something no one else has seen.

And for that we need to let go of our prejudices and pre-formed opinions.

To remove the straitjacket of conventional wisdom.

Only then can we have a mind clear enough to think the unthinkable.

To see truly new and creative solutions.

As the economist J.M Keynes said: "The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas, as in escaping from the old ones."

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.