Why I Moved to Tanzania to Work with Rats

Training rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis? How could I turn down an opportunity to help develop this innovative solution to such immense worldwide problems?


Training rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis? How could I turn down an opportunity to help develop this innovative solution to such immense worldwide problems?

The inspiration

During a post-graduate degree in International Public Service at DePaul University in Chicago, I studied in Kenya and fell in love with East Africa. The colors, noises, people, sunsets, and even the odors were more vibrant and full of inspirational energy. While researching waste recovery methods in Nairobi’s informal settlements I began collaboration with a health NGO that would soon give me valuable background experience.

The opportunity

After finishing at DePaul in 2010, I jumped at the opportunity to work for APOPO, an innovative organization in Tanzania that trains rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis. It was the perfect storm, all my interests colliding into one: humanitarian development, health research, East Africa, and animals all at one international NGO. This combined with similar core values and a unique approach to problems made this an opportunity to which I could not say no.

One month later I arrived in Tanzania and immediately knew the organization and location was the right fit. The first time I saw the rats and watched them in action I had the same awestruck reaction as most of our visitors:

1. They are huge.

2. They are adorable.

3. They are clever.

4. This is unreal.

Building on the early success of the organization, the potential was clear for APOPO and the HeroRATs to make a significant impact on the world. This was exciting for me, and everyone at the organization.

The success

Since then, we have facilitated the growth of the organization from 150 employees with a budget of 1.5 million euro with operations in two countries to almost 300 employees with a budget of 5.7 million euro and operations in five countries. A number of factors contribute to this success, including:

  • Very high-quality product of trained rats with supporting evidence
  • Excellent, motivated employees and board members with a shared vision and passion
  • Strategic investments in the programs and infrastructure of the organization
  • Loyal partners, donors, and stakeholders

During this growth, I was able to experience every aspect of the organization through a rotational manager development curriculum. Thematic areas I was able to contribute to, while gaining valuable career experience in international development, included business development, research, finance, accounting, fundraising, program support, staff management, and human resources.

I developed very close working and social relationships with all managers, as I strongly believe this is a major factor in motivating and bringing the organization together. In addition, many of APOPO’s best ideas have come from social gatherings and brainstorming outside of work.

The Challenges

Working, living, and basing an international NGO in Tanzania is not without challenges. The poor infrastructure is the first thing I noticed. Power outages, unreliable internet, and poor roads make sometimes the littlest things seem like a difficult process. Many other more intricate and deep-rooted challenges exist; however, the rewards far exceed the disruptions. Improving livelihoods and building local capacity in Tanzania and throughout the world easily outweighs the minor inconveniences of daily life. And Tanzania itself is a beautiful country with many skilled, experienced and very friendly people who made us feel welcome.

The Future

The HeroRATs have changed thousands of lives and will continue to do so everyday. One of APOPO’s priorities is expanding into other countries and funding is being sought for locations where the HeroRATs will have the most impact. It is an exciting time to work for APOPO and we look forward to bringing the HeroRATs to more destinations to fight these terrible post-war leftovers and a horrible disease.

We love to hear from you! To stay updated on these amazing creatures make sure you sign up for our e-newsletter at and follow us on Facebook or Twitter. You can even adopt your very own life-saving rat: Adopt a HeroRAT.

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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