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Beyond recognition

The Rolex Awards for Enterprise honour people who are trying to improve the lot of humanity and the place we call home. Victoria Burrows meets the latest laureates

 

The Rolex Awards for Enterprise, launched in 1976, are presented every two years to individuals launching or running a project that has the capacity to improve lives or protect the world's natural or cultural heritage.

The awards support pioneering work in five areas: applied technology; cultural heritage; the environment; exploration and discovery; and science and health. Projects are assessed on originality, potential for impact, feasibility and the candidate's spirit of enterprise, often in the face of extreme odds. An independent international jury selects the winners, who are each given 100,000 Swiss francs (HK$840,000), or 50,000 francs for those in the below-30 "young laureates" category, and the benefit of media exposure.

In November, the latest group - five laureates and five young laureates - were honoured at a glittering ceremony in Delhi, India. Here is what the full laureates are doing to make our world a better place:

 

SERGEI BEREZNUK
While a host of celebrities support saving tigers, the real face of conservation for these big cats could be that of Sergei Bereznuk. The 52-year-old Russian is unknown outside conservation circles but has, since the 1990s, been on a quest to save the Siberian tiger, the biggest felid on Earth. Members of this subspecies weigh 200kg on average and measure about two metres in length, three metres if the tail is included.

Russia's far east is home to 95 per cent of the global population and through the efforts of Bereznuk's Phoenix Fund, an environmental organisation that protects the fauna and flora of the Primorsky Krai region, this big-cat population has been stablised, at about 450 to 480 tigers. That is quite an achievement, given the ongoing battles against poaching, habitat loss, legislative obstacles and organised crime.

"The tigers' main threat is poaching," says Bereznuk. "Local people kill tigers to protect their livestock, hunters sometimes kill tigers accidentally and then there are professional poachers. Although the official number of tigers killed through poaching is 15 per year, I think it is closer to 40 or 50 a year."

Tiger parts sold for the equivalent of HK$200 in Russia are worth several thousand dollars on the black market in China, where they are used illegally in traditional medicines. The penalty for killing a tiger is a prison term, but being in possession of tiger parts can incur just a 1,000 rouble (HK$255) fine.

"When I worked for the state [in a conservation role]," says Bereznuk, "one of the smuggling cells was [led by the] chief of police of that department."

Bereznuk recently introduced a software system called Mist (Management Information System) to four anti-poaching units, allowing them to compare data on patrol routes. He provides the units with fuel, vehicle parts, incentive payments and training; and has set up a network of firefighters to combat forest fires. The annual Tiger Day Festival in Vladivostok, which he organises, is designed to educate children about conservation.

"After 20 years working to save the Siberian tiger, I have seen many more dead tigers than live ones," says Bereznuk. "I have only twice seen tigers in the wild. I want to preserve what is left for our children."

 

MARK KENDALL
Professor Mark Kendall (right) has no modest goal: to revolutionise two centuries of medical practice. The 40-year-old Australian bio-engineer has developed a vaccine-coated silicone patch measuring one square centimetre that could make the traditional syringe and needle seem outdated, perhaps even barbaric. The Nanopatch, which is applied directly to the skin, can release vaccine into the body in seconds.

Each year, 17 million people die from infectious diseases, mainly in the developing world. One of the greatest benefits of the Nanopatch is that the vaccine it contains is dry, meaning there is no need for refrigeration - a costly requirement that can be difficult to fulfil in developing countries. Furthermore, the patch does not require an expert practitioner to administer it, and it is much cheaper to make than its predecessor.

"We are focusing on making existing vaccines better," says Kendall. "The human papillomavirus [HPV] vaccine [for cervical cancer], for example, is traditionally expensive to manufacture, usually at about US$50 per vaccine. The HPV Nanopatch we expect to cost less than US$1."

The vaccine will also be more effective - with the HPV Nanopatch requiring only 1 per cent of the dose used in a syringe. Also, only two repeat doses are required to build immunity, instead of three, as is the case with the injected vaccine.

Kendall has so far focused his research and animal trials on influenza and HPV but has also published work on malaria, West Nile virus and chikungunya (similar to dengue fever) - diseases that he hopes to test vaccines for. The first field trial, to test the mechanism of the patch (without the vaccine), was completed in October in Papua New Guinea, and the first full human trials will take place in Australia in 12 to 18 months time. He estimates it will cost US$5 million to bring his product to market.

"When I visited Papua New Guinea [which has one of the highest incidences of HPV in the world], it gave me a kick up the backside to get my clinical trials up and running," he says.

 

BARBARA BLOCK
The "Blue Serengeti", she calls it. By using more than 4,000 electronic tags on 23 species in six groups (tuna, sharks, turtles, whales, seals and sea birds), 54-year-old American marine biologist Professor Barbara Block has identified three Pacific "hot spots", where the nutrient-rich waters attract predators. Ultimately, she hopes to see the creation of a large Unesco World Heritage site off the Californian coast, to protect the region's marine life.

Block (right) has developed innovative tracking devices, such as the Wave Glider, nicknamed Carey. A two-metre-long robotic surfboard, Carey harnesses wave power for motion and solar power for its monitoring equipment. The device picks up signals from acoustic tags attached to sharks from up to 300 metres away and is part of a network of receivers. The network includes ocean observatories - what Block refers to as "predator cafes", where fish "check in" to the "Wi-fi café" with their tags, just as a car with a device on its windscreen does at a toll gate. Data on the animals' movements is relayed to the laboratory.

Block has also developed public outreach programmes and technology to spread knowledge and support advocacy for sustainable fisheries. Her Shark Net app for iPhones and iPads transmits data from Carey and other receivers to anyone with an Apple iOS device, enabling users to follow individual sharks.

"Everyone is familiar with what is on their plate, but we barely know anything about the oceans," says Block. "Take the blue fin tuna: it's warm-blooded, so is more like a dolphin, and lives for up to 40 years, and now we know it swims vast distances across oceans and back. We don't know exactly where they go, or why. But we do know sea life populations are being decimated globally and we need healthy ocean eco-systems."

 

AGGREY OTIENO

Inspiration came to Aggrey Otieno after his younger sister, Esther, almost died from a complication during pregnancy. Esther began experiencing pains at home one night, while Otieno was out studying and had his phone switched off. Despite the danger of the dark streets of Korogocho, in Nairobi, Kenya, Esther and her mother had no choice but to attempt to reach the nearest hospital, 14 kilometres away. When a gang of young men apprehended them, they feared the worst. Fortunately, the men recognised Otieno's mother and helped her find a taxi. That night, Esther underwent an emergency Caesarean section, which saved her own and her baby's life.

"What if those thieves had not known my mother?" says Otieno (above). "Or what if my sister was alone at home or too sick to move - what would she have done? She had very little knowledge of her own medical situation and there was no one for her to call for advice."

The maternal mortality rate in Korogocho is about 700 women for every 100,000 live births, compared with 13 in every 100,000 in the United States. Women die from a range of conditions such as eclampsia (going into seizure during childbirth), poorly performed abortions, haemorrhages, infection and ruptured uteruses.

The slum neighbourhood is home to an estimated 200,000 people, living on 1.5 square kilometres. It is beset by violent crime, substandard sanitation and grinding poverty. Obstetric medical facilities are lacking, as are the means of getting to a hospital, and local birth attendants, who act as midwives, tend to be poorly trained.

After completing his studies, in communications, in the US, Otieno returned to the slums and set up the non-profit Pambazuko Mashinani organisation.

Assisted by his Rolex Award funds, he is building a "telemedicine" centre with five medics and a van. He is also training birth attendants to recognise complications and alert staff at the centre when an emergency arises. Medical advice will then be given or the van dispatched to take the woman to hospital. Moreover, he has set up a text messaging service that provides pregnancy information, and is producing educational videos to be screened in hospital waiting rooms. The computers he has been able to buy connect five health centres across Korogocho.

Esther became the first beneficiary of her brother's project. Pregnant once more, she started experiencing excruciating labour pains. After she alerted community health workers by text message they took her to hospital.

"I was 600 kilometres away from Korogocho and was able to advise she be taken to Kenyatta National Hospital," says Otieno. "She gave birth to a bouncing baby boy there, whom she named after me."

 

ERIKA CUELLAR
One of Bolivia's few recognised experts in wildlife conservation, 41-year-old Erika Cuellar (right) has two postgraduate degrees - one from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, the other from Oxford University, both in Britain. The most valuable lesson she has learned, however, is that they count for little.

"You have to be humble and open to learn. You can have a thesis and your data, but you won't get anywhere if the locals are against you," she says.

Cuellar is working to protect the world's biggest reserves of tropical dry forest - the Gran Chaco, which straddles Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia. The area is home to indigenous tribes, nomadic hunter-gatherers, fishing communities, farmers and cattle ranchers, plus 150 species of mammal, including jaguars, pumas and giant armadillos, as well as 500 bird and 3,400 plant species. The region is under threat from a long-standing border dispute between Bolivia and Paraguay, a gas pipeline being built through Bolivia and Brazil and extensive cattle ranching and agricultural encroachment.

Cuellar is involving local people in the preservation of their habitat. She has already trained four "parabiologists" - researchers who combine their own knowledge of nature with the techniques of environmental science - from the Guarani tribe; and with their new skills they are respected enough to influence decision-making on tribal, municipal and national levels.

"Indigenous people often feel inferior, because we make them feel this way," she says. "The Guarani feel used; they are tired of conservation projects. I give them the tools that facilitate their own involvement in making decisions about their own land and lives."

Cuellar is extending her parabiologist model to Argentina and Paraguay, and is setting up a tri-national Gran Chaco conservation strategy.

The guanaco (a wild ancestor of the domesticated llama), is of particular concern. There are only three populations - each numbering about 200 - left in Gran Chaco, one each in Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. Cuellar thinks a revival of the guanaco in the area could be used to foster better co-operation between the three countries.

 

 

 

Money spinning

What price can be put on making the world a better place? The funds that come with a Rolex Award for Enterprise can be dwarfed by the financial hurdles some laureates confront. So what happens when the money runs out? And how do the projects fare when the spotlight shines elsewhere?

For Peter Knights, who won a Rolex award in 1998 for his work on tackling the illegal trade in by-products of endangered species, funding is a permanent black cloud hovering over the proverbial lightbulb of enterprise.

"I have found that you can be as enterprising as you like but if you can't find the right investors, it's hard to progress. Money doesn't chase good ideas. Good ideas have to chase money," he says.

Knights knows the difficulties of putting good ideas into practice. He began his work at the age of 24, when he gave up interior design to work as an "undercover ecologist". With limited resources, and often at considerable personal risk, he filmed the slaughter of endangered species in a dozen countries, helping to raise awareness and change legislation to protect wildlife.

A decade later, with the help of his award money, he went on to develop a successful video awareness campaign, with the slogan: "When the buying stops, the killing can, too!" Actor Jackie Chan helped promote the message in Hong Kong and remains an ambassador for Knight's WildAid organisation, along with basketball star Yao Ming, actresses Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng and Zhang Ziyi, and other celebrities from around the world.

Knights is now focusing his work on China, aiming to make endangered animal products socially unacceptable here. He says that in the past few years his project has grown exponentially and that US$280 million of media space was donated last year to his public campaigns. Still, finance remains his biggest struggle, he says: "Conservation is all [focused on] supply side; we're the only organisation in the world focusing on demand [for animal products], but because of that it's not something that has a ready pool of donors."

For quietly-spoken Filipino inventor Alexis Belonio, meanwhile, the renown associated with the Rolex competition came with its own rewards.

"A Californian organisation called me last year and said, 'Do you need money?' So I filled in the online form and they sent me US$8,000."

Belonio, associate professor of agricultural engineering and inventor of more than 30 devices for farmers, was named a laureate in 2008 for his design of a simple, gas-fired stove powered by rice husks, one of Asia's most abundant farming by-products. He makes the designs of his devices available free of charge on the internet and runs training courses in the Philippines on how to make the gadgets. Belonio is aware that companies around the world are filing their own patents for his devices with merely a tweak here or there, but he has not patented his own designs.

"I do not patent. The Rolex award is for a spirit of sharing. And what would I do with royalties? Money would complicate my life. I come from a poor family. I don't know about money," he says.

Neither is it about the money for John Asmus, a research physicist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and a 1990 laureate for his efforts to develop laser techniques to clean and restore Xian's ancient terracotta army.

"The award probably advanced our [UCSD] programme, as well as international efforts in the art conservation field, by about 10 years," he says.

While the official project ended 20 years ago and only lasted two years, because the Chinese scientific co-investigator was not allowed to leave the mainland to visit the United States, Asmus says the research in Xian led to countless other projects for his team at UCSD. The techniques introduced in Xian have since been applied in art conservation worldwide.

"In this broader sense, the project was vastly more successful than I would have ever dreamed," says Asmus. "The biggest problem in subsequent years has been to limit our participation in diverse projects to a manageable level."

The social enterprise founded by energetic Filipino Reese Fernandez is also growing in leaps and bounds. A young laureate in 2010, Fernandez says the funds she received were a great boost to her company, Rags2Riches, but that the Rolex award itself has given her clout.

"The award isn't just a baton to pass on. It stays with you," she says.

Rags2Riches employs local women to weave fabric collected from a Manila rubbish dump into high-end bags and other accessories. Since becoming an award winner, Fernandez has collaborated with respected fashion and fabric designers, including Oliver Tolentino, Kenneth Cobonpue and Olivia d'Aboville, partnerships she believes will help her market her products following the imminent launch of the company's website.

She has been able to expand her staff to include 12 full-time artisans, 798 mothers and two fathers who weave while staying home to look after their children, four partner designers and 15 other staff and managers.

"The spotlight shone on us by the Rolex award means we have to be completely transparent in what we do. People are now always looking," she says. "It also means we can never be complacent - we were rewarded for our innovation in the first place."

 

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