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Meet the 5 remarkable winners of the 2021 Rolex Awards for Enterprise

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 9 min read
Meet the 5 remarkable winners of the 2021 Rolex Awards for Enterprise
The winners are being recognised for their projects which are aimed at creating a more sustainable future.
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Five remarkable people are named winners of the 2021 Rolex Awards for Enterprise for their projects which are aimed at creating a more sustainable future

Felix Brooks-church, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Rinzin Phunjok Lama, Gina Moseley and Luiz Rocha are not A-list celebrities. However, the work they do makes them superstars.

These five specialists have earned the honourable title of Laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise for their bold and visionary projects that have the potential to help re-invent the future. Hailing from diverse places such as Brazil, the African nation of Chad, Nepal, the UK and the US, they each represent their areas of expertise such as marine scientist, conservationist, polar explorer, social entrepreneur and a geographer and climate advocate.

This year is a very significant year — it is the 45th year of the Rolex Awards, which was set up in 1976 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Rolex Oyster, the world’s first waterproof wristwatch.

The Rolex Awards set out to seek and support exceptional individuals with innovative projects that expand our knowledge of the world, protect the environment —helping to preserve habitats and species — and improve human well-being.

To help the five Laureates continue their amazing work, they will receive funding for their projects and other benefits such as worldwide publicity, which often engenders further support. They were selected by the Rolex Awards jury, a group of independent experts from around the world.

The Rolex Awards are one of the three pillars of the Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative dedicated to supporting those who contribute to a better world. For now, the initiative also embraces Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue programme to preserve the oceans and an enhanced association with National Geographic, a Rolex partner since 1954, to understand climate change through science.

From tackling hunger to protecting a nation’s rich biodiversity, these five extraordinary individuals outline their plans.

Felix Brooks-church

Malnutrition affects about two billion people globally with preventable deaths of children. These alarming figures have made Felix Brooks-church look closely into the situation and with his four-year- stint in Cambodia working on education and improving the lives of children has spurred him to start Sanku, a social enterprise to combat hunger and malnu- trition in Tanzania in 2013.

To tackle malnutrition, the American devised an ingenious solution: A de- vice to fortify flour with nutrients and a business model that ensures there is no extra cost to consumers and millers.

To do this, he developed and patented the ‘dosifier’ a device that looks like an electronic scale and can be installed in small-scale mills, many in isolated areas, which produce up to 95% of the maize flour that is a staple in East Africa.

The dosifier adds vitamin B12, zinc, folic acid and iron to flour. It releas- es precise quantities of nutrients as the grain flows through its weight-sensitive hopper. Dosifiers are light but strong and transmit data remotely, enabling Brooks-church’s team to monitor thousands of small-scale mills scattered across Tanzania.

His ingenious business model makes the addition of nutrients self-sustaining, costing the millers and consumers nothing. It is based on the purchase of empty flour bags, which are the primary cost for millers and are relatively expensive as millers buy them in small quantities. By buying bags in bulk, Sanku is able to sell them to millers at market price and use the margin to cover the cost of the added nutrients.

With the funding from the Rolex Award Brooks-church plans to purchase 40 dosifiers to transform small-scale mills, which will feed up to 200,000 people with critical nutritious flour. With this he hopes to raise Sanku’s profile to attract additional support to elevate its current reach of two million people.

Gina Moseley

British polar explorer and climate change scientist Gina Moseley is preparing to lead an expedition to the planet’s northernmost caves in Greenland. While the expedition will explore several caves, there is one giant cave in particular that Moseley is captivated by.

She first found out about it through a chance encounter with fellow caver Charlie Self, who described the cave and gave Moseley a folder containing an intriguing article that related how, during the Cold War, a US reconnaissance aircraft looking for emergency ice-free landing sites spotted a giant cave set high in a cliff above a lake in Wulff Land on the tip of northern Greenland. And there the story was frozen for 60 years.

Moseley’s six-member team hopes to explore the giant cave which, despite much interest and speculation, has never been visited, because of what she describes as its “remote location, difficult logistics and the very high cost of an expedition to north Greenland”.

The “substantial funding provided by Rolex for exploration is a unique opportunity to achieve this,” she says. Most organisations, she says, require proof of concept before giving out funding.

Rolex, however, recognises the value of exploration teamed with science and is committed to supporting such ventures. Without Rolex’s support, she adds, scientific questions in her research about climate change “are unlikely to be answered for many decades”.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim

Tackling climate change is a monumental task but Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim has taken up the task. Her project takes a look at Lake Chad, in the Sahel region of west-central Africa, that provides water for over 30 million people living in the four surrounding countries — namely Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria.

She champions the causes of indigenous peoples, as she belongs to the Mbororo pastoralist people in Chad. Climate change, along with population growth, has exacerbated tensions between the nomadic Mbororo herders and settled farmers. The situation has deteriorated further because of the Covid-19 pandemic and widespread floods that began last October.

To manage the conflict, Ibrahim invites men and women, nomadic pastoralists and settled people to conduct participatory 2D mapping of the area. Natural features, such as ridges and plateaus, are mapped out on a board, which leads to the creation of an intricate 2D and 3D landscape model.

Ultimately, the maps will allow the conservation of resources with everyone agreeing, for example, on how to share corridors for animals and access to freshwater.

Apart from that, Ibrahim — who was named by Time in 2019 as one of 15 women championing action on climate change — has to deal with a society that is deeply patriarchal, nevertheless she is convinced that women are key to mapping resources because they remain close to nature and to home, using the terrain and powers of observation to solve problems.

Ibrahim compares women’s wisdom to apps on a smartphone. She brought together 500 indigenous herders to map natural resources in the region. While men documented mountainous areas, rivers and places considered sacred, women mapped the springs. The project caught the attention of the national government, which began using the survey to inform public policy. The Rolex Award will thus permit Ibrahim to scale up her mapping work in Chad and neighbouring countries.

Rinzin Phunkjok Lama

Scientist and environmentalist Rinzin Phunkjok Lama is leading the way for a new generation of conservationists determined to protect the nation’s rich biodiversity. Lama was born and raised in the Humla district of northwest Nepal, one of his country’s poorest, most isolated and highest regions (some 3,000 to 5,000 metres above sea level).

He was inspired and mentored by 1981 Rolex Laureate, wildlife biologist Rodney Jack- son, who spent four decades of his life protecting the threatened snow leopard. Lama has made it his mission to protect not only the snow leopard, but also the threatened Himalayan wolf, Himalayan black bear, wild yak, Tibetan argali, musk deer and other species of Nepal’s high-altitude wildlife.

Lama’s long-term solution to overcome the threats to this biodiversity is to engage local people from Humla, particularly young environment graduates, fulfilling his vision of “leading by locals”. The people of Humla district depend on the region’s biodiversity for their livelihoods.

However, as only 1% of the land is suitable for farming, their agriculture is limited to subsistence. Humla also suffers from high rates of food insecurity and illiteracy, lack of development and limited economic opportunities, so Lama wants to empower communities to become the stewards of the land.

Lama will enhance and enlarge current conservation activities and train and promote local leadership in conservation. Citizens will be trained in law enforcement to reduce illegal hunting, logging and forest fires. Lama is collaborating with a group of women skilled in making the traditional attire of the local Nyinba tribe, ensuring the preservation of these skills and the creation of jobs.

His Rolex Award has the potential to make Lama a lifelong national voice for conservation and a model for young people to champion the environment. Nepal faces an urgent need for many hands to come to the rescue of its biodiversity.

Luiz Rocha

As a child Luiz Rocha loved diving in his hometown of Brazil and at a very young age, he already decided to be a marine biologist. Two decades ago, he started diving at significant depths, mastering the advanced technical skills required for deep diving.

Rocha currently has his sights set on the Indian Ocean with his project to explore, study, protect and make known deep reefs and their multitude of inhabitants, including countless species of fish, many of them never seen before and spectacular in appearance.

The Indian Ocean project holds serious challenges for Rocha and his multinational team. Based in the Maldives, a nation eager to collaborate so it can gather information about nearby reefs, Rocha’s team is venturing into the unknown.

The presence of atolls means that mesophotic reefs are there too. As Rocha says: “Even though no one has seen them before, we know they are there.”

The Maldives also has the advantage of having facilities to cater for diving. Deep reef descents are complicated, requiring mixed-gas rebreather equipment that recycles divers’ breath after stripping out the carbon dioxide, allowing them to descend deeper.

Rocha is one of the few marine scientists capable of undertaking this demanding technical diving. Safety is a priority, so only one dive is permitted each day. He expects to find many new species of fish. In the Pacific Ocean, for example, as many as 10 new species are discovered for each hour of deep reef exploration, and he anticipates rates in the unexplored Maldives reefs to be even higher.

“The project really embodies the spirit of exploration, discovery and conservation integral to Rolex,” he says. Rocha is also optimistic that his Award will bring much more than funding — it will attract international publicity that will give him the status to interest other organisations and media, helping to build the case for deep reef protection.

Furthermore, he believes that his highly diverse team will prove to be a model for others, demonstrating “that everyone can become an ocean explorer”.

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