Time to shine: Rolex award winners

Gravity pressure forces water up through a pipe to form ice ‘stupas’ that store water for the crop growing season Gravity pressure forces water up through a pipe to form ice ‘stupas’ that store water for the crop growing season Sonam Wangchuk
10 Dec
Rolex is celebrating 40 years of bringing pioneering, life-improving projects to the fore

An Australian biomedical engineer who revolutionised the delivery of vaccines to save millions of lives in the developing world through a painless patch; a young entrepreneur in the Philippines who is helping impoverished women earn a living by turning scrap into sustainable products; a Bolivian social psychologist who has helped return stolen cultural artefacts to Andean communities; a Swiss ornithologist who went to study birds in Brazil and planted millions of trees.

These are all examples of innovative approaches to global problems and all have been recipients of the Rolex Award for Enterprise, a philanthropic programme that regularly supports a selection of initiatives aimed at improving lives.

Since the first awards in 1976, 140 Laureates, ranging in age from 24 to 74, have carried out projects benefiting millions of people in more than 60 countries by implementing technological and scientific innovations, protecting endangered species and ecosystems, exploring new frontiers, reviving time-honoured practices and protecting forgotten peoples.

‘The idea was to encourage new ventures rather than reward past achievements and to recognise people who were doing things differently, exploring beyond boundaries and bringing often unconventional and ground-breaking ideas to help change the world into the mainstream,’ says Rebecca Irvin, Head of Philanthropy at Rolex.

Presented every two years, the awards support pioneering work in five areas: science and health, applied technology, exploration and discovery, the environment, and cultural heritage. This year’s winning projects see a method for bringing water to drier regions of the Himalayas, documenting sea life in the world’s hardest to reach places, efforts to protect manta rays in Peru, a smartphone-based portable eye examination system in Africa and a robotic exo-skeleton for helping stroke victims walk.

These are joined by five ‘Young Laureates’ (all aged under 30) who are investigating the effects polar ice micro-organisms have on the planet, addressing the problems of food poverty in Nigeria, empowering village women in China to reduce soil pollution, consolidating the 126 existing sign languages for the deaf, and spearheading a reforestation programme in Tunisia. Three of the Laureate programmes are listed below and full details of all ten projects can be found at rolexawards.com.


The idea was to recognise people who were doing things differently, exploring beyond boundaries and bringing often unconventional and ground-breaking ideas to help change the world into the mainstream


Kerstin Forsberg, 32, Peru

Forsberg is a biologist protecting giant manta rays by helping fishermen pursue ecotourism as an alternative income source and training them alongside ecotourists to collect data on the distribution and abundance of this species. Forsberg will work with local communities to raise awareness and appreciation of giant mantas through outreach programmes that creatively combine the use of science and education.

Vreni Häussermann, 46, Chile/Germany

Häussermann is exploring Chilean Patagonia’s fjords to document the unknown and unique life at the bottom of the sea at three remote areas by combining exploration and science in an attempt to create support for conservation through public outreach. She is also raising awareness about the damaging effects of current human activities on marine ecosystems to engage the public and decision-makers in setting up a science-based network of marine protected areas.

Sonam Wangchuk, 50, India

Wangchuk is a Ladakhi engineer who is solving the problem of a lack of water for agriculture in the desert landscapes of the western Himalayas by building ‘ice stupas’ (pictured left). Named after Buddhist monuments, these conical ice mounds behave like mini artificial glaciers, slowly releasing water in the growing season. He intends to build up to 20 ice stupas, each 30 metres high and capable of supplying millions of litres of water.

This was published in the December 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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